Monday, December 10, 2012

Cult Classics Revisited: THE NICKEL RIDE (1975)

(US - 1975)

Directed by Robert Mulligan.  Written by Eric Roth.  Cast: Jason Miller, Linda Haynes, Bo Hopkins, Victor French, John Hillerman, Richard Evans, Bart Burns, Lee de Broux.  (PG, 99 mins)

As the critically-acclaimed KILLING THEM SOFTLY sets new standards for mainstream audience alienation and looks to be out of theaters altogether by the end of its second week, it's clear that it will find a cult following in due time.  Based on a 1974 novel but updated to 2008, KILLING THEM SOFTLY is a close relative of similar "working stiff" mob dramas like 1973's THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (Walter V. Higgins wrote both source novels), and like KILLING THEM SOFTLY, it too failed to catch on with general audiences and made a quick exit from theaters only to be reappraised in subsequent decades.  These days, THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE is ranked with the essential mob thrillers of the 1970s.  There's another somber, character-driven mood piece from the 1970s that tanked upon its initial release and is held in higher esteem by its fans today, but even now, it's still much lesser-known than THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE:  the riveting, quietly powerful Los Angeles-set THE NICKEL RIDE.

Playwright-turned-actor Jason Miller followed his Oscar-nominated debut performance in THE EXORCIST with a starring role in this low-key character piece from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD director Robert Mulligan.  After a brief run in theaters, it was in regular rotation on late-night TV well into the 1980s before largely disappearing over the last 25 or so years. Shout Factory released it on DVD last year as part of an "Action Double Feature," strangely pairing it with John Frankenheimer's 99 AND 44/100% DEAD (1974).  THE NICKEL RIDE finally being available on DVD (in 2.35:1 anamorphic, not 1.78 as the packaging erroneously indicates) is a great thing, but pairing it with one of the weirdest major studio films of the 1970s, much less as part of an "Action Double Feature," does it few favors in its quest for some long-overdue recognition.

Miller is Cooper, a weary, longtime L.A. mob middleman who's earned the nickname "The Key Man," for his ever-present ring of keys to all the mob-owned warehouses he oversees for boss Carl (John Hillerman, a few years away from MAGNUM, P.I.). With the appearance of Carl's new protege, a cowboy hat-wearing good ol' boy named Turner (Bo Hopkins), Cooper's careful diligence turns to overwhelming paranoia as he fears he's outlived his usefulness, and that perhaps Carl wants to make some changes and shake things up since Cooper's been around so long and knows so much about his associates and the inner workings of his operation.  The increasingly edgy, agitated Cooper takes his girlfriend Sarah (Linda Haynes) and goes on the run once he starts to get the very real feeling that he may be a dead man walking.

Anyone looking for action will undoubtedly be disappointed, but THE NICKEL RIDE is a gripping film that's one of the unsung gems of its decade. A writer first and actor second, it's no surprise that Miller (1939-2001) was drawn to such a project.  He brings the same dark intensity, piercing stares, and brooding melancholy that made his work in THE EXORCIST so effective (you can see a lot of Miller in his actor son Jason Patric). He was a strong actor who rarely got a chance to shine after the 1970s, though he did direct the acclaimed 1982 screen adaptation of his play THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON, was brought back for 1990's THE EXORCIST III, and had a nice supporting turn as Notre Dame football coach Ara Parseghian in 1993's RUDY.  Haynes, an extremely charming actress who should've been huge, had roles in films like COFFY (1973), THE DROWNING POOL (1975) and ROLLING THUNDER (1977), before getting her sole starring turn in the 1980 exploitation film HUMAN EXPERIMENTS.  After two more supporting roles in the TV-movie GUYANA TRAGEDY: THE STORY OF JIM JONES and the Robert Redford vehicle BRUBAKER (both 1980), she retired from acting at just 32, settling down in her native Florida where she became a legal secretary.

THE NICKEL RIDE was one of the first scripts by Eric Roth, who went on to win an Oscar for his FORREST GUMP (1994) screenplay, in addition to writing or co-writing such films as THE CONCORDE: AIRPORT '79 (1979), THE HORSE WHISPERER (1998), THE INSIDER (1999), MUNICH (2005), THE GOOD SHEPHERD (2006), THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (2008), and most recently, EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE (2011). Mulligan makes very good use of seedy L.A. locales like dive bars, old warehouses, fleabag hotels, and smoky pool halls. THE NICKEL RIDE definitely belongs in that subgenre of blue-collar, nickel & dime, working stiff mob pieces that inspired KILLING THEM SOFTLY, and is a small classic worth discovering.

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