The Nickel Ride is a cool as a cucumber crime film from 1974, patiently directed by Robert Mulligan (Summer of ’42, The Stalking Moon, To Kill A Mockingbird) from a sly, morally ambiguous screenplay by then-newbie Eric Roth (Munich, Forrest Gump, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Insider). The plot centers on a “key-man” named Cooper (Jason Miller), who works for a local crime syndicate, and always carries his ubiquitous key chain at all times. His job is to run a group of Los Angeles-based warehouses that house stolen goods, but things get complicated when a real estate deal turns south and local gangsters led by an evil John Hillerman who feel threatened by Cooper’s knowledge of the ins and outs of the various illegal activities. Before he knows it, someone has been sent to kill him. But who? And why? Roth’s script is clever and shifty, never giving up its full hand until the final moments, and it must be said that Miller’s ability to convey pensive, sullen, broken-down alpha males was truly signature.
The film is more about its tense atmosphere and the anxiety that Miller projects as an actor than it is about anything else; his underplayed performance rests in his eyes and body language and the way his sullen face is captured within the frame. The Nickel Ride was shot in 2.35:1 widescreen with a love for shadows and darkness by legendary cinematography Jordan Cronenweth (Blade Runner, Cutter’s Way, Altered States, Rolling Thunder) and features a low-key musical score from Dave Grusin (The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Three Days of the Condor, Oscar-winner for The Milagro Beanfield War). The Nickel Ride screened at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Palme d’Or before getting lost in the theatrical market with less than a $2 million domestic gross. The film is available on DVD as a double feature with the outlandishly entertaining John Frankenheimer oddity 99 and 44/100% Dead from Shout! Factory, and would easily fit the bill for a great night of 70’s crime cinema where you never can truly guess how things will end up.