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Hipster Holy Grail: The Nickel Ride (1974)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

The Nickel Ride is grim, fatalistic, and slathered with depression like a layer of cement.  It's also one of the best movies I've seen this year.  If you're looking for some classic '70s nihilism to punch you in the face and bring you back to reality after a day of Marvel movies, check this one out.

My Rating: 5 / 5

The Plot Summary

Today I bring Michael Crichton month to a close with... something he wasn't involved with in any possible way.  Huh?

Well, here's the deal.  Turns out I already burned all my leads on Crichton-associated movies that have less than 1,000 IMDb ratings earlier this month.  Say what you want about his capabilities as a filmmaker, the guy had a Midas touch.  Even his lesser-known movies like Runaway or Looker or Coma are all pretty-well remembered and have followings that are too big to be called "cult movies."

So today, I had to fudge it a bit.  Here's the connection.

Back in 1974, producers David Foster and Lawrence Turman (who previously produced The Graduate and would later go on to produce both The Thing and Caveman, proving they were married to neither genre nor quality) were looking for their next big movie.  Thinking it could be a hot property, they optioned Easy Go, the first novel Michael Crichton ever wrote (although it was the third to be published).

The plan was for Crichton himself, fresh from Westworld, to adapt the screenplay and direct it himself.  It would have been released in 1975 under the title, "The Last Tomb."  The movie never got made; Crichton worked on The Terminal Man instead and Foster and Turman invested their money in The Drowning Pool.

So how does The Nickel Ride factor into it?  Simple.  The Nickel Ride was the movie Foster and Turman were working on at the time that Easy Go was optioned.  In other words, this was the movie that provided the context for what could have been an adaptation of Crichton's first novel.

Is it a tenuous connection at best?  You bet.  But seeing as how I've got nothing better that fits the bill for a Hipster Holy Grail entry, we'll go with it, anyway.

The Nickel Ride is, more than anything else, a character study of Cooper (Jason Miller), an aging mid-level criminal who works for Carl (John Hillerman), a local boss.  Cooper is one of Carl's most trusted employees and basically spends a lot of his day-to-day life managing properties and keeping things locked up.  His official title seems to be "key man," a term I hadn't heard before this movie - so, either I'm just naive and that's a thing, or it's a nickname he got because he carries a giant friggin' key ring everywhere he goes.

Anyway.  Lately, Cooper's been integral to getting "The Block" set up.  The Block is a string of warehouses that Cooper has secured for various gangs to store all the crap they've been stealing.  In the first few minutes, a working-class grunt at one of the warehouses describes it as the "Grand Central Station of the underworld" - or at least, it will be, once it finally goes active.  Cooper has succeeded in getting the properties under his control, but nobody's actually able to use them yet because he's still working out a deal with all the bosses who are interested.

You get a sense right away that this has been a long time coming and nobody really seems to believe The Block is ever going to become active.  The movie opens with a mobster type trying to stash some hot goods in The Block, and he's immediately shooed away by a worker there who tells him that Cooper's not allowing it - not yet.  The mobster stands down, but then openly and casually comments about how The Block is a fantasy and if it doesn't open for business soon, it'll be the end of Cooper.

Really, he should wear one of those Greek drama masks and look at the camera while he says it, maybe accompanied by a chorus.  But, hey.  It's as good a way as any to introduce tension in the first five minutes.

When we cut to Cooper, we see him talking on the phone with another mid-level mobster, Elias (Bart Burns).  Elias is working with Cooper on finalizing The Block and has been in charge of setting up meetings with other bosses and getting them to agree to a deal.  Elias is a nervous wreck, but promises he'll have things wrapped up soon.  Cooper agrees to meet him at a barbershop a bit later to get an update.

Briefly we're introduced to Sarah (Linda Haynes), Cooper's girlfriend, who seems to be mostly innocent and unaware of the finer details of Cooper's business, but definitely knows he's up to shady things.  They kiss and say their goodbyes for the day, and Cooper heads off to make the rounds.

He starts, as it seems he usually does, by sitting out front of a bar operated by his buddy Paddie (Victor French) and waiting for the doors to open.  Paddie is another middle-aged dude who, like Cooper, has gotten so used to his daily grind that he can't really get out of it, but doesn't seem all that content with the life he's chosen.  He gripes about how he hates his bar, but he's happy to greet the morning with Cooper and they have an amiable drink together.

