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A film doesn’t have to be bad or exploitative to fall into the schlock bin.  Sometimes, all it takes is a lack of success.  The Nickel Ride is an example of this sort of accidental schlock.  It came with a prestige pedigree: it was a 20th Century Fox release, directed by the esteemed Robert Mulligan and starring Jason Miller, who was fresh off the mega-hit The Exorcist.  However, it didn’t connect with a mainstream audience, perhaps because it wasn’t really designed to.  As a result, it was tarred with the “failure” brush and slipped into obscurity, failing to get a video release until a recent DVD from Shout Factory.

It’s a shame because The Nickel Ride is a fine example of that downbeat, distinctly 1970’s take on the crime film.  The hero is Cooper (Miller), known to his city’s crime community as “the key man” because he controls a key ring that has keys to several secret storage places where crooks stash their stolen loot.  He’s also something of a fixer who dabbles in fixing boxing matches and settling disputes between crooks.  Cooper is something of a legend on his block and also has a gorgeous young girlfriend, Sarah (Linda Haynes).  By objective standards, he should be content… but Cooper isn’t because things aren’t as they seem.

The storage places have run out of room so he’s trying to close a deal on a new facility but his corrupt cop partner Elias (Bart Burns) has suddenly gotten evasive on whether it can happen.  The crooks that need to stash their loot are getting antsy and Cooper finds he is being treated with a subtle dismissiveness by his own boss, Carl (a pre-Magnum P.I. John Hillerman), due to his inability to close the deal.  To add insult to injury, Carl has asked Cooper to “train” Turner (Bo Hopkins), a young crook who could just be intended as Cooper’s replacement.  As the settlement of the deal draws near, Cooper has to fight off mounting paranoia as he tries to figure out just where he stands.

The end result is not your typical crime film: there’s no caper that the plot is built around, a minimum of action and a slow-burn style that focuses on the kind of ominous ambiguity that can lead to paranoia.  Thus, those looking for two-fisted action (as the film’s original audience no doubt was) might be disappointed but those patient enough to commit to a subtler, more nuanced piece of work will find The Nickel Ride to be very effective in its own subtle way.

The Nickel Ride is essentially the “death of the Old West” movie that was such a feature of Westerns in the 1970’s transplanted to a more modern crime film setting.  Cooper is much like an aging gunslinger, with any number of young upstarts and old partners disrespecting him.  Even worse, he knows that, much like an old gunslinger who lays down his guns, there’s nothing left for him once he stops being a fixer.  Indeed, the film’s most heartbreaking moment comes when Cooper confides to his girlfriend that he’s nothing without his work.  Carl is essentially the boss whose uptown habits reflect the changing times that Cooper is out of step with – and the most telling signifier is that new rival Turner dresses like a drugstore cowboy, right down to the cowboy hat.

Thus, the story is perfectly set up to be an elegy for a time gone by – and the filmmakers follow that mandate.  Eric Roth’s script never overplays the symbolism, instead going for a minimalist approach in terms of plotting that allows the viewer to focus on the characters and often darkly witty dialogue.  Mulligan takes an appropriately understated approach to the story, downplaying artifice in his style and favoring a naturally-lit, oft shadowy look from cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth (who brought a similar look to Rolling Thunder a few years later).

Thus, the stage is set for the actors to take center stage – and luckily for the audience, everyone involved is skilled enough to do so while respecting the subtlety of the script.  Miller downplays his natural intensity at first, allowing it to slowly boil up as the story’s turns confound his character’s instincts.  He also keeps the viewer engaged by bringing a wry delivery to Cooper’s dark, frequent side-of-the-mouth witticisms.  As the story demands more from him emotionally, he carefully builds up to it.  The result is a wonderfully natural performance that lends humanity to an archetypal character.

The supporting cast matches Miller beat for beat.  Hillerman is quietly sinister as the boss, using a bland, WASP-y affect to offset the subtle cruelty of his words and actions.  Haynes is a favorite amongst cult movie buffs for her turns in films like Coffy and Rolling Thunder and she gets several strong scenes here, particularly during a stretch near the end of the second act when she confronts Miller’s paranoia.  It’s a testament to her skills that she holds the screen with Miller.  Finally, Bo Hopkins gets a great venue for his unique skill to blend a sinister presence with a aw-shucks, downhome manner of speaking as Turner.  The scenes where he banters/duels with Miller are amongst the most tense and electric in the film.

In short, The Nickel Ride is a lost gem wrongly buried in the schlock pile and a wonderfully moody crime-noir.  Its slow building mood of paranoia would make it an excellent double-bill partner with films like The Parallax View or Night Moves – and that’s great company for a movie to be in.