|'); document.write(''); //-->|
Attention young men: have a girlfriend with conventional tastes, who you'd like to break up with? Tell her you want her to see your favorite movie about male-female politics. Then show her Michael Ritchie's corn-fed gangster tale Prime Cut. Your relationship will be over, all right, and it'll be her idea.
The talented (and erratic) Michael Ritchie made a definite positive contribution to film culture in the 1970s. His most celebrated films are varied and insightful. The Robert Redford vehicle Downhill Racer is about a glamorous athlete who is also a selfish creep. The Candidate is another Redford show about an idealistic politician forced to compromise by the very process of campaigning. The marvelous Smile is a humane and non-condescending look at the compromised people that run a beauty pageant. Michael Ritchie earned this reviewer's lasting respect when I read a quote by him in an interview, perhaps around 1982:
"Most of us don't have lives any more, we have lifestyles."
Michael Ritchie was one of those rare directors unafraid to carry a concept out to its logical end, no matter who might be offended. His second feature Prime Cut is an undeniably gross gangster movie that packs a surfeit of purposely, pointedly taste-challenged non-PC content. In 1972 studios had a number of shocking films in mainstream release: Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange, The Devils. "Old folks" looking for traditional entertainment could be expected to have a negative reaction to the rougher scenes in Deliverance as well. From the posters Prime Cut looks like an action crowd pleaser, and its stars Lee Marvin and Gene Hackman had a large and admiring female audience. I saw the picture at a theater on an Air Force base, so I didn't hear about the walkouts that reportedly plagued screenings attended by unprepared 'civilian' audiences.
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 meat packing magnate Mary Ann (Gene Hackman) -- either that, or kill him. Mary Ann and his sadistic brother Weenie (Gregory Walcott of Plan 9 from Outer Space) 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 what looks like a livestock auction - except that the merchandise consists of naked under-aged girls offered for sale into sexual slavery and prostitution. Assured that he'll get paid the next day, Nick seizes a girl 'on account'. She's Poppy, a naive orphan raised for just this fate (Sissy Spacek). Nick doubts that Mary Ann will pay and prepares his three-man Chicago hit squad for 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 come 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 Kansas wheat belt. Screenwriter Robert Dillon's minimal characterization and cartoonish exaggerations are nowhere near as annoying as in his later gangland spoof, John Frankenheimer's abortive 99 and 44/100% Dead. Yet this picture still requires the considerable charisma of Lee Marvin and Gene Hackman to stay on the rails.
Robert Dillon's gallery of nasty, violent characters starts with the disgusting Weenie, whose opening tour of the meat packing plant surely inspired some conversions to vegetarianism. The whole enterprise is played for fun but we never know whether to laugh or flinch. The auction scene uses female nudity for shock effect more bluntly than anything seen before in Panavision and Technicolor. Totally convincing as a fifteen-year-old, the delightful Sissy Spacek is introduced to the screen in a scene that today would make most self-respecting actresses shrink in horror. This 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. As limp as a rag doll, the best she can do is whisper "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. 1
The film's message comes through loud and clear: American business ethics have already (in 1972!) defaulted to an everything-is-for-sale setting. "Mary Ann" packages girls the same way he handles meat -- he raises them in corrupt orphanages before shipment to market. It's absurd, ugly and pornographic... but I also wouldn't doubt that somebody would try to do it, as long as there's a buck to be made. Sex slavery, or at least indentured sex servitude, is commonplace in some Asian countries, and we hear of labor slaves right here in Los Angeles. That's the radical imperative: if society chooses to ignore this sort of obscenity, then more power to a film director that hijacks a "light entertainment" format to shock people.
Then there's the other way of looking at Prime Cut, which is that the "new freedom of the screen" permitted by the ratings system allows filmmakers to shove a lot of unpleasantly crude content at audiences. And Ritchie and Dillon don't hold back. We quickly realize that something pink in the meat-processing equipment is actually a man being ground up into hot dog paste. The tainted links are pulled off the assembly line by Weenie, a muscle-bound moron forever cramming meat into his mouth. Mary Ann's empire of vice seems to be an open secret. His trophy wife Clarabelle (third-billed Angel Tompkins) knows all about his rotten business, and doesn't mind because it keeps her living a life of luxury. 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. American movies have frequently satirized rural farm culture as indicative of everything hypocritical in society, but Prime Cut takes this attitude to a nasty extreme.
