Funny, dark, uncompromising, and totally a product of the auteur-driven studio system of the 1970’s, Mikey and Nicky was written and directed by Elaine May, and it wouldn’t be the last time she had to deal with a turbulent production. To hear it from Victor Kemper’s candid interviews on the DVD, the shoot for this film was anything but easy (Kemper would quit the production twice!), but as so often with influential pieces of cinema, the terrific end result almost had to be born out of some form of madness. The action centers on Nicky (John Cassavetes, desperate and sad), who yet again needs help from his best friend Mikey (Peter Falk, intense and filled with quick-tempered rage), as he’s in over his head with debts to gangsters, and at the start of the film, is holed up inside a sketchy hotel, losing his collective mental shit in the process. Mikey tries to help is buddy, but at almost every turn, Nicky screws it all up, leading to a potentially tragic finale that tests the boundaries of friendship and sacrifice. This is one of those tricky films that was able to find the perfect balance between dangerous plotting, character based comedy, and genuine heart. May had such a distinct cinematic voice that it seems a shame that her career would often be plagued with issues having nothing to do with the overall quality of her work.
Because May was happy to leave cameras rolling (according to the internet she shot 1.4 million feet of film!), there’s a spontaneous feeling to the loose and gritty aesthetic favored by Kemper and the various other collaborators who worked on this scrappy little picture. And the natural rapport between Cassavetes and Falk really was something special; these two actors knew precisely how to play off of each other, always bringing out the best that they had to offer. The film clearly had to have influenced filmmaker Jon Favreau when he was working on his comedy classic Made, as the casting of Falk as the guy who sets the plot in motion in that 2001 film seems especially astute in retrospect. Ned Beatty, M. Emmett Walsh, Carol Grace, William Hickey, and Rose Arrick round out the solid supporting cast, while Sheldon Kahn’s jagged editing patterns contributed to the frenetic quality to the storytelling and filmmaking aesthetic. Also, it must be noted, and this is according to Wikipedia: “Budgeted at $1.8 million and scheduled for a summer 1975 release, the film ended up costing $4.3 million and not coming out until December 1976. May was eventually fired by Paramount Pictures (the studio which financed the film), but succeeded in getting herself rehired by hiding two reels of the negative until the studio gave in.” Those were the days – filmmakers holding films for ransom from the studios! If only this sort of anarchic spirit still lurked in Tinseltown.