Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Prime Cut

Sometimes, you see a movie from the 70's that's so strange, so unbelievable, you almost can't believe it's a real movie. If you describe it to someone else, they think you're insane or you're making it up, like when you describe a really weird dream or something. Prime Cut is like a bizarre dream with Gene Hackman in it, and you wake up thinking, "I can't have possibly seen a movie like that...I must have been watching The Package and fell asleep with the TV on, and had a weird dream with Gene Hackman in it." And then this DVD comes out, and you realize that...that was no dream!

It's a ridiculous story that's often funny, but it's not a comedy. It includes a number of exciting big-time set pieces, but it's far too quirky and languid to work as an action film. It stars Lee Marvin, Sissy Spacek and Gene Hackman, but it plays like an odd underground film that opened and closed in a few days. It's pretty offensive, when you get right down to it, but also kind of sweet.

When I say offensive, that's only because the movie frequently makes a direct comparison between women and cattle. Hackman plays Mary Ann, a cattle baron who also works a drug and prostitution ring on the side. This continues the peculiar 70's tradition of giving tough guy villains in the movies girl names. For another example, see Charley Varrick, in which Joe Don Baker's heavy is named "Molly."

Mary Ann's set up is particularly vile and, of course, shown in extensive, almost fetishistic detail. He corrals naked farm girls and orphans, dazed beyond consciousness by heroin, inside a barn to be inspected by potential consumers just like...cattle! And that's not all! When he's angry with someone, a business contact, say, he's been known to murder them, butcher them and turn them into sausages (as we see during the opening credits).

It's this murder of a bagman for the Chicago Mafia that brings Mary Ann to the attention of Nick Devlin (Lee Marvin). Devlin's an assassin, but also a nice guy living by a pretty strict moral code. He comes to town to threaten Mary Ann and try to collect $500,000 owed to the boys in Chicago, but ends up saving a prostitute named Poppy (Sissy Spacek, in her debut, nude throughout almost the entire film) while he's there.

After all that story's out of the way, in the first 15 minutes or so, the film turns into a chase movie, with Mary Ann's goons confronting Nick and Poppy at every turn. Perhaps the most climactic and well-executed action scene involves a wheat field, and a reaper chasing down Nick and Poppy, in yet another attempt to chop them up into little bits (a major theme throughout the film).

It's undeniable that Prime Cut gets some kind of sick thrill out of the very idea of chopping people up into meats, and also the idea of drugging farm girls and parading them around like livestock. I suppose you could look at the film as a vicious satire of consumerism - when Nick challenges Mary Ann about selling these young girl's bodies, he responds that he's merely responding to the demands of the market, that "what they're buying, I'm selling." But really, I think director Michael Ritchie and writer Robert Dillon found the subject matter tittilating and amusing enough to support a tongue-in-cheek, snarky action film.

And it works quite well. The actors are clearly having a lot of fun (even Spacek!), though the final showdown between Hackman and Marvin isn't quite the stunner I was hoping for. The movie really builds up steam in its final act, and I was waiting for some epic, climactic kind of confrontation, and the movie kind of just ends with a whimper. It's fine - and there's a great final gag involving Mary Ann's demented brother Weenie - but not quite the classic capper I had imagined.

Otherwise, Prime Cut is hugely satisfying, just like a good steak, or a night with a junkie farm girl prostitute. You need to see a nice, immoral, whacked-out 70's exploitation film every now and again amongst the classic film noirs and European po-mo experiments. Just to cleanse the palatte.

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