Then Cooper's off to work.  You see him doing a lot of mundane, vaguely crime-flavored things - he processes some paperwork, he does some accounting, he tells a boxer that he needs to take a dive during a match tonight, he meets with clients to broker some fixed bets, etc.  Throughout it, Cooper has a pretty distant aura about him.  He's present in what he's doing and you get the idea that he's good at his job - but whatever appeal there might have been in this kind of life has long since died, and Cooper just looks tired and annoyed.

And that's basically the crux of The Nickel Ride.  There is a plot, sure, and I'll keep recapping it as it goes - but the plot's not the point.  It's a movie about malaise and disappointment.  The movie is not shy about taking detours from the narrative to give you stoic glimpses of quiet suffering.  Nobody is happy except maybe Carl, the guy at the top of the pyramid, and maybe Sarah, a young outsider.  Those who are in the game and have been for ages - Cooper, Paddie, their buddy Paulie - have all reached a point in their lives where they realize they've screwed up and have nothing much to look forward to.

It's such a sullen cloud that it sinks the surprise party that Paddie and all his regulars have put together for Cooper - you realize about half an hour in that the movie's actually taking place on Cooper's birthday, and the weight of another year hangs heavy on his shoulders.  They'll sing and eat cake, sure, but the whole affair is packed with barely repressed rage.  Briefly there's a glimpse of happier times when Cooper goes to a back room in Paddie's restaurant and has a quiet dinner with Sarah, where they share anecdotes of more optimistic times.

But then the plot interrupts, and the mood takes a turn for the worse.  It starts with the introduction of Turner (Bo Hopkins), a new, cowboy-esque enforcer that Carl has hired.  Carl wants Turner to shadow Cooper for awhile and learn the ropes, but Cooper's not too pleased; Turner is chatty and his over-friendly, southern-ish style clashes with everybody else's working class, inner-city gruff.

Things then escalate quickly and violently when Cooper's friend, Paulie, is beaten (and possibly killed) off screen for being unable to pay a gambling debt.  Then Cooper gets in a fight with Bobby (Richard Evans), one of Carl's favorite mooks (and possibly a nephew or something), ostensibly because he thought Bobby was going to try to shoot him.  And then, as if his day hasn't been bad enough, Cooper gets bad news from Elias - it seems the deal with the other bosses is about to fall through.  They want more cash and Elias isn't sure how to close the deal.  Elias tells him that he's set up a big meeting with everybody out in the mountains in a couple of days, and Cooper agrees to go and join him for the final negotiations.

This lays the groundwork for a healthy dose of paranoia.  Turner keeps showing up at every corner with a greasy smile, and any time Cooper asks why he's there, Turner says he was sent by Carl.  Cooper suspects he's being tailed and has a feeling he's about to get killed, so he starts carrying a gun with him and keeps eyeing everybody suspiciously.

Cooper packs up for his trip to the mountains and Sarah comes with him, hoping to make it into something of a working vacation.  At times, it kind of is - they enjoy a relaxing trip around a lake and soak in the quiet of a remote cabin.  But Cooper's paranoia keeps growing and he's never able to shake the feeling that Turner's out to get him.

There's some excellent, tense moments that come about because of this.  In one sequence, they come back to the cabin after a day away to find muddy footprints on the floor, and Cooper learns his gun has been stolen.  Cooper skulks around the cabin to find the intruder, but nobody's there.  He brushes Sarah off and leaves her to go buy a shotgun and a new lock for the door.  Later, he practically has a psychotic break when he lives out a vivid dream in which Turner comes to the cabin and shoots Sarah.

But all of this is basically a distraction from the main point, which is that Elias and the crime lords are not showing up at the spot they agreed to meet.  Cooper goes to the meeting at the agreed time and nobody's there.  He calls the city for an update and doesn't learn anything.  He tries to go to an alternate spot and still doesn't get any information.

Defeated, agitated, and fearful for his life, Cooper returns to the city and goes to confront Elias.  Elias softly and quietly admits that he called off the meeting before Cooper even went to the mountains, and Carl already knows all about it.

Cooper rushes to confront Carl at a fine restaurant.  He borderline threatens him, swearing that he's not going to die over this.  Carl very calmly reassures him that things are fine - The Block is still under their control and they'll still get takers for it in the near future.  Nobody's trying to kill anybody, and Cooper should just go home.

