Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The talented and erratic Michael Ritchie has been celebrated for films as varied as Downhill
Racer, Smile and
The Candidate. His second feature is this rather gross bundle of gangsterism and
politically uncorrect content. Robert Dillon's cartoonish script uses female nudity for shock
effect and offers a host of nasty, violent characters; the whole enterprise is played for fun but
we never know whether to laugh or flinch.
Lee Marvin and Gene Hackman are solid leads. The delightful Sissy Spacek is introduced to the
screen in a part that today would make most self-respecting actresses shrink in horror.
Chicago hit man Nick Devlin (Lee Marvin) is hired for $50,000 to go to Kansas City
to retrieve $500,000 in mob money owed by Mary Ann (Gene Hackman) - either that, or kill him. Mary Ann
and his sadistic brother Weenie (Gregory Walcott) have already eliminated three emissaries, turning
the last into a bundle of sausage links. Nick comes on strong
and finds Mary in the middle of a livestock auction - only the day's stock are pens of naked
underaged girls being sold into sexual slavery & prostitution. Told he'll get paid the next day,
Nick takes a girl 'on account' - Poppy, a naive orphan raised for just this fate (Sissy Spacek).
Nick doubts Mary Ann will pay and gets set for more trouble. Weenie takes a personal interest in
one of the girls, Violet (Janit Baldwin), who happens to be Poppy's sister. Nick Devlin is no knight
to the rescue, but that's exactly how Poppy sees him.
Prime Cut is a crazy satirical action thriller eager to tar America as a land of vacant
yahoos bossed by greedy gangsters; we're invited to cheer on Lee Marvin's Nick, even though he's
an old-fashioned killer sent by the Chicago mob to maintain the status quo down in the wheat belt
of Kansas. Screenwriter Robert Dillon's minimal characterization and cartoonish exaggeration are
nowhere near as annoying as in his career-stunting 99 and 44/100% Dead, yet it takes the
considerable charisma of Marvin and Gene Hackman to keep this
picture on the rails.
For a while we expect that director Michael Ritchie has a subversive game going - establish a good-old
gut-thumping action thriller with plenty of macho violence, and then pull the rug out from under
the audience to reveal something inherently sick with an America that worships greed, sex and plenty
of 100% prime beef. But the only effect of all the unpleasant content is to keep us off balance, and
provide exploitative thrills.
The new freedom of the screen allows Ritchie and Dillon to shove a lot of unpleasantly crude content
in our faces. We quickly realize that something pink in the meat-processing equipment is actually a
man being ground up into hot dog paste, happily pulled off the assembly line in link form by Weenie,
a musclebound moron who is forever cramming meat into his mouth. A county fair right out of Picnic
or State Fair goes merrily on its way, with 5,000 gullible hicks indifferent to the fact
that a running shotgun battle is being waged in their midst.
The central shockeroo is a cattle show featuring not cows but beautiful young women, drugged and lying
in hay stalls while dozens of buyers mill about and consider their bids. Sissy Spacek makes her filmic
entrance as Poppy, totally nude and practically unconscious, whispering "Save me" to Marvin's slick
gangster. I don't remember Prime Cut being shown on broadcast television. If it ever was it must
have been radically re-edited.
Marvin finds a way to help Poppy out, but he isn't fazed by any of Mary Ann's outrages. In fact, nobody
seems to be fazed by any of the outlandish events in Prime Cut. No questions asked when Marvin's
helpers carry the limp Spacek into a swank hotel; it's assumed that the place caters to hoods from out
of town. Spacek awakens in Marvin's suite like Dorothy Gale arriving in a new borough of Oz, the one
where the woman from the (unspeakably) corrupt orphanage she came from said there would be 'handsome
men, loving her all the time.'
Another key scene takes place a hotel lunchroom attended by swanky old squares. Marvin walks in with
Spacek wearing an almost completely see-through gown. Being a clueless innocent who knows no better
(a persistent male fantasy, for sure), Spacek is proud to see the various biddies turn to stone, while
the men stare - at least until Marvin returns their leering with a sharklike smile. The point seems to be
that his whole rotten country needs to be held by the heels and given a good shake ... but for what,
exactly? Prime Cut never chokes out a coherent message.
Marvin puts Spacek's Poppy back into jeopardy and does little to help her sister Violet, who becomes
the victim of a gang rape one step removed from the roughest of ugly exploitation fare. Disturbing
scenes like that alternate with cute jokes about a milk dispenser in the form of a cow, or a giant
harvester that chops up a limosine as if it were made of paper. Very little is believable. Even
when the movie is fun, it seems to lack a point, as in Marvin's encounter with the greedy modern moll
Clarabelle (Angel Tompkins). She has already fleeced Hackman's Mary Ann and entices Nick into her
bed in an
oversexed scene worthy of a Penthouse centerfold; Nick just unties her houseboat and 'sends her
ass to Missouri.'
The gunfight ending and a quizzical finish don't make Prime Cut any more satisfying. Sharply
directed, it operates on some kind of interior logic that doesn't entirely communicate. It's a violent
comic book, as empty-headed as the latest thrillers like, say, Sin City. Unlike that show, it
has the courage to play with some fundamentally transgressive ideas. What
the movie reminds us of now is how tough it was in the 70s for an actress to find a role that didn't
ask her to be the 'naked babe' in some director's sex fantasy. Ms. Spacek must be one level-headed
and tough-minded actress.
Paramount's DVD of Prime Cut is a movie originally produced by Circle Center and owned by CBS.
The enhanced transfer makes Gene Polito's sunny cinematography shine. Some of the film's best
work is in the moody car trip from Chicago to Kansas City.
The generic big-star big-action packaging doesn't give a clue to the show's raw content - an "R" rating
today might refer to some language or a fleeting 'sexual situation,' but if Prime Cut were a
new movie, it might not get a release at all. I can see a lot of women - conservative, liberal or just
plain rational - being deeply offended by the picture. There are no extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Prime Cut rates:
Movie: Good but likely to offend many
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 16, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson