Nickel Ride / 99 and 44/100% Dead

Directors - Robert Mulligan, John Frankenheimer

Cast - Jason Miller, Linda Haynes, Richard Harris, Edmond O’Brien

Country of Origin - USA

Discs - 2

MSRP - $19.93

Distributor - Shout Factory

Reviewer - Bobby Morgan

For their latest double feature DVD set Shout! Factory has done film buffs a great service and given two oddball entries into the annals of 1970’s American crime cinema from the 20th Century Fox catalog their digital debut, the first of which has never been available on video until now. The thematic threads that link these two films share are thin to the point of transparency, but for me this odd couple represents one of the overlooked home video events of 2011.

 

The Film: 4/5

 

THE NICKEL RIDE (1975)

 

To the average unsuspecting citizen Cooper (Jason Miller) may look like a man of no distinction, but to the Los Angeles criminal underworld he’s a very important man. Cooper is the syndicate’s “key man” - the individual who holds dominion over the various warehouses where the city’s criminal element prefer to stash their ill-gotten gains. He has managed to cultivate a comfortable lifestyle with his sweetheart Sarah (Linda Haynes) and easily commands the respect of his friends and colleagues, including Harry (Lee De Broux) and sweet-natured bartender Paddie (Victor French). But deep down Cooper knows his best days are behind him and he can’t get the job done to the satisfaction of his soft-spoken boss Carl (John Hillerman) the way he once could. To this extent Carl compels his key man to work with Tuner (Bo Hopkins), an affable cowboy type with a mouth that rarely closes and a finger perennially close to the trigger. Under tremendous pressure to secure a new warehouse for the syndicate’s personal use from an unwilling seller Cooper’s mental stability slowly unravels and Carl begins to wonder if his formerly dependable has become a liability to his organization, one that the mysterious Turner may have to deal with as only an armed cowboy knows how. 

 

I first read about this movie nearly a decade ago as one of those forgotten minor classics of cinema that Quentin Tarantino is constantly professing his love for. Armed with a heavier pedigree than your typical drive-in double bill bottom half The Nickel Ride still managed to get lost in the deluge of high voltage action pictures that flooded theaters in that brief but memorable era where the major Hollywood studios temporarily surrendered control over to a new generation of filmmakers bred on the American film classics of the golden age but also on the various emerging cinema movements in Europe that told stories that were often packed with amazing visuals but never neglected to give their audience compelling characters and stories and dialogue that rang true. The Nickel Ride has its roots in the classic film noirs of the post-war era where morally ambiguous individuals were pulled into situations beyond their control and often paid with either their lives or at the very least their souls. It’s also the kind of movie that could have only been made at a major studio during the years before Jaws and Star Wars transformed the cinematic landscape and relegated intimate, slow burn character studies like this movie to fighting for funding from independent producers and boutique releasing companies.

 

Having watched The Nickel Ride recently I can see why it’s regarded as a lost classic by those lucky enough to have seen it in the almost four decades since it was barely released to theaters. This is a fantastic movie that shows remarkable craftsmanship in every area. The story reads like a classic crime novel with well-drawn characters, meaty dialogue, and a plot that depends more on the mindset of its lead character than the machinations of a hungry young screenwriter with their nose perpetually buried in a Syd Field book. The pedigree on this movie reads like the IMDB listing for what should have been hailed as one of the great unsung films of any decade: Robert Mulligan, the classical filmmaker who filmed the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, directed from a script by future Oscar-winner Eric Roth. Cineastes hear Roth’s name and scoff because he was the screenwriter who adapted Forrest Gump and was also responsible for writing such egregious wastes of celluloid such as The Postman, The Horse Whisperer, and The Concorde: Airport ‘79 (the latter a longtime favorite of the Razzies). But he also wrote such amazing films of recent years like Steven Spielberg’s Munich and Michael Mann’s The Insider and is an executive producer on the upcoming HBO series Luck, so the man deserves a little break. Jordan Cronenweth, who got his start on Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud and would later work on Rolling Thunder and Cutter’s Way, was responsible for The Nickel Ride’s gorgeous dark cinematography, and Lawrence G. Paull served as the film’s art director. It’s interesting to note that both Cronenweth and Paull would later play major roles in the crafting of the classic 1982 sci-fi thriller Blade Runner. Editor O. Nicholas Brown would work his cutting room magic on several minor 20th Century Fox films but seemingly retired from the industry after working on 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You. With a masterful director and first-rate writer technical crew working behind the scenes The Nickel Ride has a unmistakable mood and texture that makes you feel like a part of the world the characters inhabit. At times I saw similarities between this movie and the recently released Drive, including a pivotal confrontation in an elevator with a sudden blast of violence that sets the events of the third act in motion as Cooper must secure his future in the organization, or face his destiny.

