Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Movie: The Nickel Ride (1974)

It’s significant that the first word that comes to mind to describe The Nickel Ride is downbeat. 1970s crime dramas are aggressively, gaudily grim. The country was going down the tubes (even in French and English films), the system was busted, no one had any answers, and wherever you looked there was polyester.

But the bleakness of The Nickel Ride cuts deeper because it’s so small time. Its characters aren’t getting enough sleep to dream big. The film was directed by Robert Mulligan, the live TV veteran best known for To Kill A Mockingbird, from an early screenplay by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Insider, Munich).

Jason Miller’s Frank Cooper is a middle manager in an L.A. syndicate that’s going corporate. The ex-carny is known as “the key man,” and that’s not only an indication of his supreme utility. Coop oversees every warehouse in the city that holds stolen goods. It’s a hell of a lot of responsibility, as boss John Hillerman (in fine unctuous form) tells him. “You’re like a computer and we can’t afford to have you break down.” Coop’s hatched a scheme to ease his burden: “The Block,” uttered in reverent tones, a single massive structure to facilitate the movement of swag. It appears to him in visions like a redbrick Xanadu. He’s only waiting to close a protection deal with the cops, but they’re giving him the runaround. Even worse, he’s been saddled with a cowboy sidekick out of Tulsa (Bo Hopkins) who may have ulterior motives.

The ‘70s also spawned a subgenre of Working Man at the End of His Rope movies. Jack Lemmon won an Oscar for one of the most obvious, Save the Tiger. The Nickel Ride transports that rat race despair to a George V. Higgins milieu, only with none of Higgins’ blunt poetry. There’s no time for it. There’s shit to move out of the truck.

Miller’s galvanic performance is almost the entire show here. Coop is aware he’s sinking: “The business is off. New people, new faces. Things change.” But aside from pressing his contacts to make the Block happen, he doesn’t know what else to do other than what he’s been doing for too damn long. “Without the work, I’m nothing. What else is there?” It would seem impossible to show a range of impassivity, but somehow Miller pulls it off. The movie is about both Coop and the audience realizing just how wound up he is at all times, his calm an eternal vigilance eating away at him. As a result, his occasional explosions of violence startle him most of all. Mulligan shoots one in particular in hugely effective fashion. To say more would ruin it.

Odd as it may be to recommend a movie for its shabbiness, The Nickel Ride unfolds in some spectacularly drab downtown Los Angeles locations. There’s also a comically depressing birthday party hosted by Coop’s pal Victor French. There’s not much crime in the film, but a lot of drama, and a star turn that should be more celebrated.