[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.