‘The Nickel Ride’

Tom Doty Times Columnist

December 13, 2013

A low-level gangster struggles to make a business deal while grappling with paranoia in this offbeat and excellent crime drama.

The 1970s were a fabulous time for the movies, as a new permissiveness allowed filmmakers to experiment with established genres. This flick follows two days in the life of a thug named Cooper, who has fallen out of favor with his bosses and longs for a simpler life. His girl, Sarah, is as devoted to him now as she was when they met working carnivals in the 1950s, but she knows something is going on.

The story follows Cooper as he tries to arrange a string of warehouses to receive the mob’s stolen goods. His immediate superior, Carl, is looking over his shoulder. Worse, he is expected to school a new hire, Turner, but is positive that he is actually grooming his own replacement.

The problems don’t stop there. A boxer refuses to take a dive, the cops are stalling over how big a payoff they should get for looking the other way on the warehouse deal, and to top it all off , it’s Cooper’s birthday.

Coop works out a deal with the police force’s bag man to meet at a lakeside hotel in the country. He and Sarah head out to the lake for some peace and quiet before the meeting with the cops, but things only get worse.

The cop never shows up, but Turner does, convincing Coop that his fears are all too real. Turns out, the cops aren’t interested in the price that Coop can afford to pay them. They want more money than the mob wants to pay. To top it all off, the boxer refuses to lay down and winds up costing the mob money. Coop is unable to intervene and he knows that his fate will be no better.

He wisely gets Sarah on a train and tries to salvage the situation by meeting with Carl. His fears are temporarily dispelled by the boss man, but Turner is still lurking around every corner and Coop knows that the mob never forgets a screw-up that hits them in the wallet.

This is a grim picture. Coop appears dour and doomed from the start. He has accepted that things are going to change for the worse and is going through the motions.

What makes it all interesting is the focused direction of Robert Mulligan. He is best known for “To Kill a Mocking Bird,” but this film deserves some love, too.

Mulligan assembles a fine cast. Jason Miller (Father Karras from “The Exorcist”) is perfect as Cooper. He plays Coop as a stillwater with some deep-rooted anger. The moments where he vents his rage are volcanic. The scene where he tears apart a gloating gangster in a tight elevator is worth the wait after watching his slow burn over the course of the story.

Linda Haynes steals the rest of the movie as Sarah. She was a talented performer who always livened up edgy dramas like this and “Rolling Thunder.” Here, she plays a devoted spouse who is wise to Cooper’s criminal dealings, despite his belief that he has shielded her from it. Sadly, she left acting to become a legal secretary. Our loss.

There is also a subtle and earthy soundtrack from Dave Grusin that underscores the action, but never calls attention to itself.

This is a true testament to the idea that crime doesn’t pay. The ending is exactly what you’d expect from a nihilistic 1970s drama. This is realism at its cinematic best, with characters reaping exactly what they sow.

The good news is that you get a second 1970s crime drama here called “99 and 44/100 Percent Dead.” This one is more flashy and rocks excellent visuals and a fine turn by Richard Harris as a hired killer brought in to settle a power struggle between two gangsters. It’s a perfect snapshot of the crime drama genre circa the 1970s.

Best line: “Wait here. Pretty soon, a bus will come along. Get on it. Be real polite.”

1974, rated PG.