The Nickel Ride is a seldom-seen drama of white-collar workaday criminal drudgery to make you believe the best of ’70s cinema will never fully be quarried out. Jason Miller plays a mob middleman whose grip on the square block of downtown L.A. he’s held down for 19 years is slipping, harassed by insomniac hallucinations and Bo Hopkins’s strappin’ “Cadillac cowboy.” The atmosphere is one of musty hallways, sour stomach, and looming late middle age with no retirement plan in sight.
The director, Robert Mulligan, was a Bronx Irish boy, graduated from the live television drama of the ’50s. When he died last December, The New York Times‘s obituary-of-record gave a cautious, perfunctory estimation-Lincoln Center’s lovingly curated series gives a fuller idea of what we lost.
Mulligan’s profile was highest in the decade following his AFI-stamped masterpiece, 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird, screenplay written by Horton Foote (who passed just this month). Foote suited the director’s parochial sense of setting; their ’65 reunion, Baby the Rain Must Fall (killer title), came with Steve McQueen honky-tonkin’ through the small-town South Texas of Foote’s youth (and a hot Elmer Bernstein theme). Mulligan’s most important collaborator, though, was producer Alan J. Pakula; they last paired on a 1968 Gregory Peck Western, The Stalking Moon, a sustained overland chase through a detail-perfect old Southwest, ratcheting up suspense without a careless word, cutaway, or composition.
The Wild Bunch arrived months later; Mulligan’s geographic clarity, the blocking and modulation of shadowplay in his spelaean interiors, soon seemed antique subtleties. He was increasingly judged a purveyor of cautious quality pictures, his storytelling so lucid it could be dismissed as simple. He wasn’t interested in clarifying or cultivating his Name Above the Title myth-appropriate, as Mulligan’s best movies are committed to expressing things unsaid. He favored characters who were uncertain, thin-skinned, and even innocent-to use a word that isn’t exactly fashionable unless in scare quotes. This meant a tin ear for humor, and the jabbering virgins in his soft-edged bildungsroman flashback Summer of ’42 are every bit as grating as the hushed aftermath of discovered S-E-X is affecting.
The best case for reappraisal is his culmination, 1991’s The Man in the Moon, which gave Reese Witherspoon her first and best role as Mulligan’s last kid-star, a pubescent Louisiana girl living through the beginning of Presley’s reign. Its silent sense of familial allegiances, Southern summer’s school’s-out idyll, and young people’s translucent inner lives recall Carson McCullers (Mulligan had staged The Member of the Wedding for CBS in 1958). A swimhole, dirt driveway, screened-in sleeping porch, and back gate are among the few locations; each changes resonance with every revisit. In lesser hands, it would be young-adult fiction, but the coda-“Maybe life’s not supposed to make sense”-is anything but kid stuff.