Sunday 21 December 2008

Prime Cut (1972)

Starring: Lee Marvin, Gene Hackman, Sissy Spacek
Music: Lalo Schifrin
Director: Michael Ritchie
Screenplay: Robert Dillon
Director of Photography: Gene Polito

I popped this one in the VHS player not exactly sure what I was going to get. Probably helped that I was hazy as to the plot outline before I watched it – I was expecting some sort of vaguely Point Blank-style hired-killer thriller – because ‘Prime Cut’ certainly skewed some expectations. This is truly a bizarre movie, and I feel a bit bad spoiling its strangeness by spelling it out below. If you want my advice, watch the film before you read my thoughts. It’s best taken unprepared.

The basic facts, then. We have Lee Marvin as Nick Devlin, a hired gun for the Irish mob. We know they’re Irish because of their names: Shaughnessy, O’ Brien, Devlin. In fact, reading the credits is almost as much fun as watching the film itself – listed are such wonderful-named characters as ‘Weenie’, ‘Mary Ann’, ‘Clarabelle’, ‘Ox-Eye’, ‘Farmer Bob’ and ‘Big Jim’. Mary Ann, as it turns out, is actually the main villain, played as repellent (but oddly charming) by Gene Hackman. Hackman is slightly underused, but is on true grinning, slimy, malevolent form (like Popeye Doyle, but on the wrong side of the law, and nastier). The film’s plot is sketchy enough: Marvin’s Chicago bosses want back their money, which former employee Hackman is swindling off them. Off trots Marvin/Devlin, with a couple of other city gangsters, and the city-boys-in-the-country scenario dutifully unravels itself into a series of well-staged action climaxes (with a white slavery sub-plot thrown in for good measure). The first of the big set-pieces, enlivened by some judiciously used hand-held shots, as well as some panoramic sun-baked vistas, begins at a county fair and soon turns into a fast-paced foot-chase, quickly followed by a menacing stalking-by-combine-harvester (with some nice point-of-view shots of the fleeing victims from between the churning blades). Things continue to build, and, before we know it, the climax has been reached: we start off with a shootout in a field of sunflowers (bizarrely enough), involving much hiding behind high vegetation that’s somewhat reminiscent of scenes from westerns like the Burt Lancaster vehicle ‘Apache’ or Sollimas’ ‘The Big Gundown’; the action then proceeds, via a particular destructive truck, to a large barn (the same place in which we’ve witnessed Hackman and Marvin’s first confrontation, and been introduced to the white slavery racket), where we see plenty more gunfire, and more dodging behind things (hay-bales, this time). A truly odd coda follows (and more on that later). But what to make of it all?

Well, few of its characters are well-drawn– it’s a film of few words, concentrating primarily on the sheer oddity of its premises, and on the action of its set-pieces, for effect. There are many unusual and intriguing touches – the climactic battle takes place while a thunder-storm brews overhead, the ominous thunder rumblings sitting nicely alongside gunshots. Full advantage is taken of the unusual location, with set-pieces in corn and sunflower fields. And some of the other things that fill the film make those elements seem pretty tame!

The 70s being the 70s, there are some political undertones, though these are by no means as obvious or heavy-handed as in some other movies of the time: they seem to arise as a side effect of the film’s general weirdness more than being fore-grounded as major thematic strands. Some sort of American dream is being undercut, though it’s a dream already so bizarre that it’s hard to believe anyone would have bought into it in the first place – the sort of thing Norman Rockwell might have thought up if there had been some handy ’shrooms nearby. Basically, this undercut dream boils down to Hackman’s comments to Marvin about being a ‘true American’, during the portion of the fair scene before the chase begins: we see what this involves as he paternally congratulates young kids, raising them into an atmosphere of acquisitive capitalism (giving one kid first prize for the steer he’s bought along, he hands him a wad of cash and proceeds to take the animal away from him. “But he’s a pet!” “Fatten some more up for me,” Hackman shoots back. The kid cottons on. “Want a goat?”) And of course, as the film progresses, we see what else this American dream involves. Meat-eatin’, gun-totin’, salivatin’ – Hackman and his cohorts (the local law enforcement officers included, or so we might judge from a shot in the fairground chase scene) are pretty much the opposite of Marvin’s debonair gangster (“you eat guts” he says with contempt as he encounters Hackman’s character for the first time in the film. “Sure I do,” comes the reply. “I like ‘em!)

