In Los Angeles, California, Cooper (Jason Miller, The Exorcist), a small-time crook, works as the “Key Man” for the mob; the person who literally holds the keys of warehouses used by the mob to hide stolen goods. The business is booming and more warehouses are needed and Cooper promises his bosses that he has a plan to acquire more space. Cooper must deliver on his promises because his very life depends on it.
Reaction & Thoughts:
D. H. Lawrence once said, “the essential American soul is hard, stoic, isolated, and a killer.” There’s a grain of truth in that statement. But because we (subconsciously?) tend to associate these characteristics with men, not women, I feel that American movies tend to present, if not explicitly at least implicitly, masculinity as an ideal. Noir movies, more than any other film genre, reflect post-war American anxieties about manhood. In later years, mere anxiety has turned into full-blown paranoia.
This (real or false) “male identity crisis” is at the heart of The Nickel Ride, a superb character-driven thriller. Fear of emasculation is one of the most interesting traits of the modern noir hero, and director Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird) and writer Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) explore this theme insightfully and intelligently.
“Without the job, I’m nothing,” Miller’s Cooper says to his girlfriend, and that’s the key (no pun intended) to his character. Cooper has conflated himself with his job. But his struggle has an additional competent, one that makes the character so interesting. Cooper’s job is a symbol of his masculinity. The keys are cunningly presented as symbols of power, standing in community, strength in his household, even virility. Attempts by various characters to deprive him of the keys are perceived by Copper as a form of emasculation. His attitude also supports the film’s idea that the city is a concrete jungle where only the toughest, most aggressive predator survives.
Jason Miller gives a superb performance as a man who is becoming aware that he has outlived his usefulness. Miller was an acclaimed playwright until The Exorcist turned him into a much-sought after actor. I’m glad to see that The Exorcist was no fluke; he is so good here that I’m now surprised that he didn’t have a bigger acting career. The excellent cast includes Linda Haynes (Rolling Thunder) as Miller’s girlfriend, John Hillerman (Higgins in TV’s Magnum P.I.) as a local mafioso, and Bo Hopkins (American Graffiti) as Hillerman’s smug henchman.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
I’m a bit embarrassed to say that I had never heard of this film until this week, when it showed up late at night on cable TV. The moment I saw Mulligan’s name, a director I tend to like, I got my snacks and sat comfortably in my recliner. What a great thing it is to discover such a wonderful film by chance! The Nickel Ride is a little gem; one of the most interesting neo-noirs I’ve seen in a long, long time and therefore highly recommended. Color, 99 minutes, Rated R.