[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]
Despite its director’s solid critical and commercial reputation and a Cannes Festival showing, The Nickel Ride arrived in Seattle well over a year late, as a first-run second feature to a new film being ballyhooed via the moronic action-film come-on. (That the new film happens to be a fine one, meriting very different advertising and going largely unseen by its proper audience as a result of its unpleasant sell—Robert Aldrich’s Hustle—is momentarily beside the point.) It’s easy to see why the film has been neglected by its distributor and downplayed by reviewers: a “depressing” story, set mostly in a dim, unglamorous locale, unfolding apparently within a generic context where hard and/or shrill action melodrama is the normal order of business—crime and those who practice or live on the edge of it—but without delivering the customary goods at the customary rhythms of shock and bruised relief, shock and bruised relief….
And to be perfectly fair, we ought to point out that The Nickel Ride is more an honorable failure than, when ya get right down to it, a good movie. Like so many of his contemporaries, from prestigious directors like Penn to the younger program picturemakers with a view to being “taken seriously,” Mulligan has turned to the film noir as a framework for spiritual dissection of the world we seem to be living in and some of the ways we elect for going about it. His frames, his spaces, his people’s movements bespeak a selfconsciousness and seriousness as impeccable as, say, Antonioni’s. Indeed, a good deal of The Nickel Ride consists of Jason Miller’s dark, massive, weary head sloped to a telephone receiver at the extreme right or extreme left of a wide Panavision rectangle hung in some gray-brown second-story space. Miller plays Cooper—Coop, if you want to be iconographic about it, though Mulligan manages not to insist—the “key-man” who holds the means of access to clandestine warehouses more violent types rely on as places to dump their freshly ill-gotten gains until the heat’s off. Cooper is also the long-established Anglo-Saxon equivalent of a godfather to his neighborhood where fixing fights and staking petty heist artists appear to be the most extreme forms of criminal behavior. It’s a job, and as Cooper leans milky-blue–suited through the gashing early-morning sun and pauses to listen to a bar-owner pal gripe about the rat race before hauling a carton of milk up to his office, anyone who has ever grown accustomed to the rituals and rhythms of a neighborhood while babysitting a store or office there will feel the correspondences in his gut.
Cooper’s life is going quietly bad, though. One has the feeling from Jason Miller’s carefully controlled performance that Cooper never took visible joy or satisfaction in his position of eminence. Even so, the unease is escalating in the film’s first glimpse—crawling past a digital clock at a very early hour—of Cooper awake long before he needs to be, getting up, moving almost as if underwater—a sensation belied, however, by the cleanness, the perceptibly precise and efficient vector-shifting of his intelligence. He has a lot to keep an eye on. His warehouses are full and his mob superiors—”The People”—are waiting for him to secure a guarantee that the police will keep away from “the block,” a disused freight yard he has acquired and is otherwise ready to put into operation. But Carl (John Hillerman), his liaison with The People, isn’t coming around to talk anymore; and his younger adjutant Bobby (Richard Evans, looking disturbingly like Roman Polanski) is pushing for power; and when Carl does come around, it’s to tell him that The People want him to give some administrative lessons to a new person named Turner (Bo Hopkins)—a Texas galoot in a Cadillac who clearly has no future in the administrative end of the business and just as clearly serves The People in lethal ways. Turner keeps coming on like a credulous junior exec who just can’t get over the terrificness of his successful superior and certainly has no hope of ever being able to match his performance: precisely the way, of course, to make the superior’ s success feel shaky and to remind the fellow—like that first clock we see and the one his buddies present him on his birthday and the old wristwatch, the one he bought with his first earnings, that his young girlfriend has had repaired and also presents him—that he’s getting old and maybe obsolete.
OK. It’s a story we’ve been told many times before, and Mulligan’s telling of it here verges on the suffocatingly arty in its terse, cryptic, insiderish dialogue and maddening, perhaps a bit too monotonously ultra-exact framing. There is no discovery in the film—only close, concentrated, precise, dissective care and an exacting honesty. These are virtues, certainly, but they don’t relieve the sense of foregone conclusion. And this is an important failing, for ultimately it shrinks the scope and the utility of Mulligan’s film. In the end Cooper lives or dies as The Key Man; whether his jeopardy is created by The People or by his own doubts of them and of himself, so that he seems to be forcing his own destruction, is impossible to sort out. This much—and it’s a good deal—Mulligan expresses, often brilliantly, by reducing the viewer’s own options in terms of just lookin’ around, so that the space by a window, an unfilled doorway, a parked car or a pair of headlights in the rearview mirror takes on the same potentially terrible associations and significance for us as it does for Cooper. At one point Mulligan enters upon a fantasy of disaster so subtly, with such psychological validity, that the scarcely “intellectual” audience around me was drawn in completely (as was I), wrung out by the film’s first burst of onscreen mortal violence and then hung out to dry by the very adroit and to-the-point disclosure that “it was only a dream”; in short, although his approach is stylized, even academic, it demonstrably works at a gut level of involvement for people who don’t even know movies are directed. (Maybe the distributor, Twentieth Century Fox, ought to give another think to having dumped the picture….)
But while it enables us to take the nickel ride along with its protagonist, the movie doesn’t have anything new to say about the trip, why Cooper had to take it or how, if possible, we can get off. Perhaps it’s unfair to ask a director, or anybody else, to supply us with those answers. But it’s a measure of the film’s forceful articulation of despair that we are made desperately to want them.
THE NICKEL RIDE
Direction: Robert Mulligan. Screenplay: Eric Roth. Cinematography: Jordan Cronenweth. Production: Mulligan.
The players: Jason Miller, Linda Haynes, Victor French, John Hillerman, Bo Hopkins, Richard Evans, Lou Frizzell.
Copyright © 1976 Richard T. Jameson