Saddled with a generically high-octane-sounding title, Shout! Factory’s “Action Double Feature” DVD set is actually a solid study in contrasting approaches to neo-noir, featuring a pair of 1974 obscurities that strongly personify the anxious tenor of the decade they were made in while shedding intriguing light on the careers of their respective directors.
In the tautly downbeat The Nickel Ride, Robert Mulligan offers his own version of the creeping urban paranoia that would become the specialty of his former producing partner Alan J. Pakula in Klute and The Parallax View. Positing shady operations as a business rapidly going corporate and impersonal, it focuses on Cooper (Jason Miller), an ex-carnival carny who now hangs out at Los Angeles taverns, fixes fights, and keeps downtown warehouses replete with mob contraband. In the underworld totem, he’s strictly middle-management, a slumped holdover from the days of macho bravado who nevertheless hangs on to a thread of taciturn self-respect largely thanks to his “cracker wife” Sarah (perennial “Whatever Happened To?” case Linda Haynes, a sort of thrift-store Sissy Spacek who can imprint a whole blowsy lifetime into the way she shimmies her hips).
Cooper’s ornery individualism puts him at odds with his boss (John Hillerman), who brings in a grinning “Cadillac cowboy” (Bo Hopkins, affably sinister) to follow him around. A couple of botched deals further cement the protagonist’s suspicion that he’s about to be taken out by his superiors, leading to a short-lived interlude with Sarah at a woods cabin—the sun-dappled yin to the big city’s murky yang. Usually a meek craftsman with a soft, oatmealy touch, Mulligan here immerses himself into a netherworld of thugs, loudmouths, and fuck-ups, where interiors are full of devouring shadows and every rundown location brims with hushed menace. (Noir seediness and desperation also drain the sap out of another maudlin auteur, future Forrest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth.) It can’t match the formal precision and sustained tension of Pakula’s best work, but The Nickel Ride’s portrait of an outsider finding himself face to face not only with murderous enforcers but also with his own outmoded lifestyle leaves an indelible, pungent aftertaste.
If The Nickel Ride showcases a director meticulously building on the genre, 99 and 44/100% Dead finds another curdling it. The tone of John Frankenheimer’s scabrous crime comedy is established early, as jaunty ragtime music tinkles while the camera dives beneath the New York City harbor to find an underwater commune of dumped corpses. The setting is a gangland war between a leathery capo (Edmond O’Brien) and a giggling upstart (Bradford Dillman), with hitman Harry Crown (Richard Harris) caught in the bullet-riddled middle. Taking a cue from the pop-art opening credits, the film proceeds as a hyperbolic comic book full of baroque digressions that range from shootouts set above vats of acid to alligators snapping in the sewers to Chuck Connors’s claw-handed thug, who terrorizes call girls by replacing his missing arm with knives, shearers, and whips. (That we’re somehow spared a Kentucky Fried Movie-style dildo-appendage joke is perhaps this patchy film’s solitary instance of restraint.)
Dismissed as Frankenheimer’s worst film when not forgotten altogether, 99 and 44/100% Dead makes the most sense as a deliberate act of self-sabotage by a filmmaker grown bored and contemptuous of the “action specialist” label bestowed upon him. How else to account for the larky sadism of characters shot down, blown up, and hurled into dumpsters, or the fact that the hero’s shaggy and bespectacled appearance is closer to Take the Money and Run than to The Ipcress File? Following a string of artier, critically ignored pictures (from The Gypsy Moths to The Impossible Object), Frankenheimer treats his return to secret agents and car chases with half-camp, half-surreal derision, exaggerating and debasing each trope. “A cigar doesn’t care who smokes it,” Harris’s professional killer says at one point. Is that Frankenheimer’s oblique confession as an artist for hire? He’d stage a comeback the following year with The French Connection II, but this revealing curio lingers as a purposely ugly genre critique that makes Joseph Losey’s Modesty Blaise look fluffy by comparison.
The Nickel Ride’s somber tones and 99 and 44/100% Dead’s cartoonish surfaces are both well served by Shout! Factory’s sturdy anamorphic transfers, even if noticeable amounts of grain creep into the former’s dark interiors. The audio tracks (hushed for Robert Mulligan, raucous for John Frankenheimer) are clear and punchy.
Original theatrical trailers comprise the only extras.
A solid pair of neo-noir obscurities personifies the anxious tenor of the 1970s while shedding intriguing light on the careers of their respective directors.