Assassination: Cutter’s Way (1981)

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By Scott Ross

There are movies, specifically American movies, so original, and so richly observed, they defy easy categorization. This is both a virtue and a weakness; however high the critical fraternity may rate the film, if the studio that financed it can’t figure out a marketing strategy for an increasingly bifurcated niche audience, the picture can be doomed. Just as frequent, however, are those cases where a filmmaker has the ill luck to have his movie released during a management shake-up. (Terry Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen is a paradigm.) It does the new regime no honor if a picture championed by the outgoing mogul is admired, or even popular. Easier to throw a minimal ad campaign at it, give it a perfunctory release, and then pull it at the first opportunity. Of Cutter’s Way its director, Ivan Passer, later noted of the almost criminally negligent manner in which United Artists dumped the picture on the market (and would have killed it entirely had not a few prominent reviewers gotten behind it): “You can assassinate movies as you can assassinate people. I think UA murdered the film. Or at least they tried to murder it.”

Passer’s choice of words is not without irony — probably intentional — since Cutter’s Way is concerned with a murder of a teenage girl, committed by an insulated, wealthy Santa Barbara magnate, who expects to get away with it. But that encapsulation is itself inadequate, because the picture is both more and less than a thriller. It’s a downbeat meditation on specifically American themes, as intimate and emotionally wrenching as Passer’s earlier, equally striking (and similarly dismissed) depiction of junkie life, the woefully under-seen Born to Win of ten years earlier.

I was about to call the motivations of the John Heard character in Cutter’s Way quixotic, but it occurs to me that his literary antecedent is not the Don of La Mancha but his dark American doppelgänger, mad Captain Ahab. Alex Cutter’s white whales are, first, the war that lost him an arm, a leg and an eye, a season in Hell his close friend Richard Bone avoided, and that Cutter cannot help but carry with him; and, second, the untenable notion of bringing down the insulated, indifferent killer through blackmail. His battle wounds have left him bitter and alcoholic, two words which also describe his wife “Mo” (Lisa Eichorn), although she at least does not pick bar fights under the protective cloak of being physically crippled. Bone (Jeff Bridges), for his part, drifts not on vodka fumes but on a sea of irresponsibility and whatever he can cadge from rich, wealthy older women for his services — themselves deficient, if the comments of the woman he’s leaving as the picture opens (Nina Van Pallandt) are any indication; she hands him a wad of cash with the advice that he buy some vitamin E with it. During the opening reels, you may be forgiven for thinking that you don’t think you can bear spending an hour and fifty minutes with these three. But as the implications of the precipitating event Bone witnesses become clear, so too do these seemingly unpleasant characters’ individual and collective despair.

Cutters-Way-1981-11

Cutter (John Heard) and Mo (Lisa Eichorn) in a typical moment.

Cutter seeks an annealing act of heroism to mitigate his pain (you can be angry at a war, but you can’t hurt it back); Bone’s first impulse is to run from complication; and “Mo”is too beaten down, and depressed, to fight back any longer, except with her words, which (if you’ll pardon the unintended play on words), when she wants them to, cut straight to the bone. And if this sounds unrelievedly bleak, like a contemporary take on O’Neill, it may illustrate why Cutter’s Way had such difficulty finding an audience; it’s hard to condense in a few words, and can seem deathish in the description. It isn’t. The characters — and the characterizations by the movie’s three leading actors — are so rich as to militantly defy concise encapsulation.

Seen from a 21st century perspective, Cutter’s Way (and here it must be said that the original title Cutter and Bone, taken from Newton Thornberg’s eponymous novel and rejected by UA, is a far better one) feels like one of those achingly longed-for relics from another world. Although it was filmed and (barely) released in the early 1980s, it’s a vivid remnant of ’70s filmmaking, concerned less with flash than with the messy, ungovernable interactions of actual, as opposed to idealized or cut-out, people, and with that essential which Faulkner once observed was the only thing worth writing about: the human heart in conflict with itself. The picture’s screenwriter, Jeffrey Alan Fishin, felt that Thornberg’s book was un-filmable, half of which he felt was “an instant replay of Easy Rider.” Since I have not read the novel, I cannot judge what Fishin stripped away, or invented, but his script as filmed could scarcely be improved upon. He gets to the heart of the matter more quickly, and more concisely, than a more verbally-inclined scenarist could, and what’s spoken carries a weight, even in Alex Cutter’s self-consciously literary-minded, drunken smartass quips. As with Alan Sharp’s terse dialogue for the Arthur Penn-directed Night Moves (1975), to which this movie is a spiritual cousin, there isn’t a word wasted or a gesture over-emphasized. It’s the kind of concision that marks the difference between hackwork and art, even minor art, and Cutter’s Way seems to me in most ways major art indeed.

