Mikey and Nicky (Elaine May, 1976) & California Split (Robert Altman, 1974)

by Douglas Buck July 4, 2021 8 minutes (1856 words) HD Streaming

With my projector system currently down during my month-long home move putting a substantial crimp in my Severin Films’ Andy Milligan box set retro (a temporary crimp, mind you… my Blu-ray player sits right now in a box with the next Milligan blu, Seeds of Sin, sitting in it, ready to be fired up first thing upon re-connection), I’ve instead spent my recent cinematic efforts catching up on some of the 70’s films discussed in the online course I took on that golden age in Hollywood cinema.

Making the most out of watching on my paltry computer screen (though I did hook it up to my speaker system for some decent sound), catching up to these dual neo-noir buddy films – both which I’d never seen before (okay, not exactly true… I had seen California Split before, a long time ago but barely remembered it, while Mikey and Nicky I not only hadn’t seen but only vaguely even knew existed… a sizeable hole, I’ve now learned, in my film knowledge) – still proved a more than worthy experience, showing just how many ways there are to tackle and continue to breathe life into that well-worn small-time genre (and I say that with deep respect, as my heart has done nothing but grow fonder over the years for those down-and-dirty, oft no frills, admittedly usually male-centric crime tales following the lower tiers of society through the dangers of their seedy environments).

While both fall within the neo-noir, and center around the friendship of their two main characters – the low-rank Philadelphia mob guys played by John Cassavetes and Peter Falk in Mikey and Nicky and the messy, but fun-loving gambling addicts Elliot Gould and George Segal in “California” – as well as have lots of goofy humor (though with the humor in “Mikey” tending towards much blacker terrain), these couldn’t be two more different film experiences.

California Split is amusing, indulgent fun by filmmaker Robert Altman operating not at the height of his dramatic heft (the film is surprisingly casual, even meandering, in intention for a film about two feverish gambling addicts and the prostitutes one of them is currently shacked up with), but firing on all cylinders as far as crafting his particularly rich and unmistakably unique cinematic milieu (with all the overlapping dialogue and the camera lens constantly slowly moving – sometimes almost imperceptibly so — randomly in or out during the majority of so many shots, especially in crowd scenes, adding that unmistakable sense of “Altman reality’ the director is rightly celebrated for).

There’s the engaging performances by not only the two leads, Elliot Gould and George Segal (two actors who admittedly have never really been my favorites, but have a nice casual playfulness together in the film… and you gotta hand it to Gould, like Jack Nicholson in Chinatown from the same year, daringly throwing a massive bandage over his busted nose for half the picture seems to cause his performance to expand rather than contract) as the two addicts, drawn from bet to bet, wildly spending any and all earnings they make immediately on the strip, but by Ann Prentiss – who I couldn’t believe wasn’t her more famous actress sister Paula, as she looks and speaks almost exactly like her (and was even more surprised to learn she was incarcerated in real life for trying to order a hit on her sister’s actor/director husband Richard Benjamin while already in prison for having physically assaulted her father!) – and that glowing fragile nymphet who briefly shined in the 70’s (mostly in Altman films), the dangerously alluring school-girl voiced Gwen Welles, as the prostitutes Gould’s opportunistic vagabond is shacked up with when Segal’s currently downward spiraling married man stumbles upon him during the casino game of poker gone wrong that opens the film (in wonderfully rich colorful style, stating unequivocally we’ve arrived in an Altman movie).

California Split

As with many an Altman film (other than his left turns into wildly fantastic, quasi-Bergman, experimental female-psyche-centric moviemaking with the likes of Three Women and Images), while the director clearly likes his female characters, there more than a touch of sexism on display in their handling (I mean… where do these wonderful two female characters go after an hour into the film? They literally just get dropped, their resolutions and fates deemed unimportant to that of their male counterparts, as the remaining last forty plus minutes focuses solely on the high-wire hijinks of our two energetically stumbling addicts)… and, even more troublesome (and surprising, considering none of the critics who lauded the film at the time even mentioned it), there’s a hefty bit of conservative ideology hanging over the narrative, with Segal’s Bill Denny character’s decision to ‘escape’ from the gambling life (and unspoken, though clearly implied, return to family life) at the conclusion treated as a kind of victory (amplified by the earlier decision by Denny not to sleep with the clearly desiring – and desirable – Welles’ character also seeming to be an attempt to reveal his superior moral fiber to the usual inhabitants – including Welles – in this world he has descended into) a bit too moralistic for my tastes.

There’s also the scene spent laughing at the expense of the transvestite (familiar face Bert Remsen) who has arrived to take out the more than willing prostitutes for a night on the town to find our two boys making a mockery out of him by pretending to be vice cops and shooing him off. While it’s clearly a moment that wouldn’t pass muster in today’s myopic, anti-art, outrage-addled, cancel culture-driven environment… I give it a pass because, as regressive as it may be, these were some of Hollywood’s first attempts at even acknowledging folks like this existed.

