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The Nickel Ride/99 and 44/100% Dead (Double Feature) (DVD Review)

19 Dec, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Shout! Factory
$19.93 DVD
Rated ‘PG’
Stars Jason Miller, Richard Harris, Edmond O’Brien.

Whenever DVD box art slaps something as impersonally generic as “Action Double Feature” in larger typeface than the respective movies’ titles, you naturally expect the result to be a pair of 1947 John Ireland ‘B’-melodramas about insurance fraud taken from scratchy 16mm prints. But, no: this two-fer highlights not only a pair of 20th Century-Fox/DeLuxe Color productions from, say, the Average White Band era — but a duo that’s even from name filmmakers: Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird)  and John Frankenheimer. For director-oriented completists, you can’t say the price isn’t right for a playbill where the Mulligan contribution turns out to be the more assured of the two yet less entertaining than its slipshod companion (which gets a “BOMB” rating in Leonard Maltin’s guide).

The Mulligan is 1975’s The Nickel Ride, a decidedly un-slick underworld mood piece that fell in the director’s career between The Other and the early Richard Gere showcase Bloodbrothers. Though this modestly distributed slow-burner got generally dismissive reviews, I have a nagging memory way back in the brain that Andrew Sarris was quite its vocal champion at the time. I do know for sure that when the Royal Belgian Film Archive decided to celebrate the following year’s U.S. Bicentennial by polling worldwide filmmakers, film journalists and scholars to determine the most important American movies, Ride picked up three votes in the “Misappreciated” category (a language-barrier misnomer, I’m pretty sure, that was intended to mean severely underrated).

There’s a not uninteresting story idea here. Though I never before thought about it, mobsters naturally have to have large storage facilities to house their voluminous ill-gotten booty — and someone naturally has to manage these structures, just as everyday professional storage businesses provide space for a normal person’s lesser holdings (e.g. grandma’s old Reader’s Digest Condensed Books).  Jason Miller, coming off his splash in The Exorcist, plays such a guy — with the quiet authority of an actor and Pulitzer-winning playwright who in real life had the seeds to be (for a while) Jackie Gleason’s son-in-law.

But rounding up space large enough to be termed “the block” (and also paying police protection) isn’t as easy as it used to be for Miller’s character, who doesn’t quite have the finesse (or wind, in one elevator fistfight) of older days. He’s full of self-doubt over whether he’ll be able to pull off the assignment, and 'C'-list subordinates he’s being asked to work with keep getting in the way and to his burgeoning paranoia. One of these is a cowboy played by the singularly dim Bo Hopkins (a favorite actor of my ex-wife’s, and I’ve never been able to figure out just what this signifies). And in this role, Bo fits the description in both senses: he not only dresses like Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy but is also prone to march to his own tune in ways that don’t facilitate sleep at night.

The result is a little more interesting around the edges than down the middle: Miller is convincing in his disintegration, and there’s a fairly credible though unusual romantic relationship of opposite types: middle-aged hood and a Southern fresh-face played by Linda Haynes. Despite a bleakness that even extends to the urban exteriors (though not the couple’s brief wood-sie vacation), some of the images stay in the mind even though the film is all but stillborn dramatically. The cinematography, turns out, is by the late and great Jordan Cronenweth, when Cutter’s Way, Blade Runner and Stop Making Sense were all in the future.

Co-feature here is Frankenheimer’s tone-deaf but not unwatchable gangland oddity 99 and 44/100% Dead (1974), which I suspect is a title that only market-tested well with a certain demographic. Chronologically, it followed the director’s 4-hour American Film Theater epic of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, which he once called his best movie (and I would agree, with The Manchurian Candidate probably excepted). The ballistic mayhem here must have constituted a vacation from that remarkable but claustrophobic play’s wall-to-wall rummies, and there’s definitely a tossed-off feeling to this onetime drive-in natural, which is both a selling point and limitation. Yet the real selling points are a couple chance historical curiosities.

For one thing, Richard Harris and his 6-foot knockout co-star Ann Turkel met while filming and were married before Dead’s release. This pretty well means that someone was having a grand old time once the cameras stopped rolling (as in I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight — from the mega-dud movie of Camelot where Harris played Arthur). Before their divorce, both performers went on to star together in 1979’s Ravagers, which, as far as I know, is the only post-apocalyptic movie ever to have featured Art Carney.

For another, Dead was the last movie to feature the great character actor Edmond O’Brien (looking kind of shaky here), who at some point in the remaining decade of his life developed Alzheimer’s disease. O’Brien plays a gangster kingpin in the midst of an urban gang war against a younger contemporary played by Bradford Dillman (an actor who did excellent work in Cometh but is mighty broad here). This was still a few years before Dillman began doing the unforgettable hair restoration TV commercial (it’s in my video archives somewhere) that began with him sitting by a mirror in some backstage dressing room when some lackey comes by and yells, “Five minutes, Mr. Dillman”).

There’s an arresting shot early on (and then repeated at the end) of a gangster burial ground at the bottom of the river (read: cement shoes). Because these guys mean business, O’Brien brings in protégé Harris to clean house, though you do have to wonder from his body language in one atrociously staged fight scene just how many hoods are going to quake from his mere presence. Harris’s casting as a character named Harry is possibly (or not) an homage: glasses make him look a lot like the young Michael Caine in the early trio of Harry Palmer spy pics. There’s also a good-girl version of a bad-girl played by an obscure actress cute enough to have made me look up her credits, only to find she was a former Miss Ohio; also Constance Ford as a brothel madam named Dolly (which means that Harris gets to say, “Hello, Dolly” when greeting her); and some alligators in a sewer that Frankenheimer doesn’t bother to exploit much.

Of all things, Turkel’s character is an elementary school teacher (does the school board know the kind of thugs with whom she’s keeping company?). This leads to the actress’s likely status as the top looker in screen history ever given a scene driving a school bus. Ken Kesey, the Merry Pranksters and the rest of the crew profiled by Tom Wolfe (and also this past summer by Alison Elwood and Alex Gibney in the new-to-DVD Magic Trip) probably missed a bet when recruiting her as one of their cross-country colleagues.

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