The Big Picture
- Mikey and Nicky, directed by Elaine May, is a hidden gem among crime films, showcasing unforgettable performances from Cassavetes and Falk.
- May’s career as a director was cut short due to troubled productions and an unfair double standard compared to male directors.
- Unlike other mob movies, Mikey and Nicky portrays the grim and unglamorous reality of a criminal lifestyle, offering a deglamorized and powerful depiction.
The directors associated with some of the greatest crime movies of all time are an easy group of names to rattle off, with Francis Ford Coppola giving us the timeless epic that is The Godfather, or the many crime masterpieces of directors such as Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, Quentin Tarantino, and the Coen Brothers. However, a year after The Godfather came out, Elaine May –– a legendary comedian and filmmaker in her own right–– began working on a film which would not release until 1976, but would rise in the ranks as one of the best crime films ever made.
Mikey and Nicky stars Peter Falk and John Cassavetes as two lifelong friends and low-time gangsters. Nicky, played by Cassavetes in a beautiful and heart-pounding live wire of a performance, is in urgent need of a way out after stealing money from a mob boss. This move left Nicky with a contract on his life, so he turns to Falk’s Mikey, a more mild-mannered tough guy who always shows up to help his friend. Nicky is backed into a corner, paranoid to the point of tears and with nowhere to run as he questions whether he can even trust his best friend as the walls close in around him. The men chase each other, or are chased by a mafia assassin portrayed by Ned Beatty throughout the streets of Philadelphia. The dark of night does not feel simply like a point in time for these men, but a persistent state of being. As shadows creep around them, and Nicky’s chances of escaping grow dimmer, Mikey and Nicky reveals an unrelenting and heart-wrenching depiction of the unglamorous reality of a criminal lifestyle.
Elaine May is an Unsung Hollywood Legend
May’s name is far too often unspoken in the context of industry trailblazers, considering her storied comedy career working alongside collaborator Mike Nichols –– who went on to direct The Graduate and other notable films –– and her groundbreaking work as a filmmaker. May has only directed four feature films, and troubled productions coupled with a reputation of being difficult to work with might have a lot to do with that. However, when artists like Stanley Kubrick or David Fincher are often praised for their intense methodology, it is easy to see a sexist double standard at play when a woman director is punished or cast aside for being “difficult” when it may just be a matter of her knowing what she wants and being right about the best way to get it done.
May should have had a longer career as a director, but Mikey and Nicky is a notable work that can cement a legacy all on its own. The Academy Awards did highlight May in 2022 with an honorary Oscar for her work as a filmmaker and a performer. Hollywood has thankfully come to embrace her work, but her features still do not have as much exposure as they do considering the critical acclaim and expert craft on display, especially in Mikey and Nicky and The Heartbreak Kid.
‘Mikey and Nicky’ Features Knockout Performances From Cassavetes and Falk
Cassavetes, who himself directed another masterful crime film in 1976, literally jumped at the chance to work with Peter Falk when they first discussed making a film together. Falk recalls Cassavetes leaping onto a table in a restaurant during the conversation. They worked on Cassavetes’ 1970 film Husbands, which left Cassavetes with a great amount of trust in Falk as a performing partner. Their relationship outside the film undoubtedly gave their on-screen dynamic as Mikey and Nicky even more depth.
Falk approaches his character with a more gentle temperament, but even he flies into rage at some key points in the film. Mikey shows himself to be a callous and uncaring person, even if his friendship with Nicky does seem to mean a lot to both men. Similar to the relationship between Al Pacino‘s Jimmy Hoffa and Robert De Niro‘s Frank Sheeran in The Irishman, it becomes clear that friendship and loyalty only go so far in the mafia life.
Nicky unravels over the course of the film, but he already starts in an incredibly unkempt state. The performance by Cassavetes is desperate, vulnerable, and explosive throughout the film. His rage and paranoia collides with Mikey’s stern demeanor in a fascinating way as the two work through their relationships with their wives, children, and most vitally with each other.
‘Mikey and Nicky’ is a Deglamorized, Grimy Portrait of Criminal Life
From The Godfather to The Sopranos and everything in between, none of the mob media that is so pervasive in our culture is portraying the criminal world as aspirational. However, there is often an element of it that draws audiences into understanding why people would find this lifestyle alluring in the first place. GoodFellas masterfully pulls you into the world through the eyes of an excitable young man who is being swept up by the excess of the lifestyle. The money and power is attractive, but the dark side takes a while to reveal itself. This is not the case with Mikey and Nicky.
These two men are no Michael Corleone. They’re more like the guys who would get shaken down by Corleone’s cronies for not paying their debts. They are low level, volatile, and generally do not seem to be very significant to the larger players operating around them. Nicky is experiencing what is no doubt the most significant event of his life over the course of the film, but his situation is shown to be a mere annoyance to his superiors.
While other mob-oriented stories often display a lavish and exciting side of the experience, May’s film brilliantly starts in the midst of what is the typical third-act tailspin found in a film like GoodFellas, and the audience is stuck witnessing the devastating consequences of the choices the two characters have made. There are no pop songs, lavish sets, or flashy montages before the tragedy of their circumstances becomes clear. May, a comic master, has a strong hold over an exceedingly dramatic story, proving her strengths as a filmmaker are not bound to one type of movie, and making Mikey and Nicky one of the greatest crime stories ever put to film.