Speaking of Philadelphia, maybe the best movie ever made in that city was the 1976 Mikey and Nicky, written and directed by Elaine May (born and raised in Philadelphia; she appeared on the stage of the Yiddish theatre there with her father) and starring Peter Falk and John Cassavetes (in perhaps the best Cassavetes film that Cassavetes didn’t direct). They play two petty mobsters who have been friends since childhood; the mob has put a contract out on Nicky (Cassavetes), who is holed up in a seedy Philadelphia hotel. He calls his old friend Mikey (Falk), who comes to his aid and accompanies him on a mad nighttime journey through the city. Little does Nicky know that Mikey is setting him up for his eventual assassination.
The improvisatory feel of the performances, cinematography, and editing obscures the fact that this is a very tightly structured film, and very precisely written. The film that Paramount released in 1976 had been assembled by studio hacks after the studio took it away from May as she worried over the film during the editing process. Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who presented a restored version of the film in Toronto in 1980, writes, “My misimpression that the film was partially improvised was also corrected; the script revealed that virtually all the dialogue had been written in advance” — not unlike Cassavetes’ own films, and not unlike the television series that owes most to Cassavetes, the BBC version of The Office. It seems like cinema verite, but like cinema verite, at its best it plunges far beneath the surface it purports to depict.
In Mikey and Nicky, director and screenwriter Elaine May out-Mamets David Mamet in her dissection of male camaraderie and masculinist values in post-war capitalist America. Where she differs from Mamet is that she while may feel sympathy for her characters, she does not feel either affection or back-handed admiration. Perhaps for this reason, the terrifying, violent conclusion of the film feels far more tragic, far more effective, than the violent conclusion of Mamet’s American Buffalo of the same period, a play also set among petty criminals and an aura of betrayal.
It’s a brilliant film, certainly May’s best to date, and features a remarkable cast: apart from Falk and Cassavetes, Ned Beatty, William Hickey and Sanford Meisner also appear. In the below clip, Nicky drags Mikey into a cemetery in search of his mother’s gravestone and they briefly revisit their childhood memories. It’s a moving and revealing moment; Mikey suddenly realizes what he is killing as he sets Nicky up for his fall. Mikey and Nicky was one of the best and remains one of the most underrated films of the 1970s, and given the decade, that’s saying a lot. (Stanley Kauffman condescendingly and insultingly described Mikey and Nicky as “the best film that I know by an American woman” in 1977.) It also captures the Philadelphia of the period precisely. The film is available on DVD from amazon.com. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s liner notes for the DVD are available here, and make for intriguing reading.