On January 22, the Criterion Collection will release what is likely to be the definitive version of Elaine May’s great 1976 film Mikey and Nicky, which some consider to be one of the masterpieces of the period. (Earlier this year, the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw wrote this perceptive review of the film, memorably calling it “a vivid, almost sensually rancid slice of 1970s cinema” — and that’s a good thing.) Like many other films of the 1970s, it’s a crime drama, as Criterion describes it on its web page for the release:
Elaine May crafted a gangster film like no other in the nocturnal odyssey Mikey and Nicky, capitalizing on the chemistry between frequent collaborators John Cassavetes and Peter Falk by putting them on-screen together as small-time mobsters whose lifelong relationship has turned sour. Set over the course of one night, this restless drama finds Nicky holed up in a motel after the boss he stole money from puts a hit on him. Terrified, he calls on Mikey: the one person he thinks can save him. Scripted to match the live-wire energy of its stars — alongside supporting players Ned Beatty, Joyce Van Patten, and Carol Grace — and inspired by real-life characters from May’s childhood, this unbridled portrait of male friendship turned tragic is an unsung masterpiece of American cinema.
True, all that, but it’s also only a hook upon which hangs a brilliant, moving dissection of a kind of masculinity with which we’re still all too familiar. May, who wrote the screenplay and directed, examines all of the qualities of this masculinity — comic, maudlin, finally toxic and tragic — and the film ends with one of the most terrifying depictions of isolation the American screen has ever produced as Mikey watches his friendship — and his past — slip away. May also has a particularly astute eye for Philadelphia, where Mikey and Nicky was filmed. (No surprise there, perhaps; she was born in Philadelphia in 1932.) Ten years later, May would flip this over into a sunnier, sillier portrait of male friendships in the similarly neglected Ishtar, marrying it to a satire of a kind of U.S. foreign policy which, these days, also sadly seems to still be with us. (And she’s still going strong at 86; later this month she opens on Broadway in The Waverly Gallery.)
The Criterion edition features a brand-new restoration of the film supervised and approved by Elaine May; a short documentary on the making of the film featuring interviews with producer Michael Hausman, distributor Julian Schlossberg, and actor Joyce Van Patten; interviews with critics Richard Brody and Carrie Rickey; and an audio interview from 1976 with Peter Falk. More information about the edition can be found here.