The Nickel Ride

Director: Robert Mulligan
Jason Miller, Linda Haynes, Victor French

For the most part, I have walked the straight and narrow. There have been times when I have broken the law, but almost all of that lawbreaking has been petty stuff like jaywalking. Though I try to be a law abiding citizen, there have been times when I have been greatly tempted to do things of a darker nature by various observations around me. Let me give you an example from something I read many years ago in a major American magazine. It was an advertisement placed in the magazine by the Mafia. The advertisement was a cartoon depicting an unemployed man who couldn't get hired at any job because he had no experience. His wife then suggested he try the Mafia, and he figured he had nothing to lose. At the Mafia, he learned that having no experience was okay - the Mafia had the motto, "You earn as you learn." The man quickly learned various Mafia practices like strangulation and breaking fingers, and soon he was earning bonuses on top of his generous pay. Not that long afterwards, he was promoted to a major position in the organization, and could also show off his expensive car and pinky ring to the world. Before I go any further, I should mention that the magazine that I read this ad was in fact MAD Magazine, so of course the ad was just a joke. But even though I was quite young when I read this ad, I could understand what the writer was telling his audience. He was saying that crime does indeed pay at times. Indeed, I found this same message in other popular media when I was growing up. People in the Mafia not only seemed to have great power, they were having a cushy life thanks to their various kinds of breaking the law.

However, as you no doubt know from the countless experiences you have had in your life, every silver lining has a cloud. There is definitely a bad side to being a part of the Mafia. One of the most effective true tales that I came across that involved the Mafia came from the real life FBI agent Joseph D. Pistone. Pistone, you may recall, went undercover for several years to infiltrate the mafia and gather enough information about the mobsters for his agency. (His story was later told in the movie Donnie Brasco.) Do you know what Pistone thought about the mobsters he interacted with for years while masquerading as a fellow mobster himself? No, he didn't feel anger from seeing the mobsters constantly breaking the law and getting away with it at the time. No, he didn't feel jealous from seeing them gather wealth and other assorted riches from their illegal activity. Instead, he said he felt sorry for the mobsters. He also stated something like, "I didn't want them to die. Go to jail, yes. But not die." From what I have learned about the Mafia over the years, I can see why Pistone felt sorry for the various figures in the Mafia. For starters, I have learned that most people involved in the Mafia aren't that well off; Donnie Brasco showed that only the ones at the very top have wealth and major power, while the rest under these few don't exactly have lavish lifestyles. The ones not at the very top also have to do most of the work and the responsibility. They have to take the risk of not only being caught by the authorities, but if they should screw up just once they risk being whacked by their superiors in the organization. Obviously, life in the Mafia for most participants isn't a walk in the park, so much so that you have to question the minds of these people that would decide to take so much risk in participating in this criminal world.

Living up here in Canada, I haven't had any opportunity to see the Mafia at work. For example, the casinos up here are strictly regulated and run by the lottery system, which in turn is controlled by the government. I've heard that that Mafia is indeed up here, but when it comes to The Nickel Rideorganized crime in the news, it always seems to be about the Hell's Angels and other biker gangs. So I have had to depend on motion pictures whenever I get an interest in the Mafia. I don't have that much interest in movies that glamorize the mob. Instead, I am drawn to mob movies that are more downbeat, maybe because it not only feels more realistic, I also don't want to be jealous of the lives of the mobsters onscreen. That's why I was attracted to The Nickel Ride when I happened to hear about it. What also interested me was finding the fact that while it was an official entry in the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, it was subsequently forgotten about for the next few decades until its quiet release on DVD a few years ago. In the movie, Jason Miller (who later wrote and directed That Championship Season) plays a petty Los Angeles criminal named Cooper, who has a loyal girlfriend named Sarah (Linda Haynes, Coffy) and is friendly with Paddie (French, The House On Skull Mountain), the owner of a local tavern. Though low ranking in the local Mafia, he all the same has an important job - he looks after several local warehouses that the Mafia uses to store various stolen goods, always keeping the keys to the warehouses on his person. This has gotten him the nickname "The Key Man". Recently, the Mafia realized that they were running out of room in the warehouses, and they gave Cooper the order to start looking for a new warehouse. But one of Cooper's associates, Carl (John Hillerman, Magnum P.I.), seems to be uneasy about Cooper's new assignment, possibly fearing that Cooper may screw it up. In fact, the Mafia as a whole has been giving Cooper a kind of cold shoulder recently. Out of the blue one day, Carl assigns Cooper a new partner named Turner (Bo Hopkins, Tentacles) to help him out with the warehouse negotiations. But is Turner really there to help Cooper... or to help Carl and the other Mafioso by getting rid of Cooper should Cooper become more of a problem than he presently is?

