I sometimes wonder while watching a heist film, what happens to the loot from a big score? Where is it stored? The Nickel Ride (1974) answers these questions by focusing on a man in charge of a set of Los Angeles warehouses that store the loot. It is a crime film you might not have heard of as it doesn’t have the pedigree of something like The Getaway (1972), which was directed by Sam Peckinpah and starred Steve McQueen. Instead, it was directed by veteran journeyman Robert Mulligan (To Kill A Mockingbird) and starred Jason Miller, fresh from the critical and commercial success of The Exorcist (1973). Despite being nominated for the Palme d’Or, The Nickel Ride wasn’t well-received and quickly disappeared into obscurity, which is a shame because it deserves to be as highly regarded as other films of its ilk.
The film begins with a group of criminals showing up to a warehouse with a truckload of stolen goods. A flunky claims that they’re at capacity and so one of the criminals threatens the guy at gunpoint. The underling claims that his boss has got an angle on a new storage space. The crook warns the man that his boss is losing control, that he needs this new storage space and that he’s got four days to make it happen. Welcome to The Nickel Ride.
Cooper (Jason Miller) is a fixer – the man with keys to a set of warehouses in Los Angeles that house all kinds of illegal goods. He’s feeling the pressure of finding a new block of storage space. He’s got a potential space lined up but the owner wants more money. Within the first 30 minutes, the film has expertly introduced Cooper, the world he inhabits, the people he regularly interacts with, and his main dilemma, and does it in a matter-of-fact way that was the hallmark of many crime films from the 1970s.
Cooper’s life gets more complicated when his boss Carl (John Hillerman) saddles him with a protégé by the name of Turner (Bo Hopkins), a grinning chatterbox that attempts to ingratiate himself to Cooper by comparing the man to greats like Babe Ruth, Rocky Marciano and John L. Sullivan to which Cooper deadpans, “They’re all dead except one.” When Cooper asks Turner how old he is, the man replies with a mischievous smile, “Old enough to know better, young enough to do it again.” A pre-Magnum, P.I. John Hillerman plays Carl with the air of sophistication. He’s an old school guy like Cooper but he’s also feeling the pressure as well, but you’d hardly know it from his unflappable demeanor.
Bo Hopkins brings a jovial, good ol’ boy charm to the role of Turner. He initially comes across as some kind of country bumpkin that talks incessantly about the most trivial things, which acts in sharp contrast to the no-nonsense Cooper, but behind those wide eyes Hopkins hints at menace waiting to be unleashed. He definitely starts off a wolf in sheep’s clothing and there is a tension as we wait to see the menacing side reveal itself.
Jason Miller brings a world-weariness to the role of Cooper. He’s been doing this job for too long and is tired. The actor conveys this weariness with his heavy-lidded eyes and the slouched way he walks. Yet, Miller also conveys the air of a confident man who has done this for a long time but even he’s feeling the squeeze from Carl. I like that the film takes time to include moments of insight into Cooper. For example, there’s a scene where he tells a story about the personal meaning of a watch his girlfriend Sarah (Linda Haynes) fixes for his birthday. It builds up his character so that we care about what happens to him later on. Miller plays Cooper as a man who thinks a great deal and you look at his eyes and imagine him trying to figure things out in his mind. Cooper maybe showing signs of age that leave him vulnerable to younger guys like Turner who are faster and stronger, but he has years of experience to draw on and that makes him dangerous.
I like that director Robert Mulligan shows us Cooper’s daily routine – getting up early and making breakfast for and walking to work where he encounters an amicable vendor (the smooth talker sells good luck pieces and has watches for sale running up and down his arms), and banters with Paddie (Victor French), the owner of a nearby bar before arriving at his modest office. This routine provides valuable insight into Cooper and helps us get to know him. He’s the kind of guy who still wears a suit and tie to work at a time when the dress code had relaxed greatly. This marks him as an old school kind of person that still cares about his appearance at work.
Linda Haynes plays the fresh-faced Sarah who loves Cooper and is largely unaware of the dangerous world in which he works. There is a disarming earthiness that the actress conveys, which is very attractive and it is easy to see why Cooper is attracted to Sarah. Her character isn’t naïve per se; living in L.A. for any period of time would remedy that, but rather Cooper keeps his work compartmentalized, keeping her out until it becomes too late.
Cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth (Blade Runner) adopts a naturalistic look as much of The Nickel Ride takes place during the day. There is an almost documentary-like feel to the first half of the film as he presents L.A. as a sun-kissed concrete jungle where Cooper feels most at home. For the night scenes, Cronenweth takes a page out of the Gordon Willis playbook so that the characters almost become lost in the shadows. His camerawork compliments Mulligan’s assured direction – the result of years of experience.
Then-up-and-coming screenwriter Eric Roth does a nice job of creating a fascinating portrait of a veteran criminal beginning to lose his touch and become increasingly paranoid as a result. Cooper knows that losing your edge can get you killed in his line of work. Roth spends a lot of time developing the character of Cooper and his relationship with Sarah, which give this crime story some humanity.
The Nickel Ride was not well-received back in the day. In her review for The New York Times, Nora Sayre wrote, “The Nickel Ride is handsomely filmed in bleak pastels, but the numerous close-ups manage to stress the slowness of the action, and quick cuts can’t dispel the tedium.” Movietone magazine’s Richard T. Jameson wrote, “There is no discovery in the film—only close, concentrated, precise, dissective care and an exacting honesty. These are virtues, certainly, but they don’t relieve the sense of foregone conclusion.” However, in recent years, the film has started to be re-evaluated as the Village Voice’s Nick Pinkerton felt it would “make you believe the best of ‘70s cinema will never fully be quarried out.”
“Without work I’m nothing. What else is there?” Cooper says to Sarah at one point. He is a man defined by his job. Sure, he has her but work provides him with structure and stability. Without it he wouldn’t know what to do with himself. What happens when the powers that be try to take it away from him? The answer, as is common with these kinds of films (especially ones made in the ‘70s), is a tragic one. The Nickel Ride is an underrated film that deserves to be regarded with other great crime films of the ‘70s, like The Outfit (1973), The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), and Charley Varrick (1973) among others.