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Masculinity never got more toxic, or more desolate, than in Mikey and Nicky, an extraordinary noir drama from the great writer, comic and film-maker Elaine May, which is showing in London next week. Starring John Cassavetes and Peter Falk, each at the top of his acting game, it is a neglected 1976 gem from a neglected Hollywood genius. May was known for her comedy but here proves absolutely fluent in the language of mobster lowlife, with an edge of caustic, disillusioned humour, and strange yet shockingly real outbursts of violence in which cafe owners and bus drivers are suddenly roughed up.
Cassavetes is Nicky, a smalltimer who has stolen about a thousand dollars from the mob and now fears for his life. Hiding out in a flophouse, crazed with fear, sleeplessness, lack of food and the pain from a stomach ulcer, he calls his best friend from childhood, a connected guy called Mikey, played by Falk. Mikey shows up, wearily accustomed, it seems, to getting his buddy out of jams. He chivvies and begs and cajoles the querulous Nicky into getting shaved and dressed and coming with him to the airport where he can be spirited out of town. Nicky appears relieved yet somehow even more panicky. His moods turn on a dime, sometimes he is extravagantly grateful to his old friend, sometimes resentful and suspicious. Noting that Mikey keeps making payphone calls, Nicky keeps changing their plan – he cancels the airport idea suggesting the train instead; they head to a bar, a late-night cafe, an all-night movie theatre.
He is of course right to be suspicious, because Mikey has been tasked by the mob with bringing Nicky in so he can be killed. But a weird, ambiguous current of meaning opens up between the two men as they roam the city and their childhood haunts – an unspoken negotiation. Perhaps Mikey might change his mind and let his friend get away, if his friend will only give him the genuine friendship and respect he has always craved from him. As for Nicky, he can’t be sure: openly accusing Mikey will cause him to lose the only ally and friend he has. And all the time, the clock is ticking. Nicky’s death is approaching. Maybe Mikey’s as well.
Mikey and Nicky is a film about talking: the characters talk, talk, talk with theatrical vehemence and musicality. This is a stag-rutting choreography of the emotions, with a sour smell of lonely defeated men, a tang of being up all night with cigarettes and beer. May introduces women into the picture – the people who wait at home. Nicky’s abused girlfriend Nellie has to tolerate loathsome behaviour when the guys show up at her place in the middle of night. (She is played by the writer Carol Grace, who was married to William Saroyan and Walter Matthau and was acquainted with Truman Capote and may have partly inspired his character Holly Golightly.)
Both men are in fact married. Mikey’s wife Annie (Rose Arrick) is a respectable wife and mother who waits for him patiently in their house in an elite neighbourhood. Nicky’s wife Jan (Joyce Van Patten) has left him and taken their baby to her mother’s. These are the people who are used to picking up the pieces when their bleary, depressed menfolk show up drunk at the family home at dawn.
It is a vivid, almost sensually rancid slice of 1970s cinema, a movie in which you can almost taste the sweat in the air. There’s that wailing, moaning ambient sound of car horns on the soundtrack that you only get in American pictures of that era. And it is an extraordinary succession of scenes and tableaux: the bars – including one where Nicky makes a racist remark and narrowly escapes with his life – the movie theatre foyers, the buses, the streets. And above all, the faces; faces that Gillray or Hogarth might have drawn; faces from a nightmare or an odyssey through hell.
• Mikey and Nicky is at the Lexi Cinema, London, on 18 June.
Source: The Guardian
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