When The Nickel Ride was first released, The Godfather parts one and two were fresh in the minds of moviegoers, having given their audiences a very romanticized view of the Mafia. It must have come as a shock to the few people who saw The Nickel Ride in theaters as to what a different viewpoint this movie has to offer. According to this movie, the world of organized crime is not the least bit glamorous. If you are in the Mafia, unless maybe if you are one of the kingpins, you won't be working in a fancy mansion in a high class neighborhood. More likely than not you'll be working where the criminal element of the city resides, where the dive bars and the homeless are. More likely than not you'll be working directly with people who are at your same rank, reporting only to the person who is one increment higher than you are in the chain - you won't be working with or even seeing the guys up on the very top. And once you start working for the Mafia, that is it. At one point, when an equally lowly associate of Cooper confidentially tells Cooper than he's pretty much had it, all Cooper can suggest is that the guy takes a vacation for a few days, then come back. By that point, we in the audience have seen that there is no voluntary quitting when you are in the mob - you are there for the rest of your life. And it may not be natural causes that determine your exit from this brand of criminal life - there is the constant threat that your bosses may find you to be a liability, and will take action to make sure that your inevitable exit comes a lot quicker than you may like it to be.

Truthfully though, from what we see in this movie, some low-ranked people in this racket might actually welcome this depressing and hazardous life to permanently end quickly. That might be a little hard to believe at first for outsiders like ourselves - after all, I think it's safe to say that most of us value our present lives. But I believed how degrading and risky the world in The Nickel Ride was. A good reason for this was with the characters, both with the writing by screenwriter Eric Roth (who later went on to write movies like Munich and Ali) and the actors who play the roles. As the lone female in the movie, the character of Sarah (well played by Haynes) is interesting because for a long time she never questions her boyfriend Cooper's work. When things get tense towards the end, she does start asking questions, but doesn't press it. It eventually becomes clear why - she really doesn't want to know just what possible danger Cooper is in, and what danger this might mean for her. John Hillerman's "Carl" character only makes a few brief appearances, but is written to be a no-nonsense leader of sorts who has seen it all, so much so that he remains extremely professional and cool-headed even when he starts to see in front of his eyes some cracks starting to form in his operation. Hillerman finds the right calm note to play the character, and as we watch this character we wonder just what his intent with Cooper is. We wonder the same with Turner, the person Carl brings in to help Cooper. He is written to be one who likes a good joke and has an almost casual viewpoint to what he is doing. But all the same, he quickly becomes a very scary figure. Actor Hopkins flashes a wicked grin throughout, and his fun-loving attitude is played in a manner where this guy seems to be enjoying things way too much. In fact, it's downright creepy. There is something not quite right about this character, and whenever he walks into a scene the tension increases tenfold.

The character who gets the main focus is, of course, Cooper. He's a weary fellow, realizing that maybe time is running short for him but seems too tired and resigned to do much about it. However, he still desires control, which is illustrated by an interesting scene when he's upset that a fellow worker went into his office to relax without his permission. ("Next time wait outside," he almost reluctantly lectures the fellow.) Despite the character's weariness, it's all the same a challenging role; except for the opening sequence, the character is in every scene of the movie. Jason Miller gives a nice understated performance that fits with this character's seeming tiredness of his nowhere life. But I think Miller and the rest of the actors got a lot of assistance from veteran director Robert Mulligan (The Stalking Moon). For starters, he manages to give his cast a strong atmosphere that no doubt got into their bones and affected their performances. Mulligan shot most of the movie in neighborhoods that had long past their good days, with their seedy dive bars and crumbling warehouses. The movie is also photographed with washed out colors and an often hazy appearance. Even when Cooper and his girlfriend at one point take a trip to the countryside, the foliage is made to look bleak and depressing - symbolizing that Cooper can't get away from the drudgery coming from his occupation. Sometimes this life includes violence, and while it only comes occasionally, Mulligan manages to make all of the violence pack a pretty potent punch. If there is a negative thing to say about Mulligan's direction, it is that many modern viewers might find the movie quite slow-moving and not as eventful as they may like it to be. Personally, I didn't mind this casualness of The Nickel Ride. Although it may take its sweet time, along the way I found a lot of details, from the quirks of the characters to its more believable portrayal of organized crime, that kept my interest up. Those who have an interest in 1970s cinema, especially those that appreciate cynical cinema, will likely find this movie very rewarding.

(Posted June 8, 2017)

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See also: The Black Godfather, The Other, Taking The Heat