While such subversion was common to most genres at this period, it was something which always been particular prevalent in the western, that form where the founding myths of American cultural dominance where both created, celebrated, and ruthlessly questioned. As Bill Harding argues in his fine book, ‘The Films of Michael Winner’ (track down a copy – currently a mere £0.01 on!): “The Western used to be the staple provider of action; now the urban thriller has taken over, and Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman and Charles Bronson personify the excitement lacking in contemporary life.” This might not be strictly true – there were still a fair number of westerns being made in the 70s, with such big stars as Bronson, Eastwood, Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, and the like –(and it wasn’t really until the failure of ‘Heaven’s Gate’ that the death-blow really came). So, at this point in time, westerns were still being made – and good ones at that, mixing their doses of post-Wild Bunch gore and brutality with slightly more complex moral treatments (or, in the case of Michael Winner’s ‘Chato’s Land’, exceedingly problematic ones), as well as much Vietnam-era parallels. In 1972 alone, the year of ‘Prime Cut’, we got ‘The Culpepper Cattle Company,’ a much underrated piece which is probably the best cattle-drive movie ever made, Robert Redford’s mountain-man flick ‘Jeremiah Jonson’, Robert Aldrich’s exploration of atrocities perpetrated both by settlers and native Americans, ‘Ulzana’s Raid’, and the afore-mentioned ‘Chato’s Land’. But, even if I seem to have mentioned Harding’s statement only to knock it down, it does reinforce the point I’m about to make: that ‘Prime Cut’ is, in some ways, a western in gangster dress. The inexorable build-up to a climax of righteous gunfire, the American-Dream-subversion, the idea of outsiders wreaking havoc in a corrupt and hostile community – yup, ‘Prime Cut’ is basically a western.

And it shares some westerns’ idea of violence as being, more often than not, a good thing – or the best solution at the time. Marvin is shown as completely justified in the final action he takes – as with Peckinpah, we relish the climactic confrontation, because the villains are so unbelievably depraved. Think ‘Straw Dogs’ (another western in modern dress), where you’re willing on Dustin Hoffman to dispatch those Cornish yokel nasties in unpleasant ways, just as you’re willing on Marvin to blow away the Aryan/dungaree-wearing/white trash yokels of ‘Prime Cut’. At least it’s not as salacious in its violence as Peckinpah – in fact, the violence is relatively restrained, in terms of actual blood and guts, perhaps more so than it feels, given the film’s lurid (in a deadpan sort of way) atmosphere. (On a side note, one could trace a kind of ‘anti-pastoral’ strain in films from this time – Straw Dogs, Open Season (starring Peter Fonda) and of course Deliverance).

So, redemptive violence: that’s morally dubious reservation number one. Did I mention the exploitation element? The whole white slavery plot element, while not as salaciously handled as might have been, does result in a fair number of nude shots with their fair show of objectification. Sissy Spacek, in her movie debut, is pretty much there to be ogled (by viewer as well as white slavers) – let’s say she plays wide-eyed wonder and infantile trust, with boobs. As with much of the movie, though, this is pushed to the limit – the film tests its own audacity in what could either be a piece of anti-misogynistic self-criticism, a shrug of the shoulders in the face of good taste, or a mixture of the above. Key moments: a pair of scenes set, first of all, in a hotel restaurant, played for laughs as Marvin grins at the old couple disapprovingly eyeing Spacek’s see-through dress, and then back in the upstairs suite, where the naïve orphan reveals how she used to snuggle up to her best pal in a ‘touching’ (literally!) lesbian relationship. It’s so close to male-wish fantasy that it must be taking the piss – musn’t it? (“Say my name.” “Poppy.” “Say it again”. Lee Marvin looks like he wants to burst out laughing, although of course he keeps his cool – impeccably. I don’t think Roger Moore would have been able to).