The greatest weakness of the film is the lack of any real emotional heft, or attempt at really diving into this dark world, in all its unadulterated desperation and danger (for that, check out The Gambler from the same year, written by the now-cancelled recovering gambling addict James Toback). While Altman creates an admirably convincing world, it’s not one with much resonance. In fact, if you’re hanging with a guy like Gould’s purely id-driven Charlie Waters, it seems like, other than a broken arm, a stick-up now and then, and busted nose or two, it’s quite the adventure.

It’s “Gambling Fun and Games with Bill, Charlie, and a couple of cute prostitutes (before they disappear, that is)”; enjoyable to watch, certainly, but… I now understand why it didn’t really stick with me after having seen it the first time.

On the appropriately much less gaudy side of town (moving from Vegas to Philadelphia), comes the wildly troubled production (has there ever been another kind of Elaine May film?) known as Mikey and Nicky. A gritty carnival ride veering between dark emotional streaks and black comedy, with its consistently startling reveals and inspired character riffing, man, what a film worthy of re-discovery.

Mikey and Nicky

Within an aesthetic of quirky, slightly off-kilter editing and indie-style camera-work, watching pros Cassavetes and Falk (has a less likely brilliant shining star ever emerged than the frumpy, glass-eyed Falk?) play eccentrically off each other, working to find and reveal – with never an ounce of compromise – a deep emotional core for each and every scene (which sometimes leads to the sublime, while other times, even when falling short, never being less than fascinating, with truth-seeking the goal again and again), with nary a single conciliation to ‘character likability’ (Cassavetes’ ever-self serving opportunistic conman Nicky might be eminently watchable – he’s played by Cassavetes after all – but is nothing less than a despicable human being – he’s the more honest version of Gould’s lovable rogue conman Charlie), you can call this an Elaine May film all you want, but as far as I’m concerned it’s not only a John Cassavetes film, but one of that great American indie filmmaker’s best and most audacious works (and that’s saying something when you take a gander at his considerable output).

From the opening scenes of Falk’s Mikey showing up to a seedy downtown hotel to help his holed-up and anxiety-ridden friend Nicky, on the run for supposedly having killed a mob guy he shouldn’t have (he never admits to it, claiming the mob is making a mistake, but knowing Nicky, he’s almost assuredly lying to his best friend, as pathologically misleading everyone in his life to keep himself above them is slowly revealed as who he is), to the blackly comic scene of the frazzled Mikey jumping over the counter and threatening the late night diner counter guy for not giving him enough milk (a kind of more crudely-conceived, proletariat – and funnier – version of Nicholson’s famous ‘hold the chicken’ diner scene in Five Easy Pieces), through the slow and brilliant reveal (with both us, the audience, and Nicky realizing it at that same time) that Falk’s Mikey might actually be betraying rather than protecting Nicky (with Cassavetes silent performance at the moment, his animal-cunning eyes filling with dawning realization, a simple marvel to behold), and to the absolutely harrowing scene of the two buds taking the time for sex with a poor, emotionally troubled woman that Nicky has been psychologically abusing for years (like California Split the buddies in Mikey and Nicky reveal themselves as having misogynist natures… but unlike “Split”, “Mikey” doesn’t implicate the filmmakers… it’s a film about misogyny, but isn’t misogynist), to the scene in a bar in a black neighborhood where the manic (and vaguely suicidal) Nicky suddenly starts taunting a black man, throwing out racial epithets, to the hilariously awkward scuffle they get into with a bus driver (an unknown at the time M. Emmett Walsh!) who won’t let them out the front door of the bus, and on and on, Mikey and Nicky is one shining scene following another, the story basically having the two on-the-run men wandering aimlessly about the city (with a young Ned Beatty — the sadly deceased Beatty that is – playing the frustrated hitman who can’t seem to catch up with them).

Mikey and Nicky

“Mikey” both transcends the genre and solidifies it at the same time; a dark, funny and ultimately tragic character study on the betrayals, and toxic co-dependencies, existing beneath relationships (and that’s without even mentioning the oddly emotionally distant marriage revealed for the first time during the stunning ending of the film between Mikey and the wife he has lived with for years, has raised children with, but seems to barely know anything about him, or care to ask). While the dark finale seems inevitable, it’s brilliance comes through in how its played out; that is, in truly inspired Cassavetes’ fashion (yup, I’ll say it again, this is a Cassavetes film), in all sorts of emotionally innovative ways

Mikey and Nicky is not only the superior of these two new-noir buddy films, but I’d say essential viewing within the genre.

Mikey and Nicky (Elaine May, 1976) & California Split (Robert Altman, 1974)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

Buck A Review   elaine may   john cassavetes   neo-noir   robert altman