The gangland aspect of the film holds few surprises. Lee Marvin's ultra-cool Nick is a variant on the standard invulnerable action hero. He isn't fazed by any of Mary Ann's outrages and soon finds a way to help Poppy out. In fact, nobody seems particularly concerned about any of the outlandish events in Prime Cut. No questions are 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 was raised in an unspeakably corrupt orphanage. When she awakens in Marvin's suite she's like Dorothy Gale arriving in a new borough of Oz. The woman from the orphanage said she's be going to someplace with '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 nubile innocent (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 leers with his shark-like smile. The movie wants to hold the whole rotten country by the heels and give it a good shake ... but for what, exactly? Prime Cut puts its subversive content front and center, and then presents the spectacle of Spacek as a completely gratuitous thrill. 3
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 wheat harvester that chops up a limousine as if it were made of paper. These satirical touches more than strain credibility, and some of the most agreeable scenes lack much of a point. Angel Tompkins' greedy modern moll Clarabelle is a nymphomaniac. Having already fleeced Hackman's Mary Ann, she tries to entice Nick into her bed in an oversexed scene worthy of a Penthouse pictorial. Nick's response is to untie her houseboat and let her drift downriver. "What are you doing!" she screams. Nick replies, "I'm sending your ass to Missouri!"
Prime Cut works best whenever the unexpected happens. Leaving Chicago with a backup killer barely out of his teens, Nick has their car stop at the kid's house so he can bid his mother goodbye. The violence is swift and exaggerated, like an action comic book. But the machine gun assault on Mary Ann's farm and the shoot-out in his livestock pens is standard stuff, without a particularly memorable ending. The film's main attraction is its sheer nerve, its willingness to play fast and loose with some fundamentally transgressive ideas.
Lee Marvin and Gene Hackman are solid in their two-dimensional roles, although only Marvin is given direction that allows him any nuances of character. Most of these amount to brief moments of feeling that flash across his face, interrupting long stretches of 'casual indifference.' The movie reminds us how tough it must have been for an actress in the '70s, when so many female parts amounted to playing a 'naked babe' in some director's sex fantasy. I imagine that more than one actress considering the Poppy role finished up by throwing the script across the room in disgust. Spacek may have taken advice from her cousin Rip Torn, but it was she who made the unpromising Poppy character so memorable. She's the best thing in the movie, and she impressed enough people that she never had to play that kind of character again. 2
Explosive Media's All-Region Blu-ray of Prime Cut is a fine HD transfer of this feature originally released by Cinema Center Films and National General pictures. A DVD came out in 2005 from Paramount but this looks far better. Cinematographer Gene Polito's sunny cinematography shines. Some of the film's best images are in the moody car trip from Chicago to Kansas City.
The German disc is listed at Region B, but is actually 'Region Free' or 'All Region' and plays on ordinary American-sold Blu-ray players.
If released a few years ago Prime Cut might have encountered trouble with claims of rampant misogyny. I can see a lot of people, and particularly women, being deeply offended by the picture. Today however, I think it would just sail by. The information overload coming at us from all directions makes singling out any one item seem pointless. Yet something in Prime Cut still sets it apart from truly exploitative movie junk. A great many big-time pictures these days can't really make that claim.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Prime Cut All-Region Blu-ray
Glenn: Regarding your statement I don't remember Prime Cut being shown on broadcast television. If it ever was it must have been radically re-edited.
There was a (formerly) independent station on Long Island that until fairly recently was the last local broadcast channel in these parts to air a weeknight late movie. Their selection of syndication titles was sort of interesting and unexpected -- some recent, some vintage -- but the strangest group of films the station kept running over and over were the Cinema Center Films pictures. The channel would run Rio Lobo at the drop of a hat, of course, but also almost all the others -- With Six You Get Eggroll, Little Big Man, Le Mans, Scrooge, The War Between Men and Women, Big Jake, The Revengers, The April Fools, Monte Walsh, Something Big, The Reivers, A Man Called Horse, the two Peanuts features and... Prime Cut.
Prime was, er, shredded for broadcast, but the station didn't have one of those new-fangled digital transfers that allows an editor a censor the ability to artfully blur and obscure portions of the frame. No, this meant most shots that included Sissy when she was wearing the particularly diaphanous outfit were absurdly zoomed... but not all of them. [The film's action sequences are kind of incoherent to begin with; the cuts are extensive, but they don't necessarily make the scenes more unintelligible.] Best, Always. -- B.
2. Actually, the girlfriend I took to see Prime Cut in 1971 accepted the exploitative extremes at face value - for her, Sissy Spacek's personality as Poppy made the film worth sitting through. I thought my girlfriend was going to blame me for the pervasive nasty content (I can't be alone in this) but there were no negative romantic consequences. (Remember that when I say 'pervasive nasty content' I'm referring to the standards of 1971.
3. I mark the 1990 film Thelma & Louise as the turning point in American movies for sexual gender alignment. Most everything before that picture was directed as a male sex fantasy, fetishizing the female body and seeing screen sex as a voyeuristic reward for the male eye. In the Ridley Scott movie Geena Davis and (even) Susan Sarandon's bodies are almost taken for granted, while the focus of lust is on studly Brad Pitt. Almost from that point forward, actresses with any level of clout don't undress in pictures, while men do all the time.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.