On Elaine May’s “Mikey and Nicky.”

The film begins with Nicky (John Cassavetes) in a hotel room, panicking. The room is airless, he’s sweating through his white shirt and he looks like he’s thrown-up half his stomach lining. He calls for his pal Mikey (Peter Falk) to help him out. The pair work for the mob, but Nicky has stolen from his employers, and he’s, rightfully, fearful—his partner in the job has turned up dead, and he thinks a hit is out on him too. When Mikey arrives, there’s a standoff: Nicky isn’t sure whether he can trust Mikey, but he has no plenitude of choices, and Mikey’s been there in the past—but his motivations aren’t at first clear. After much straining, Mikey gives Nicky some medicine and tries to make him leave the hotel. He will do so only after swapping suit jackets and coats—Falk ends up wearing a Columbo-style beige trenchcoat—and one item each more, Nicky gives Mikey his gun, and Mikey gives Nicky his watch: a detail that will come to sting in the final scenes.

Mikey and Nicky elapses between evening and daybreak: it’s a night odyssey. In this time, the pair’s movements are governed by Nicky’s hurried prevarications. Mikey says he’s trying to get him to the airport—when really he’s in on the hit—out of the city, but at every turn Nicky suggests a diversion. It’s no wonder that Kinney (Ned Beatty), one of film’s great useless hitmen, is never on time. Once they set off, Nicky complains, says he needs to see his wife and child; wait, no, actually, he needs to see his girlfriend; nope, wrong again, he says the two should go and see a movie. En route on a bus to the last of these, the pair alight, not before harassing the bus driver, to the cemetery where Nicky’s mother is buried.

The scene in the graveyard is a demonstration of one way May’s films can astonish. For all the entwined and complicated feelings and energies that the film amasses, Nicky has a quality that can cut Mikey—and presumably most viewers—to the quick: in a line, a sentence, he can tell the emotional truth plainly. Being so close to their pasts activates something in Nicky, a morbidity enters his frantic mood. “Aren’t you gonna’ die someday?” he asks persistently. The pair look for Nicky’s mother’s grave, and Nicky begins spiralling, wheezing with laughter at the absurdity of the night, Mikey is all the while mortified, apologising to the bodies beneath the grass for intruding.

As they spot the grave, Nicky finds himself wordless. “I don’t know what to say,” he relates, using his bravado and his confrontational humour as a disguise for ineradicable pain. Mikey tries to recite the Kaddish for Nicky’s mother, but Nicky keeps distracting him, laughing (in Dave Kehr’s words, Mikey and Nicky is a film in which ‘a laugh is the same as a scream’). The pair’s friendship floats up through this conversation: Nicky remembers Izzy, Mikey’s brother, dead at ten from scarlet fever. Only a friend, and at that only one who has been a friend a long time, could know this. Then Nicky cuts Mikey—and us—to the quick again, Cassavetes’s clarifying line reading playing without irony or that obstreperous laugh: “I wish my mother were alive.” I’m yet to watch this scene without crying.

May’s movies—A New Leaf, The Heartbreak Kid, and Ishtar besides Mickey and Nicky—careen between tones and moods, but ultimately specialise in excruciation: The oil-black comedy of A New Leaf, in which a lazy, loveless spendthrift marries a guileless botanist for her wealth and plans to murder her for the inheritance, or the intensified frustration of watching The Heartbreak Kid‘s protagonist—an extraordinary shit—feign and succeed by feigning to get what he desires both meet their match in the most discomfiting moments in Mikey and Nicky.

There’s a string of them: in the coffee shop, when Mikey loses his temper and threatens the waiter while waiting for cream; the first bar, as Nicky’s wolfish smile slowly fades from his lips; in the second bar, when Nicky turns every patron in the bar against him in an instant by peremptorily mocking a black gentleman; at his (soon to be ex-) wife’s house; a kind of stand-off in a confectioner’s; and, chief among them, one of two visits to his ‘girlfriend’s’ apartment.

The first of these visits is a brutal scene, one which may justify this comment by Molly Haskell, who wrote, in the 1987 second edition of From Reverence to Rape: ‘they [May’s films] unarguably contain some of the most gratuitously nasty images of women to appear in the last ten years.’ In a small apartment belonging to Nellie (Carol Grace), Nicky commences sweet-talking her, relying on that inherent Cassavetes magnetism. They begin perfunctorily fucking in the foreground, while Mikey is framed by the red wall of the kitchen, waiting around, barely a presence. When they finish, Nicky intimates that Mikey should sleep with her as well. Where Nellie gave in to Nicky’s concoction of sexual aggression and whispers of love-promises, she vies with Mikey’s ginger but no less misogynistic advance, his attempted gentleness concealing an utter disdain for her. She bites him as he tries to kiss her, so he slaps her and leaves. The homosociality of the film emphasises the acidic nature of the scene: she’s treated as a prop by the men in the scene in the same way that, in the grand scheme of the film itself, she’s a prop in the narrative.

But if May can excavate a friendship, she can terminate it. After leaving Nellie’s, the pair have one last fight: Nicky doesn’t realise why Mikey’s upset; Mikey’s ready to let the guy die. Mikey airs out his complaints, the way Nicky disregards him, the way he feels abandoned. He comes close to announcing his betrayal. Not before Nicky smashes the watch Mikey swapped him for the gun, which belonged to his father. The watch is Mikey in miniature: steadfast, durable, dependable—and now broken. As Mikey severs the bond between them, the camera moves in a right-to-left tracking shot from a neat two-shot to behind Mikey, framing Nicky as an intruder. The camera literally crosses the point of no return. The two wrestle, tearing at each other, rolling around in the street. They head off in different directions.

But there’s another confrontation embedded deeper into the film: that of performance. May’s direction is opened up for her actors to compete: she gives them room to try new movements, line readings, and gestures—this air of improvisation is stitched into the film’s fabric. There’s a contrast and a contest to be observed in the manners, meanings, temperaments, and styles of the two lead performances. Falk is playing, as he did in Cassavetes’s A Woman Under The Influence, a straining coercive type, while trying to keep his deception away from his friend—it’s an exhausted performance, full of gestures of fatigue, such as his disbelieving smile, his quizzical and interrogative lean forward, his under-the-breath laughter, the manner in which he strokes his forehead for comfort and ruffles his hair. (I fully understand his repeated admonition of “take it easy.”) Whereas Cassavetes is exhausting, manic, acting with his eyes and teeth, moving with great force and suddenness, meaning all the still moments accentuate themselves, rushing before his life is foreclosed. (Supporting the idea of the film being what James Naremore called a ‘performance text’ is the casting of Sanford Meisner, the legendary acting teacher, as Dave Reznick, the mob boss.)

Mikey and Nicky is a study in the psychosis of male friendship, and the film’s ending arrives at the most appropriately pathetic and agonised place for the subject. Mikey returns to his self-consciously middle-class home, to his wife, Jan (Joyce Can Patten), who has sat-up all night for him. Kinney is in his car, waiting for Nicky to reappear—but he’s being shooed away by a neighbourhood patrol car. Mikey talks about his childhood, about Nicky, about what the evening has dredged up for him—this turns, in a roundabout way, into a premature eulogy for his friend. Nicky returns, and knocks on the door (this reminds me of the knocking at the gate in Macbeth). Mikey barricades the door with his furniture as Nicky furiously tries forcing entry, at the exact moment when Kinney spots him at last. This final scene is drawn-out and disconsolate, as Nicky screams his friend’s name repeatedly, turning once to shout a heartrendingly futile command of “you wait!” at his assassin. Kinney shoots and the door remains unopened. An extremely potent film about waning potency, Mikey and Nicky is perhaps the best redescription possible of a line from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you.”

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