The men of Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky (1976) seem trapped in a tenuous, exhausting, night-long tug of war. The film follows two small-time criminals: the livewire, reckless Nicky (John Cassavetes), who believes there is a hit out on him; and his more subdued friend Mikey (Peter Falk), who stays up all night with Nicky trying to reassure him of his safety. As they scamper around Philadelphia, the majority of their conversations could be boiled down to taking opposing ‘yes/no’ stances on any given subject – whether they should go out or stay in; whether Nicky is in danger; whether there’s an afterlife; and so on.

Though a dialogue-heavy film, its conflicts are communicated in equal measure through its use of space. The film is filled with physical barriers: doors, walls, windows and tables perpetually divide its eponymous leads from one another, and from the world around them. Mikey and Nicky are constantly on the move, running from place to place (or being kicked out), showing little regard for said barriers. We may find them initially charming (à la the men of Mean Streets [Martin Scorsese, 1973], they’re reckless but amusing: stealing milk, smoking on the bus, flaunting their disobedience), but May forces us to witness the full extent of allowing men to get away with disrespectful behaviour – “boys will be boys” taken to its logical conclusion.

There’s a political dimension to Mikey and Nicky’s interactions with space, made evident when the pair visit a bar in which most of the patrons are black. In an attempt to reassert his dominance over even this space, in which he is clearly an outsider, Nicky actively attempts to provoke the patrons by harassing a black woman and being overtly racist towards a black man. While both men display abhorrent, selfish behaviour throughout the film, Nicky is more confident, assertive and reckless than Mikey, and he uses these traits to further his desire for dominance. Nicky insists on his right to come and go as he pleases – doing whatever he likes wherever he likes, without any regard for others.

An altercation with a bus driver, for example, revolves around Nicky being denied access; told to exit the bus through the back door, he instead puts the driver in a headlock and insists that he be allowed to exit through the front door. It makes no difference which door they exit through, but Nicky refuses to be told that he is not allowed to use the front door. Nicky does not relent until the driver opens the front door, having reaffirmed his sense of command over the space.

Doors repeatedly communicate Nicky’s violent masculinity and sense of entitlement to space – he threatens to break his wife’s door down, and actually does so at his mistress Nell’s (Carol Grace) apartment. Nicky also coerces Nell into sex, wearing her down over a gruelling scene in which she says some variation of “please don’t”, “I don’t like that”, “stop” or “no” 18 times. Grace’s trembling, gentle performance is heart-wrenching to watch, made even more so by Cassavetes’ performance of indifference and callousness – to Nicky, Nell’s resistance is simply another door to be knocked down, her body another space to be entered.

If access to and through spaces is used as a demonstration of power, then Nicky also uses this against Mikey throughout the film. Nicky denies Mikey access to his apartment at the film’s opening – while this can be attributed to Nicky’s paranoia, it also creates a dynamic in which Mikey must repeatedly beg to be let in. When Mikey heads for the elevator, Nicky says, “Stairs,” and runs off without waiting for Mikey to follow him. Even when Nicky is not physically leading or walking in front of Mikey, he still controls their passage, deciding where they go, in what order, and when. There is a sense that Mikey is ‘dragged around’ by Nicky, who commands their entrances and exits according to his own paranoia and whims. This relationship to space wordlessly communicates the constantly demeaned, subservient status to which Mikey is relegated in their relationship – a status that Nicky relies on to make himself feel secure – helping us understand Mikey’s simmering resentment towards his friend.

Having shot Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon the previous year, cinematographer Victor J Kemper was no stranger to capturing restless, run-down criminals, and he manages to infuse the visual landscape of Mikey and Nicky with the same sense of desperation, exhaustion and banality. With its wonderfully muted colour palette and vacillating focus, the film feels grimy and tired in every one of its frames. Anything that might once have been white is by now yellowed with sweat and age; rituals of masculinity are played out under shadows and streetlights; it’s as if the film itself has a five o’clock shadow. However, Mikey and Nicky has five credited cinematographers in total, and it seems only logical that the senseless violence of its harrowing end sequence was shot not by Kemper but by Lucien Ballard, the director of photography for True Grit (Henry Hathaway, 1969) and The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969).

The film is bookended: its ending an inversion of its opening, its power dynamics reversed as Mikey is now given control over a space and the power to refuse Nicky entry. He holds on to this power of refusal for all it’s worth, matching the violence of Nicky’s pounding at the door with a barricade of couches within. The horror, betrayal, anger and fear of Nicky’s last moments are compounded by the affront of being denied entry into this space – and by Mikey, of all people. It is a tragic crumbling, poetic and perfect: one of many demonstrations in this film of May’s directorial skill, thoughtfulness and subtlety.

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Mikey and Nicky (1976 USA 119 mins)

Prod. Co: Paramount Prod: Michael Hausman Dir: Elaine May Scr: Elaine May Phot: Bernie Abramson, Lucien Ballard, Jack Cooperman, Jerry File, Victor J Kemper Ed: John Carter, Sheldon Kahn Mus: John Strauss

Cast: Peter Falk, John Cassavetes, Ned Beatty, Rose Arrick, Carol Grace, William Hickey, Sanford Meisner, Joyce Van Patten

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