 

Pulitzer Prize-winning actor and playwright Jason Miller never reached the status of movie star like his fellow unconventional leading men Jack Nicholson and Gene Hackman despite practically owning every scene he had in the movie that was supposed to make him a household name, The Exorcist. It’s a damn shame he never did because Miller has to be one of the most underrated actors of our time. There’s nothing phony or show business about his face, voice, or personality; the man is one of the few authentic actors to have ever worked in film. His performance in The Nickel Ride is one of his absolute best. Looking like he could have walked out of an old crime drama from the 1940’s. When Lee J. Cobb said to Miller’s character in The Exorcist that he looked like John Garfield he wasn’t kidding. He makes Cooper a genuine three-dimensional character, an old pro in the twilight of his life who realizes he’s nothing without his work.

 

The other noteworthy performance is from Bo Hopkins, the lanky and unassuming actor who rose to prominence in the films of Sam Peckinpah. Playing Turner, the cool-header killer whose agenda may or may not involve taking out Cooper, Hopkins turns on the cowboy charm and still manages to etch out a portrait of a figure of icy malevolence hiding behind a Stetson and an “aw shucks” grin. The film’s supporting cast is small but bursting with fascinating acting turns from performers best known to audiences for their extensive television, like John Hillerman (Magnum, P.I.) and Victor French of Highway to Heaven and Little House on the Prairie fame (I didn’t recognize him without his famous beard he would sport in his television work). Linda Haynes, the sexy exploitation stalwart who livened up classic B-movies like Coffy and Rolling Thunder with her amazing presence and sensuality, is note perfect as Sarah, the most important person in Cooper‘s life. When she’s on-screen you really understand why the key man would go travel to Hell and back just to keep her happy and safe. Haynes retired from acting after appearing in the 1980 Robert Redford prison drama Brubaker and is now working as a legal secretary in Florida.

 

The final moments of The Nickel Ride really make the movie a true achievement in cinema. It elevates a simple but effective crime story into the realm of Greek tragedy. You might just shed a tear for Cooper in the end. This is a movie to watch, absorb, and treasure.

 

99 AND 44/100 % DEAD (1974)

 

A large-scale turf war has just broken in a major unnamed city between two rival gangs respectively headed by the aging Uncle Frank Kelly (Edmond O’Brien in his final performance) and the hotheaded young turk Big Eddie (Bradford Dillman). To tip the scales in his favor Uncle Frank summons his best hit man Harry Crown (Richard Harris) to take out Big Eddie and end the war. Crown isn’t the best in the business for nothing and soon after getting the assignment he’s already made his presence known to Eddie and his goons. But when Harry’s new girlfriend Buffy (Ann Turkel) becomes a target needless to say this shit gets real. With the help of wannabe gangster Tony (David Hall) and his spacey gal pal Baby (Katherine Baumann) Harry sets out to bring the war to Big Eddie big time. 

 

Directed by John Frankenheimer (Ronin, The Train) from a screenplay by Robert Dillon (Prime Cut, Muscle Beach Party), 99 and 44/100 % Dead is in every possible way the polar opposite of The Nickel Ride: brash, loud, vulgar, goofy, and borderline incoherent. It is also one of the greatest wastes of potential I have ever witnessed in a movie. After a dazzling opening credits montage of pop-art visuals and a brilliant introductory sequence where we’re introduced to an underwater graveyard the mob uses to dispose of their enemies that resembles a wax museum of the damned and then immediately plunged into an intense car chase where more rounds of ammunition are discharged in the span of a few seconds than in the entirety of Die Hard, the movie settles down into being a routine gangster picture with modest action beats punctuating endless scenes where larger-than-life characters mostly stand around doing or saying stupid things and wasting valuable screen time. Rarely have I seen a movie so willing to abandon its ambitions for greatness and become another ordinary action flick so fast. The real shame is that all the elements were in place for a wild and unique crime yarn that stood in stark contrast with the more downbeat genre pictures prevalent throughout the 1970’s (including…ahem….The Nickel Ride) from the very beginning.

