The Mikey is Mike Nichols, possibly, though Elaine May's autopsy of buddy-buddy delusion is not so much film à clef as a darkening extension of her own comedies of betrayal, and as essential to '70s cinema as The Godfather, Mean Streets and Sisters. It opens to the sounds of the city, a freeze-framed POV quickly revealed to belong to John Cassavetes' Nicky, jumpy in a disheveled hotel room, a crooked cigarette in mouth while calling Peter Falk's Mikey -- "I'm in trouble." A bottom-feeding racketeer on the run after making off with a stash of money belonging to the capos, Cassavetes sweats from perforating ulcers and the knowledge of a contract on his head; childhood bud Falk steps in to help, but we soon realize he's wearing the Judas cloak. The two zigzag through the seediest of Philadelphias, volcanically paranoid Cassavetes inviting fights in bars and buses while humored by Falk, himself prone to leaping over the counter and shake up the clerk who won't sell cream without coffee; elsewhere, Ned Beatty, the paid assassin, drives around, scrambling to pick up Falk's trail of crumbs. Bleary location shooting and mock-improv shenanigans point to a conscious study of Cassavetes' aesthetic, though the raggedness of the mise-en-scène stems out of May's formal exploration of the characters' haphazard emotional-behavioral-moral rhythms, rigorous in its aimlessness. The structure could be Pinter's or perhaps Beckett's, tonal leapfrogging molding as trenchant a view of American life as Cassavetes' own Husbands -- the chums exchange jackets and mementos, goof around graveyards and clash in the streets, missed possibilities ("You got big hands. You could play the piano") as inescapable as their mortality. They visit Carol Grace, Cassavetes' hapless mistress, and Falk sits in the kitchen smoking while the two hump on the living room floor, all in one harrowing long-take, until the brutal show ends and they're on the streets again; men and women have their society roles to play, so it's no accident that performance counts (or that acting doyens Sanford Meisner and William Hickey preside as the bosses). To May, morning's dawning light brings not clarity but the culmination of the denial of loyalty, all petty-bourgeois furniture piled for the harshest curtain call. With Rose Arrick, and Joyce Van Patten.
--- Fernando F. Croce