It’s difficult to explain the effect the movie had on me when I first saw it in the late 1980s. It had been resurrected for a weekend showing at a small Boston art cinema. I sat mesmerized by the performances of John Cassavetes and Peter Falk. To hell with Brando, De Niro, and the other jittery exhibitionists; Cassavetes and Falk had ‘em all whipped. Later, I found Mikey and Nicky on VHS and showed it to some friends. They were bored.
They weren’t alone. The movie didn't connect with audiences when it was released in Dec. 1976, falling into the deep footprints left by Rocky and the King Kong remake. Syndicated columnist Bernard Drew called Mikey and Nicky “an undisciplined self-indulgence.” Critic John Simon called it a “morose and morbid mess,” and compared the work of Cassavetes and Falk to being “locked into the Actors’ Studio for a week – a fate worse than any hell, Dante’s, Sartre’s, and Hieronymus Bosch’s included.” Simon’s main beef was that May left out “much needed exposition,” and that the character’s backgrounds remained murky. Yet, this murkiness is what gives the film its intrigue. Mikey and Nicky are old pals, and that’s all we need to know. We understand that these men are criminals because they carry small pistols and talk about a mysterious boss named “Resnick.” But despite the vague underworld backdrop, the movie is really about the abuses and pitfalls of friendship.
The relationship of the two men is established almost immediately. Nicky summons Mikey to meet him at his hotel room. Mikey arrives and one of the first things he says is, “Is it your stomach? You should eat something. You want to get peritonitis?” As Mikey, Falk hovers over Nicky like an old nanny. Nicky, meanwhile, suspects someone is trying to kill him. Nicky’s irrational, crazed; Mikey tries to calm him down. Nicky’s wild-eyed fear turns out to have merit. Not only is a hitman stalking him, but old buddy Mikey has helped set him up.
From there the plot surges into “high concept” territory. Nicky needs to get out of town and wants Mikey to help him. Meanwhile, Mikey wants to confine Nicky to one spot so the hired gunman can do his job. Since Nicky is too scared to sit still, his frenzied energy brings him and Mikey through the past darkly. They find themselves in seedy bars, all night movies, a crosstown bus, the cemetery where Nicky’s mother is buried, and in the apartment of a melancholy hooker who will only put out if you say “I love you.” It’s through these episodes that the inner workings of Mikey and Nicky’s bond come to light. Nicky is a jerk and a bully. Mikey puts up with him. It’s been this way since they were kids, and it’s beginning to boil over.
The movie’s first scene, set in Nicky’s shabby hotel, is a brilliant realization of paranoid terror. Nicky’s been holed up for days, and appears to be having a mental breakdown. But how much of it is an act? As soon as Mikey gets him outside, Nicky seems less deranged, almost normal. He likes trouble, though. He agitates the black customers of a poolroom, and comes to blows with a bus driver who won’t let him smoke. Nicky’s a grown man with the heart of a punk. He laughs hysterically at his own jokes, especially when they’re at Mikey’s expense. The closest Nicky comes to any sort of introspection is late in the movie when he says, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I guess I like to show off.”
The action moves jerkily through late night Philadelphia while John Strauss’ hazy jazz score rises and falls. Mikey and Nicky ramble around. They talk about their dead mothers, and the mystery of death. They check out a midnight Kung Fu movie. At times, Mikey appears to regret arranging the hit. He makes calls to the gunman, apologizing for not being able to produce Nicky. The night seems endless.
There are moments when Nicky appears to know about Mikey’s involvement with the killer. He demands they switch coats, to confuse any would be assassins. The interchangeability of the two goes on throughout the movie: both are married with one child, both have lost their parents, both are on the low rung of a local crime organization, and when Nicky visits his hooker friend, he insists Mikey take a turn with her. When that turns disastrous – the woman bites Mikey on the mouth – Mikey reveals a lifetime of anger at Nicky for always making a fool of him. That brings us to the final act, where Mikey finally joins the contract killer in pursuit of Nicky.
Though Nicky is an unlikable brute, Mikey isn’t much better. A man who prides himself on his marriage, he’s only too happy to try the prostitute. He’s also just as quick to use violence as Nicky. The difference between them is that Mikey will feel guilty about Nicky’s death. If the roles were reversed, Nicky wouldn’t feel a thing. He’s too dense.
We're shown brief scenes of the two men with their wives, but these moments are a distraction from the real story. Mikey’s time with his wife, however, has an unexpected warmth to it. “Do you like hearing about my childhood?” he asks her. He knows that Nicky’s murder will knock a hole in his past. (In Denmark, the movie was released as Chased by the Past, which is an apt title.)
The most fascinating aspect of the movie is how the two characters, especially Nicky, regress to childlike behavior as the killer closes in. Nicky even stops into a drug store to buy candy and comic books, as if surrounding himself with simple totems of his youth will stave off death. At one point he starts to sing ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy,’ recalling the old Cagney movie he probably saw as a kid. When he and Mikey start fighting in the street, they look like less like middle-aged men than little boys tussling in a playground.
There are excellent turns from supporting actors. Ned Beatty is especially good as the flustered hitman, battling the Philly traffic, fearing he may have to report to Resnick that he’s failed in his mission. M. Emmet Walsh, only onscreen for a few minutes, is memorable as a bus driver who clashes with Nicky, and Carol Grace, in one of her few movie roles, steals her scenes as Nellie, the mob whore. Rose Arrick is surprisingly sweet as Mikey’s wife, giving a sense that he’s not so bad around the house, even if he’s a third-rate hoodlum on the street. Still, it’s Cassavetes and Falk who run the ball in this one, as if whatever they’d learned together in Cassavetes’ self-directed films came to a perfect summation here. Ironically, Mikey and Nicky is often added to conversations about Cassavetes’ oeuvre, as if he’d directed it himself. In fact, I prefer it to many of his films. It’s as if Elaine May beat Cassavetes at his own game. And despite the film's improvised feel, a 1971 interview with Falk has him praising May’s script as “the best movie I’ve ever read.”
There’s an impeccable scene where Nicky, in a show of supreme callousness, smashes Mikey’s watch on the street. For Mikey, this is the last straw. The watch had been a gift from his father, a symbol of the old days. Under street lights, they search for the busted pieces, trying to save what’s left of the watch, and, in effect, their mutual history.
The final scene, with Nicky pounding on the door of Mikey’s home as the hitman takes aim, is the ending Nicky deserves. The film started at Nicky’s hotel, dragged itself around Philadelphia, and ended at Mikey’s house in the suburbs, with Mikey shoving furniture against the door to keep Nicky out. Nicky sees the hitman. He screams, “Wait a second,” but time has run out for him. It’s shattered on the sidewalk, back in the city. And Mikey gets what he deserves, too: Nicky's blood on his door, linking them forever, and implicating him in the hit.
Mikey and Nicky is complex, nuanced, and difficult to watch. People have valid reasons for not liking it. It is, after all, a bit of a jumble, and we never really learn why Resnick has ordered Nicky’s death. Still, I’ve never seen a clearer depiction of a frazzled friendship. Watching this movie may leave you wondering if you’ve been square with your own friends. Have you always returned their calls? Have you talked about them behind their backs? Do you secretly resent them? Are you a Mikey, or a Nicky?