dir. Richard Donner
Mikey and Nicky
dir. Elaine May
Just when you thought the entire canon of ironically hip, Austin Powers-inspiring, swinging '60s movies had been plundered, along comes a movie like Salt and Pepper (1968), whose pedigree is so powerfully screwed up that it basically becomes required viewing. Goateed Sammy Davis Jr. --dressed in leather pants, a royal blue Nehru jacket with red lining, and a yellow turtleneck--and his partner Peter Lawford (sporting a hairpiece and the bloat of alcoholic middle age) are Charles Salt and Christopher Pepper, respectively. Get it? The black guy is Salt and the white guy is Pepper? Luckily, the movie gives you about 10 chances to admire the irony. Together, they own a swinging Soho nightclub, where Sammy sings and dances (while pretending to play all the instruments, too) and Lawford, well, drinks and smokes cigarettes, presumably pining for the days when being a trim coordinator for JFK and Sinatra hanger-on were still lucrative gigs. They also leer at women and make wisecracks, all of which are flat and leaden. When a "Chinese call girl" gets killed at their club, they find themselves embroiled in a web of international intrigue that calls upon their talents for singing, dancing, leering at women, and smoking cigarettes. Among the many amazing facets of this forgotten relic is that it was the feature film debut of Richard Donner (Superman, Lethal Weapon). Most notable of all, however, is the degree to which Sammy in particular seems to know the film is crap (after all, he didn't have two glass eyes), but still gamely throws himself into it the way he would a floorshow at the Copa. Salt and Pepper is a bizarre comp job of then-contemporary references (The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and I Spy primarily among them) that fails on every level, especially as a career reviver for two flailing Rat Packers. It's not hard to see why it was forgotten, but why bring it back now?
Another largely forgotten buddy movie inspired by antiquated sources has recently been released on DVD for the first time--but this one deserves major recognition. Mikey and Nicky (1976) stars John Cassavetes and his regular cast mate Peter Falk. The film is dark and improvisational, with a plot (paranoid guy calls mob buddy to help him get out of town) that feels more like a premise to allow the actors to bounce off one another with varying degrees of indulgence and brilliance. The same can be said of Cassavetes' films, which are the obvious model here. What's remarkable is that Cassavetes is only an actor here (I frankly like him better that way); the director is Elaine May, best known as an onstage foil for Mike Nichols and genius comedy screenwriter/ actor/director. No matter how many times I see this virtuoso movie--the DVD is a much-needed visual improvement, especially given the nighttime cinematography--I can't help wondering both where the hell May's impulse came from, and given her subsequent work (Ishtar, The Birdcage), where the hell it went.