Cooper doesn't quite believe it, but he's about at the end of his rope.  He returns to his apartment for a shower and a shave.  And while he's ruminating on another quiet moment of desperation, Turner slinks up behind him with a pistol and opens fire.

One bullet hits Cooper, but it's not enough to take him down.  Cooper lunges at Turner and fights him, getting on top of him and strangling him to death.  Then Cooper gets ready for another day of work, goes to the front step of Paddie's bar, sits down, and bleeds to death.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

Despite this being one of the most depressing movies I've seen all year, I really liked The Nickel Ride.  It belongs to probably my favorite subgenre of crime movie - the kind that presents a criminal life as being full of the same existential dissatisfaction as any other.  Cooper's a fairly successful figure in Carl's business, and yet he's still just a disposable schmuck that Carl can wipe his ass with and forget all about.

I guess it's just the inner socialist in me that likes seeing movies that give you a frank depiction of a truly competitive enterprise.  It doesn't matter what industry or time period, there's always rich bastards at the top and a lot of broken dreams beneath them.  Not that this has to be the case, of course - it's just that if you don't assume that's the default arrangement, you'll end up a depressed old crank like Cooper.

The Nickel Ride is one of those movies where there's a rich plot full of colorful third-string characters who intertwine in subtle and important ways, but you kinda don't need to know any of it to get the point.  This isn't really a movie about the specific crimes or plots that are going on.  It's about the emotional aftermath of a type of lifestyle, and that's something that's relatable and understandable even if you don't totally follow the specifics.

The acting is excellent all around and there are a few cinematic tricks that work beautifully to get under your skin.  At times tense and nerve-wracking, at other times pitiable and heart-breaking, it's an extremely well-made movie that clicked with me from start to finish.

I wish I had more to say in its favor.  A lot of times on this blog, I feel like I write the most about the things I hate, and this week I saw a great movie that I just don't have a lot to say about.  But I guess my brevity might be all the praise I need to give.  The Nickel Ride is simply a solid movie that deserves to be seen.

One Last Bit About Michael Crichton Month

The irony of all this is that I wouldn't have discovered The Nickel Ride, a moving film with a layered and heartbreaking depiction of a three-dimensional character, if I hadn't been trying desperately to make a connection to Michael Crichton, a guy whose works are plagued by the exact opposite.

See, I've always kinda resented Crichton.  The resentment comes from that shallow, petty part of me that hates anybody else who has success, no matter how much they deserve it.  But there's a little more to it.  Crichton has always struck me as the type of guy who succeeded despite himself.  His premises were interesting, sure - but his writing was often dry and flavorless, and his characters were almost categorically uninteresting.

I was hoping that Michael Crichton month would prove me wrong.  I was hoping that I'd discover a glimmer of something deeper that I'd previously overlooked, and that by scrutinizing movies he was intimately involved with, I might pick up on the talent that everybody else saw.  I hoped I might see his early works and go, "Oh, of course, this is why the world decided to give him literally all the money."

But that didn't happen.  Instead, I saw two turds and one okay-if-you-scrape-the-crap-off-the-top thriller.  Then The Nickel Ride walked in.  And almost as if it hadn't been trying, almost as if by accident, as if it just kind of farted out its genius and walked off the elevator to go to its humdrum day job, The Nickel Ride was over - and I was left aghast that I'd stumbled onto something I found so riveting.

It's appropriate, really.  Crichton was never much of a storyteller.  He was just a dork with interesting premises.  The joy in his works has always come from his springboard effect - he'd set you up and you, the audience, would take that crazy idea into all the ridiculous and fantastical places you wanted.  Maybe I didn't get much joy out of his movies this month, but I sure enjoyed where the springboard led me.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

The Nickel Ride is a tough sell as a "hipster" movie.  I can give it an okay amount of cred in the "somewhat obscure movie from the '70s that I've seen and you haven't" sense - let's say 20 points for having under 400 ratings on IMDb and another 30 points as a recommendation bonus - but that's about it.  The cast and crew are all Hollywood regulars, there's nothing about the content that's ironic, and ultimately it's not the kind of movie that you'd go to if you're trying to win a dick-measuring contest about who has the most eclectic taste in film.

It's just a pretty good movie that hasn't been seen as much as it should.  I'll give it 50 hipster cred out of a possible 100 for technical reasons and leave it at that.

Where You Can Watch

The Nickel Ride made it to a double-feature DVD release and copies are readily available.