Cinematically speaking, anything could happen in the 1970’s. Anything at all. If someone was crazy enough to dream it up, there was an above-average chance that it could get made with a decent budget and some name actors. Prime Cut is a delightful example of this principle in action. Gangster action, comic book plotting, sly humor and a heaping helping of pop surrealism collide in a one-of-a-kind tale that is capable of pleasing grindhouse buffs and fans of American satires alike.
The plot starts with an oddly lyrical title sequence that suggests a man is being turned into beef products at a meat-packing plant. In Chicago, the local crime bosses dispatch tough-guy Nick (Lee Marvin) to Kansas City. That town’s crime syndicate, run by the ironically named Mary Ann (Gene Hackman), has stopped sending their dues to the syndicate and is bumping off anyone sent to collect. Nick takes a small gang to Kansas City and discovers a bizarre scenario where Mary Ann and his cronies are hatching their own empire of apple-pie criminality. Nick rescues hooker-to-be Poppy (Sissy Spacek) and demands Chicago’s share of the action, prompting a uniquely rural showdown.
The finished film could have been an over-the-top disaster in the wrong hands but Prime Cut plays beautifully because it presents its eccentric storyline in a matter-of-fact style that enhances its potency. Robert Dillon’s clever script is filled with believable tough guy talk and criminal behavior but also effectively satirizes these elements by plunking them down in an out-of-character down-home setting: one striking image shows drug-addicted prostitutes being displayed in cattle pens. It’s also full of quotable dialogue, particularly the moments where Mary Ann explains his take on criminal affairs using farming-term metaphors.
Prime Cut also benefits from stylish, confident direction by the underrated Michael Ritchie. This comedy specialist might seem an odd choice at first for something so rooted in tough-guy action but it makes perfect sense when one considers he was making fantastic satires of American society during the 1970’s in films like Smile and The Bad News Bears.
Prime Cut‘s rich vein of crime-as-all-American-business satire works beautifully under Ritchie’s guidance and the film’s moments of outright comedy shine thanks to his light touch: the best is a wordless sequence where Nick treats Poppy to her first ‘civilized’ dinner while a horny diner looks on. The director’s work is aided nicely by gorgeous scope photography from Gene Polito and an energetic musical score by Lalo Schifrin that bends genres as much as Dillon’s script.
Best of all, Prime Cut boasts excellent performances across the board. Lee Marvin handles the tough-guy stuff with effortless ease and also gets to show off a great knack for comedy, popping off one-liners with flawless timing. Gene Hackman makes a perfect villainous foil for Marvin, playing his crime boss as an overgrown country boy eager to prove his mettle by taking on all comers.
There is also some nice work by Sissy Spacek, stunningly gorgeous and doe-eyed here, as the hard-luck girl that Nick rescues: a moment where she tells her life story to Nick manages to be darkly funny, heartbreaking and quietly moving all at once. Elsewhere, b-movie fans should look for Plan 9 From Outer Space star Gregory Walcott as Mary Ann’s hillbilly enforcer and Angel Tompkins in a memorable turn as a sultry midwest crime operative.
All these elements and personalties make Prime Cut the kind of delicious cinematic oddity that could have only come about in the 1970’s. It’s guaranteed to make you appreciate what a special decade it was for filmmaking.
Blu-Ray/DVD Notes: originally issued on DVD by Paramount, later reissued on blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Both are worthwhile options with strong transfers. Sadly, no extras on either besides a trailer on the blu-ray.