The resurrection and restoration of Elaine May's bitterly wonderful, nearly unseen 1976 tragicomedy Mikey & Nicky (on disc Dec. 21) seems one of the reasons for which DVD was created. A cornerstone of the May legend of excess, it was, to put it delicately, a not-untroubled production, as its producer Michael Hausman and cinematographer Victor Kemper suggest in exceptionally cogent interviews here. (Over 110 nights, she shot 1.4 million feet of film, then wrestled with the editing over the next two and one-half years.) Sorry, but that's astonishingly beside the point when you see what May and ensemble achieved: a resonant, deeply American story as inexorable and profoundly correct as Greek tragedy.
Throughout one desperate night, she follows Mikey (Peter Falk) and Nicky (John Cassavetes), very minor-league hoods, zigzagging through Philadelphia as though the hounds of hell were after them. They're certainly after Nicky, who's been stupid enough to steal from their terrifying boss, Resnick (legendary acting coach Sanford Meisner), and has called Mikey, his oldest friend, in panic. Resnick has given the hit to a bumbling, cost-conscious gunsel (Ned Beatty)—and, cruelly, the job of fingering Nicky to Mikey.
Mikey's treacherous part in the hunt is spilled early on; what interests May is the essence of lifelong friendships. Although they both have wives, these men are each other's last link to their childhood, full of memories of now-dead brothers and parents. Nicky, a charming, careless user, has disrespected that legacy, and his final misstep of the night—magnanimously lending Mikey his girlfriend (Carol Grace)—ignites a firestorm of suppressed jealousy and neglect.
Even more than Cassavetes' own films, this is the gem of '70s improvisational style, heightened by May's gift for surgical detail as she draws an almost documentary portrait of the underbelly of middle-class gangster life. Gloriously realized by Falk and Cassavetes, it's made doubly collectible by the poignant horror of Grace's performance, capturing every nuance of a desperate need for respectability under any circumstance. (As is her lifelong custom, May provides no director commentary.)
TITLES new to DVD Jan. 25 include the fine, fly-on-the-wall Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Mean Creek (on SW's 10-best list for 2004), the Holocaust documentary Shanghai Ghetto, and a new edition of The Crying Game (with alternate ending among other extras).