Cutter's Way Review

Santa Barbara, the late 1970s. Alex Cutter (John Heard) lost an arm, a leg and an eye in Vietnam. He now spends his days drinking and cursing the fat cats who sent him off to fight their war while they stayed at home. The same could be said of Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) who works for George Swanson’s (Arthur Rosenberg) yacht business but earns some money as a gigolo servicing the bored wives of potential buyers. Third in the triangle is Cutter’s wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn) who stays at home and drinks. Bone is attracted to her but the feeling isn’t mutual.

Then one night, Bone comes across a man, wearing sunglasses, dumping a murdered woman’s body in a trashcan and driving away. A few days later, Bone and Cutter watch a street parade and Bone recognises the killer… It’s oil tycoon J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott). Cutter and Bone are determined that Cord should pay for his crimes.

This film is based on a novel by Newton Thornburg called Cutter and Bone, and it was under that title that it opened in early 1981, to poor reviews and no box office. However, some late rave reviews inspired United Artists’s Classics division to relaunch the film for arthouse audiences under its present title, a move which paid off with respectable audiences and a solid and continuing cult following. In the UK it had a short cinema release in early 1982 but has been out of circulation for nearly a decade until this DVD release, and TV showings have not been plentiful. A pity, as this is one of the finest, if most undersung, American films of the early 1980s.

Cutter’s Way is a film that marked an ending rather than a beginning. Though chronologically of the 1980s (just), in spirit and style and narrative technique it’s very much a 1970s film. Also, with one notable exception, neither the director nor the principal cast have done anything approaching this level again. Cutter’s Way features a crime, but it’s not a mystery: we know who the killer is early on. It’s not a thriller: there’s little action and no-one dies on screen. It’s really a character drama, involving complex and not always likeable people. Bone, as Cutter often reminds him, won’t commit himself – not to the many women he has sex with, not to any cause he believes in. Cutter’s Way shows how Bone does find commitment, and the film’s seemingly abrupt and open ending becomes perfectly appropriate in that light.

Although Jeff Bridges is the one principal who has continued to build up a considerable body of work in the quarter-century since this film was made, Cutter’s Way does bring to an end a remarkable near-decade that began with The Last Picture Show, one against which his career will probably always be judged. Bridges has never been a “false nose and makeup” actor: he’ll always look and sound much the same from film to film, while subtly conveying a different characterisation in each one. Here, he wears a moustache and is trim enough to look alarmingly like a 70s porno stud, which given his character here, is not an inappropriate comparison. Jeffrey Alan Fiskin’s script explicitly alludes to Hamlet – another famous commitment-phobe – and behind the slick veneer (not to mention a fair amount of self-loathing) you can sense that commitment finally coming into place.

If Bone is a Hamlet figure, then presumably Mo is Ophelia and I guess Cutter is Horatio. At the time, John Heard was a highly promising actor, standing out in comedies like Between the Lines and Head Over Heels (aka Chilly Scenes of Winter, another film rescued by UA’s Classics division). This is his finest work on screen. He has an admittedly showier role than Bridges – disability and all – but he inhabits this character, from the scraggly beard, eyepatch and rasping voice. It’s a great pity that within a decade he was playing second-fiddle to Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone. Although he continues to work to this day, nothing he’s done since has had the same impact.

Lisa Eichhorn had made an impression in Yanks and The Europeans and she is on stunning form here as the neglected and increasingly alcoholic Mo. It’s a wounded beauty she exudes here, and you can see exactly what holds Cutter and Bone to her. Hers is a much smaller role than the two men’s, but it’s equal in impact. But her career seemed to stall almost as soon as it began, and she’s worked mainly in TV since.

As for Ivan Passer, he began his career in his native Czechoslovakia as the writer of Milos Forman’s A Blonde in Love and The Fireman’s Ball. I haven’t seen his Czech feature directing debut Intimate Lighting (1966) which is highly rated by some. Since following Forman to the USA, his work has been middling at best, with much of it latterly on TV. Cutter’s Way is so much in advance of anything Passer has directed before and since that it seems the work of a different man.

Jeffrey Alan Fiskin’s script is full of the kind of literate dialogue and character shading that you rarely see nowadays. I’ve mentioned the Hamlet allusions, but notice such things as Mo’s reference to Cutter as “her champion on a white charger” and see how that pays off towards the end of the film. It’s a pity that Fiskin hasn’t worked very often since either, though one of his produced scripts was the 1990 Revenge, a much cruder variation on the vengeance theme. However, his work on Cutter’s Way is fine, and adds to a compelling atmosphere that’s enriched by Jordan Cronenweth’s camerawork and Jack Nitzche’s score, based on glass harmonica and zither. In the supporting cast, Stephen Elliott conveys considerable menace with just his physical presence: he has no dialogue until the final scene, though his last line is tremendous. On the other hand, Ann Dusenberry, as the dead girl’s sister, can’t do much with an underwritten role which is more a plot function.

Especially in Britain, Cutter’s Way is a film known about more by reputation than actual opportunities to see it. Although this DVD is the usual bare-bones MGM back-catalogue job, anyone interested in fine acting, in character, and 70s/80s American cinema should pick it up straight away.

Cutter’s Way is transferred to DVD in the original ratio of 1.85:1, anamorphically enhanced. Picturewise it’s very good, the transfer coping with some fairly darkly-lit scenes, though perhaps shadow detail and black levels could be better. It’s a little soft in places too, but these are minor quibbles as generally it’s quite acceptable.

The soundtrack is the original mono, in English and in four dubbed versions. There’s not much to say here, as the film is dialogue-driven for the most part and certainly doesn’t need an all-channel workout.

There are the usual (for MGM) sixteen chapter stops and a range of subtitles. The disc is encoded for Regions 2 and 4. Being an MGM disc, there is the usual symbolic menu design, despite a choice of five language options.

There are no extras, not even a trailer. Given the film’s cult following, and the fact all the principal cast and crew (apart from Cronenweth and Nitzche) are still alive, you might think that MGM would have arranged a commentary or interviews? No such luck. That’s a pity, and I can’t see a Special Edition being a high priority somehow, so in the meantime buy this DVD, especially as it can be had quite cheaply.

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