A critic in Time Out New York wrote that Robert Mulligan's The Nickel Ride was deserving of a cult akin to that of the one devoted to Point Blank. However, if there's a film that The Nickel Ride belongs in a conversation with, it's The Conversation. Mulligan's film, from an original script by Eric Roth, follows low-level crime boss Cooper (Jason Miller) as he begins to lose his grip on his territory, a nondescript, rundown section of Los Angeles. We find Coop, as he's affectionately called, having difficulty closing the deal on a transaction that will the net the syndicate a valuable block of abandoned warehouses. His negotiations with the police drag on and he seems to be falling out of favor with the higher-ups in the organization, starting with his boss Carl (John Hillerman). Carl's hotheaded henchmen (Bo Hopkins, Richard Evans), who we get the feeling Coop could have handled with ease in the past, are getting under his skin. Even though he is adored by his young girlfriend, Sarah (Linda Haynes) and is well-liked by his constituents, including jovial bartender Paddie (Victor French), Coop is increasingly isolated from his friends and engulfed by paranoia.
It's not dissimilar to many much-loved paranoid thrillers of the 1970s, but The Nickel Ride has truly flown under the radar. From what I can tell, it hasn't appeared on home video in this country although it does, I'm told, occasionally air uncut and widescreen on the Fox Movie Channel. As a result of a resurgence in interest in recently deceased director Mulligan, The Nickel Ride received a much deserved, albeit brief, showcase at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's tribute to Mulligan. The print that was screened was not sparkling by any means, but it still did justice to d.p. Jordan Cronenweth's (Blade Runner, Stop Making Sense, Cutter's Way) scope compositions. Dave Grusin contributes a suitably edgy and minimalist score in the tradition of his fine work from the era, which includes Tell Them Willie Boy is Here, 3 Days of the Condor, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and The Yakuza.
Jason Miller, who did not have many starring opportunities in film, after The Exorcist, turns in a controlled and nuanced performance. I was struck by his resemblance to Harry Dean Stanton--someone should have cast them as brothers. His scenes opposite blowhard cowboy Hopkins are alternately hilarious and uncomfortably ambiguous because of how good Miller is at registering Coop's unease and impatience with the "new school" brand of crime embodied by the psychopathic Hopkins and the corporate types on top of the hierarchy. Haynes, who was so memorable in Coffy and Rolling Thunder, exhibits a heartbreaking sweetness as Coop's devoted girl. It's a shame her career abruptly ended after Brubaker (online bios say that she went onto a career as a legal secretary). John Hillerman (Carl) and Victor French (Paddie), two talented character actors who would achieve their greatest fame on television, are both excellent in key supporting roles. French is almost unrecognizable without the beard and mustache he sported on Highway to Heaven and one continually expects to hear Hillerman spout out his lines in an affected British accent as he did for so many years as Higgins on Magnum, P.I..
Unfortunately, much of Mulligan's best work remains unavailable on DVD, but retrospectives like the recent one at FSLC will go a long way toward burnishing his reputation as a gifted director of intimate and emotionally complex character pieces. The Nickel Ride is a rich and challenging picture and deserves a place alongside other films of the era that have since been lionized.