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Prime Cut

Prime Cut
1972 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 86 min. / Street Date June 14, 2005 / 14.99
Starring Lee Marvin, Gene Hackman, Angel Tompkins, Gregory Walcott, Sissy Spacek, Janit Baldwin
Cinematography Gene Polito
Art Direction Bill Malley
Film Editor Carl Pingitore
Original Music Lalo Schifrin
Written by Robert Dillon
Produced by Kenneth L. Evans, Joe Wizan
Directed by Michael Ritchie

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
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 16, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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