Cutter's Way - Stephen Elliott

Stephen Elliott as the killer: The ostentatious banality of modern evil.

Cuter’s Way is one of those movies of the period that made many people wonder who Jeff Bridges had to fuck to get the respect he deserved. For a long time, many of us considered him the best young actor of his generation… and then the best middle-aged one. As Bone, Bridges never broods. You get the feeling it’s never occurred to him; he takes everything, even injustice, as it comes, with a nonchalance that is as dangerous in its way as Alex Cutter’s explosive overreactions. Heard, who was likewise a critic’s darling but, unlike his co-star, never managed to sustain a high visibility, is tough to take at first. Gutteral, snarling, raspy-voiced and unapproachable, he nevertheless lets you see just enough of Cutter’s anguish to make you squirm. Alex is a suicide who lacks the conviction to pull the trigger. As “Mo,” Eichorn too may cause you to think a major acting career stalled somewhere along the journey, through no fault of her own; she turns sadness into an art form. Arthur Rosenberg deserves more than a mention as Cutter’s adoptive brother. His sweetness and solicitude toward Alex, not explained until the movie is nearly at and end, is born of a sense of responsibility alien to both Cutter and Bone, yet absolutely genuine, making his seeming betrayal of them nothing less than a hope for, if not redemption, at least the avoidance of catastrophe.

CUTTER'S WAY (1981)

Bone’s epiphany: The face he couldn’t recall when pressed suddenly materializes in a Santa Barbara parade. Hitchcock would have made a fetish of this sequence; Passer frames it not as The Great Reveal but as the initial clearing of a jumbled mind.

My only cavil with Cutter’s Way, aside from that dopey title and the way the murdered girl’s vengeful sister (Ann Dusenberry) gets abandoned as the narrative races to its wrenching conclusion, is Jack Nitzche’s dreary musical score, a variation on his atmospheric doodling on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, glass harmonica and all. Jaws and Star Wars may have heralded the end of personal moviemaking in this country, but at least they brought orchestral composition back from its penny-pinching banishment.

One of the most striking aspects of the picture is Jordan Cronenweth’s sumptuously muted photography. I don’t pretend to know how he attained that warm, earthy palette, nor how he maintained the largely deep-focus imagery that so enriches this picture, but his work here stands with the great cinematographic achievements of the era. And Passer, who never had a major hit in this country, had an unerring sense of the movie frame; you see exactly the right image at any given moment, and you can’t quite imagine how its casual rightness could have been bettered. More important, Passer had a deep feeling for the people in his pictures, and saw them as they were, without editorial judgment. It may be argued that his view of the rich was jaundiced, but, it seems to me, never inappropriately. The rich are different; they almost never get caught.

Ivan Passer

Ivan Passer

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

Postscript
I have now read the Thornberg book, which I’ve had for years in my library, and understand exactly what Fishin meant. I won’t explicate his remark in case you’ve not seen the picture or wish to read the novel (always assuming you can find a copy, which is no sure bet) but Thornberg’s denoument is far more ironic and despairing than Fishin and Passer’s, and the personal ante along the way is upped considerably, and rather horribly, by Cutter and Mo’s having a toddler in the house. It seems to me, after reading the Thornberg that Fishin deserves even more credit for the artistic success of the picture than I’ve already afforded him: He not only removed the narrative impediments and sense of climactic déjà vu; he turned Thornberg’s device on its head for the movie’s affecting final moments. The screenwriter’s solution is no less striking, even shocking, than the original author’s, and is far more emotionally satisfying. As with the final page of the novel, the movie’s ambiguity concerning the central crime remains tantalizingly unresolved, right up to the last, chilling, line of dialogue.

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