ON THE NICKEL. Rose’s Park Productions, 1980. Donald Moffat, Ralph Waite, Hal Williams, and Penelope Allen. Written and directed by Ralph Waite.

   I hate to review, much less rave about, a movie this hard to see, but I just watched it again last night, and enjoyed it so much I had to share it.

   Or perhaps “enjoyed” isn’t quite the right word….

   Writer/producer/director/star Ralph Waite gets top billing, but Donald Moffatt carries the film (and most of the cast at one time or another) as Sam, a recovering alcoholic who helps an old drinking buddy (Hal Williams) get into a mission shelter on LA’s skid row (5th Street, called “the nickel” by its habitues.) and goes in search of another former crony, the elusive “CG” (Ralph Waite.)

   Sam’s search slowly morphs into a bizarre odyssey, by turns nostalgic, monotonous, and horrifying, as he revisits the people and places of his old life and rediscovers the appeal of a nomadic, bombed-out life, and the oppression, freedom, friendship, and dependency that come with it.

   As you may have gathered, this is a complex film. It’s also a very moving one, played to perfection by actors who look and speak like genuine derelicts. Penelope Allen in particular gives a truly moving performance as a mentally impaired street-dweller with a smile that embraces all of humanity – and two shopping carts that contain her worldly goods.

   Amid all this, Ralph Waite’s showy performance as the flamboyant “CG” fits in very well indeed, with quiet moments of reflection followed by fits of the DTs and a powerfully done moment as he sees his approaching death (called “the Pillow Man” for reasons shown later) and reacts with a totally bizarre and convincing air of startled detachment — or maybe just numbed surprise.

   I was disappointed by a comic interlude toward the end, but that may be just a personal thing. There are those who find the whole film funny. The ending as it stands is curiously upbeat — or at least it tries to be, but it’s hard to dispel the poignant ninety minutes that preceded it.

   So what we’ve got here is a remarkable film in many ways. It’s also practically impossible to see. On the Nickel doesn’t show up on any of the streaming services, and the DVD is rather pricey if you can find it at all. For me, it was a lavish birthday present, and one I’ll revisit.