Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Nickel Ride (1974)

          The sort of downbeat character piece that enjoyed a brief but thrilling vogue in the ’70s, this drama about a mid-level crime boss features one of Jason Miller’s only leading performances in a major film. Oscar-nominated for his very first movie, The Exorcist, Miller was a complex figure whose onscreen career was impeded by his literary ambitions (he won a Pulitzer Prize for his play That Championship Season) and by ferocious alcoholism. Furthermore, while Miller was capable of conjuring amazing intensity as an actor, he was just as likely to underplay scenes to the point that his emotions barely registered on camera.
          Both extremes are visible in The Nickel Ride, which is as inconsistent as its leading man’s acting. Based on an original script by future Forrest Gump scribe Eric Roth, The Nickel Ride centers around Cooper (Miller), an ambitious but unlucky crook stuck somewhere in the middle rungs of the L.A. underworld. Cooper has spent years developing a grand scheme called “the block,” a group of warehouses that he hopes the city’s criminal element will use to store and transport stolen goods, but the project is on hold because the cops and criminals arranging protection for “the block” keep stalling. Thus Cooper not only overextends himself but also makes a deadly enemy of Carl (John Hillerman), a crime boss higher on the food chain, prompting Carl to enlist the aid of good ol’ boy Turner (Bo Hopkins), who may or may not have been hired to whack Cooper.
          As directed by sensitive dramatist Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird), The Nickel Ride has authenticity and atmosphere to spare. Mulligan generates a quiet mood of everyday normalcy with hints of menace bubbling just beneath the surface, and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth carefully highlights details and texture to create a strong sense of place in Cooper’s grimy neighborhood. The acting is uniformly good, even with the inconsistent energy level of Miller’s performance, so viewers feel like they’re firmly situated inside Cooper’s sad, small world. However the story isn’t as strong as the resources used to put it onscreen. Cooper comes across like a bystander in his own life until an extended sequence set at a woodsy resort, when gunplay raises the stakes for everyone involved. The narrative’s microscopic focus feels believable, but many sequences seem to meander because plot advancements are incremental.
          Still, there’s something poignant about watching Miller play a man incapable of realizing his potential, since the same was true in the actor’s brief life; by the time he died in 2001 at the age of 62, Miller hadn’t appeared in a major film for nearly a decade.

The Nickel Ride: FUNKY


Adam Zanzie said...

That jump-through-time gag in the lake sequence reminded me of a similar twist in Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale. That a classical director like Robert Mulligan would choose to employ such a radical narrative maneuver (even if Eric Roth's script dictated it in the first place) is pretty surprising.

It's nice to see The Stalking Moon on the Fox Movie Channel every now and then, but the fact that it's gotten no DVD or VHS release is concerning. As far as I'm concerned, this was Mulligan's third consecutive 1970's masterpiece after Summer of '42 and The Other. Because the Roth screenplay occupies so much of the attention, Mulligan's direction has to work hard to keep up with it--at times the movie feels like it's being directed by somebody else, like Sidney Lumet for example.

Ultimately, though, it's most certainly a Mulligan picture: the casting of Victor French (from The Other) and Lou Frizzell (from The Stalking Moon; Summer of '42 and The Other) could only have been secured by a director like Mulligan who liked those actors so much; and the final choke-fight between Jason Miller and Bo Hopkins is straight out of the climatic duel between Gregory Peck and Salvaje in The Stalking Moon.

It should also be noted that Quentin Tarantino is a fan of this film and has shown it at film festivals in the past. Maybe he should do that again.

Barry Miller said...

This might be a very strange thing to say, but somehow I feel that the long shadow of "The Exorcist" and it's profound cultural impact hung very heavy over Jason Miller's life and career, and in no small way affected the fate of this film, and his performance in it. One could almost read "Nickel Ride" as some sort of bizarre and surreal replay of The Devil in the form of Bo Hopkins continuing to pursue and haunt the tormented soul of Father Karras, now having mutated into the persona of a low-level criminal, a kind of admittedly twisted interpretation of the film, but not so much and on how much Miller himself, in reality, was probably desperate enough to want to shake off the iconography of his previous role as Karras to not be continually tormented by it. This may have initially caused a strange and almost neutered audience reaction to both the film and his performance a mere two years later after "The Exorcist" was released. I think it is very eerie that one of the last things he wanted to do before he passed away was to play Oscar Madison in a stage revival of Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple". If only he had done a comedy for his first major post-"Exorcist" starring role, one can only speculate on what kind of early beneficial effect that may have had on exorcising "The Exorcist" effect altogether.