Mikey & Nicky (1976)
1.85:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 2.1
Home Vision Entertainment,$29.95

The recent glut of books and documentaries celebrating American film of the 1970s have elevated many masterpieces to classic status, but several important filmmakers of that period have fallen through the cracks. Among the underrated figures of the era is writer/director Elaine May, whose obsessive perfectionism generated four distinctive pictures. One of them, Mikey & Nicky, deserves to be ranked with the best of John Cassavetes and Hal Ashby. Whether May has been bypassed because of sexism or her own avoidance of the press is anybody’s guess, but perhaps the recent DVD release of Mikey & Nicky will draw attention to her unique work.

A superficial description of the story makes Mikey & Nicky seem like a standard noir: Nicky (John Cassavetes), a man on the run from the mob, seeks help from his best friend, Mikey (Peter Falk), a fellow criminal who may be setting Nicky up to be killed. Working with this premise, May and her collaborators present a complete and moving portrait of a complex male friendship over the course of one night. The amount of information we are given about these two men and their history together is staggering, yet it never feels forced; the exposition grows naturally out of the dialogue and imagery, as Victor J. Kemper, ASC skillfully uses light and composition to express the complicated relationship.

As Jonathan Rosenbaum notes in the disc’s liner notes, all of May’s films deal with betrayal, usually by one member of a couple against the other. She treats the theme comically in A New Leaf, The Heartbreak Kid and Ishtar, but there’s always a dark undercurrent to the material. In Mikey & Nicky, the darkness is all on the surface and completely undiluted, and the heartbreaking performances by Falk and Cassavetes convey the absolute horror of betrayal for both parties.

Kemper’s work in Mikey & Nicky is astonishing both aesthetically and logistically. Aside from the last few minutes of the picture (which were shot by Lucien Ballard, ASC after Kemper departed the shoot five days early over differences with May), the entire movie takes place at night, largely at exterior locations, and the characters are constantly moving. In an excellent interview on this DVD, Kemper details the difficulties of the shoot, which included the limited power sources available and his conflicts with the brilliant but erratic May.

Despite the intense physical challenges of the shoot, Kemper created expressive images that serve as the perfect visual corollary to the characters’ emotions. The cinematographer was audacious in his willingness to darken sizable portions of the frame so that only slivers of light and small fragments of action are visible; it’s a way of emphasizing not only the darkness of the emotions involved, but also the ways in which Mikey and Nicky are always hiding things from each other. Yet Kemper contrasts the dark images with brutally explicit close-ups in which the characters’ emotions are painfully obvious. At times, the cinematographer reinforces the men’s complicated friendship with deep-focus compositions that link the two characters in the frame while separating them on different planes of action.

This transfer beautifully pre-serves the delicate balance of light and shadow that characterizes Kemper’s work. The DVD features a short featurette about the digital restoration of the picture; the highlight of the supplement is a telephone conversation between Kemper and colorist Mike Matusek, in which Kemper outlines his approach to the picture.

In an informative interview, producer Michael Hausman explains that the emotional impact of Mikey & Nicky did not come easily. May shot more than a million feet of film, allowing the actors to discover the essences of their characters on set. In a wonderful featurette about the cemetery and street scenes in the film, Hauser and Kemper discuss the joys and the frustrations of May’s approach.

With its penetrating look at the male psyche, Mikey & Nicky recalls other classics of its era, such as Husbands (also shot by Kemper) and The Last Detail (shot by Michael Chapman, ASC). The brilliant screenplay and performances and Kemper’s meticulous cinematography make this DVD a classic that belongs on the shelf of any serious movie fan.

— Jim Hemphill

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© 2005 American Cinematographer.