 

Richard Harris is one of a small handful of great modern actors who could look almost as dignified when slumming it in a turgid studio picture for a hefty movie star paycheck. So it’s no surprise that the best parts of this movie are owned by him lock, stock, and whiskey barrel. Harris is turning in a real action hero performance here, the same kind of self-satisfied, winking-at-the-camera star turn that would later become the stock-in-trade for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis, only he happens to sport infinitely more acting talent than his higher-paid peers. As Harry Crown he is all detached cool and suave charisma; in a way this could be Harris’ way of demonstrating how good he could be when given an iconic role to play such as James Bond. He’s also the best actor in the cast. Everyone else is either rotten or merely going through the motions, as the case is with Edmond O’Brien. Before his death in 1974 O’Brien was one of American cinema’s reigning character acting titans having portrayed such memorable characters as the boisterous newspaperman Dutton Peabody in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and the aging outlaw Freddie Sykes in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. But as Uncle Frank in 99 and 44/100 % Dead O’Brien is given precious little to do but bark out orders while sitting in cars and behind desks. Given that the actor had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for several years by the time he played Uncle Frank he can’t be expected to give anything resembling a worthwhile performance so it’s commendable that O’Brien can muster up some of the old spark that drove his greatest acting triumphs from time to time. In any case his very presence is a welcome sight.

 

The rest of the cast don’t fare as well. Ann Turkel was a relative newcomer to acting when she appeared in Frankenheimer’s film, and oh brother does it ever show. I’ve never been familiar with Turkel’s work as an actress outside of Humanoids from the Deep but when her flat acting style is coupled with a voice that resembles a dial tone cranked up to top volume the result is a dull and unmemorable performance. Her cause isn’t helped by having to play a character who, much like every female character in the film, is little more than a piece of eye candy who exists solely to be a damsel in distress. Bradford Dillman of Escape from the Planet of the Apes and the original Piranha acts like he’s huffing nitrous oxide between takes of his few scenes. Next to Harris only Chuck Connors looks like he’s having any fun as Big Eddie’s chief henchman “Claw” Zuckerman, but his character is quickly tossed by the wayside after being set up as a potential threat to Harry’s life. When Harris and Connors finally meet at the end for their inevitable showdown it’s less epic and more anti-climatic. When I put this DVD in I had hoped to tell my grandchildren that I was witness to a historic donnybrook between Dumbledore and the Rifleman. Alas those hopes were crushed, much like any expectations I had going into 99 and 44/100 % Dead.

 

At least the movie makes for a fun but forgettable watch and the occasionally inspired production design by Herman Blumenthal and Henry Mancini’s funky music score stand out amidst the dreck. Plus it moves fast so the movie is over well before you may get annoyed with it, but that depends entirely on you.

 

Audio/Video: 3/5

 

The DVD package erroneously lists both films being presented in an anamorphic widescreen ratio of 1.78:1 when in fact they’re actually 2.35:1. Despite the packaging goof-up both transfers are solid with suitable amounts of grain in the picture. The picture quality is backed by strong Dolby 2.0 stereo tracks. No subtitles are provided.

 

Extras: 1/5

 

The only extras on both discs are theatrical trailers for The Nickel Ride and 99 and 44/100 % Dead. There aren’t even chapter selection features. Way to drop the ball Shout. I expect better from you.

 

Overall: 3/5

 

With the exception of a stunning lack of extras this latest double feature set from Shout! Factory is one of their finest under-the-radar DVD releases of 2011. I would recommend buying it just for The Nickel Ride, but you might have some fun with 99 and 44/100 % Dead as well.