Falk’s And Cassavetes’ Hidden Gem

The top line of every Peter Falk obituary includes the word Columbo, not surprising since the character was a bona fide pop culture icon, and the one most associated with the actor Peter Falk. But the obits soon get around to the work Falk did with his friend, the actor and director John Cassavetes. An independent director before there were independent directors (well, there may have been a few, like Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray, but at the time they were known as “B movie” makers) some of Cassevetes’ best cast his pal Falk.

The films, written and directed by Cassavetes were performed with a naturalism that made them seem practically offhand, achieving an almost cinéma vérité feel. This led many viewers to believe the films were largely improvised. But they weren’t. According to all who worked in the films, they were heavily scripted and Cassavetes’ scripts were largely followed to the letter.

HUSBANDS, which included Falk in the cast was an ensemble piece about middle-aged male angst, the story essentially three friends going on a protracted bender after the death and burial of a fourth friend. It is famously raw, and full of, well, angst.

One of my favorite Falk performances is in the Cassavetes’ film, A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE. Falk’s performance is a phenomenally finessed mixture of compassion, affection, understanding, embarrassment and frustration with his beloved, but clinically loopy wife, played by the stunningly good and stunningly beautiful Gena Rowlands.

But the hidden gem of the title was neither written nor directed by Cassavetes, though he and Falk were the featured actors. The film is MIKEY AND NICKY, written and directed by comic, writer and director Elaine May, who made her name as half of the comedy team Nichols and May. The other half, Mike Nichols went on to make a long string of critically and commercially acclaimed films, among them WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, THE GRADUATE and SILKWOOD.

The reason MIKEY AND NICKY is a hidden gem, is that the studio, Paramount, in one of those famous instances of spiteful studio infanticide, took out its disputes and gripes with director May on the film itself, releasing it to the contractually minimal number of theaters for as short a time as possible. As with so many other buried treasures, thank god for the video and the DVD.

While the film did have one of May’s wittily unsurpassable scripts, a great deal of it is said to have been improvised, May turning on the cameras and leaving them running (reputedly, even when the actors were not actually there). But written or improvised, it is one of film’s most entertaining acting pas de deux. I like to think of it as a classic of comic neurosis, Falk’s and Cassavetes’ suburban hoods, long before Tony Soprano, going toe to toe with every frailty from dyspepsia to paranoia. Their long night of hiding in a Philadelphia hotel room has a palpable claustrophobia and real edge of urban fear to go along with Falk’s and Cassevetes’ comic improvising and May’s acid and idiosyncratic dialogue.

For any who have not seen the film I won’t spoil it with further elaboration, since Netflix can spring it from obscurity in the blink of an eye. But indeed, the two lifelong friends played by the two lifelong friends is a durable testament to the talents of both.

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