Indeed, the film does seem to be attempting to make some kind of anti-objectification statement. The title, ‘Prime Cut’ establishes the money/meat link – women as meat, drugged up (just like we shoot up the cows). The aggressive acquisitiveness I mentioned earlier finds a metaphorical parallel in the Hackman crowds desire to consume – cows for meat, women for sexual pleasure. Hackman’s oaf brother is always chewing on something, even attempting to stab Marvin with a (phallic?) sausage as he goes through his death throes. And the drugged-up girls are displayed in enclosures which are later used for pigs. Appropriate enough, then, that Hackman ends up being half-eaten by a pig…

As you might have gathered, animals and meat are the main thematic link in the film, if that’s important. The movie opens with a documentary-style scene following the process of death in a cattle slaughterhouse (though, one might note, without quite the graphic touch one might expect, given the rest of the film – one might contrast it’s tone with the scene in Barbet Schroeder’s ‘Maitresse’ (a very different sort of film) from a few years later, where Gerard Deapardieu’s protagonist witnesses the bloody death of a horse). The ‘Prime Cut’ sequence is more about putting the viewer off, catching, like the film as a whole, a key somewhere between black humour (most overtly stressed later on, with the character of the old woman and her milk tasting at the fair) and face-wrinkling grotesquerie. The whole scene is dogged by this tone, with Lalo Schifrin’s easy-listening strings adding an ironic air as we see the meat being minced up into burgers and strung out into strings of sausages. It could almost be vegetarian propaganda, but little visual hints make it just that little bit weirder and more interesting – as when we catch a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpse of a pair of naked buttocks in with the doomed cattle, or the shoe that comes out along hunks of meat on a conveyer-belt. So we know what’s in those sausages, as the oaf brother, Weenie, packages them up and sends them off. This idea is at once so absurd that it’s absolutely hilarious, and just about believable enough to be quite shocking. (I guess this blackly comic tone shouldn’t be unexpected, given that the director is Michael Ritchie, whose satirical film ‘The Candidate’, starring Robert Redford, mixed that straight-faced, observational, Altmanesque in-the-middle-of-the-action 70s realism with satirical touches.)

What else can be said about this movie? Well, I identified animals and meat as a crucial element; the most important line of dialogue comes at the end of the final shootout, and it’s between Marvin and Hackman. The latter’s been shot from his rooftop perch and has plummeted down into a pigsty, where the animal occupant has proceeded to chew up his legs. Managing to drag himself out, the dying villain begs a mercy killing, and the ensuing dialogue goes as follows:

Hackman: “Kill me, Nick. Finish me off, Nick. DO IT! You would for a beast.”
Marvin: “You’re a man.”
Hackman: “There’s no difference.”
Marvin: “You’re wrong. There is.”

It’s a neat punch-line, Marvin’s laconic delivery contributing, as elsewhere in the film, to the aura of tough guy cool which made his ‘Point Blank’ performance such a hit (the natty clothes help too. Check out those white loafers!) In fact, it’s almost the sort of morbid joke James Bond might have made after polishing off a villain. But at the same time, it is pretty much a straight didactic moment – as much as anything in the film can be said to be at all didactic. One review I’ve read even calls it a ‘humanistic’ moral – not the sort of thing you expect in the nihilistic climate of 70s film-making. Yes, our heroes may be gangsters, who are probably fairly unsavoury characters in themselves, but they stop short at white slavery, where women are treated as animals (sold in pig-pens, no less). You can shoot a man, but at least give him the dignity of a graceful stunt fall death. And be nice to those innocent-looking girl-children. Men are not animals, and that’s where all the problems arise. The villains see women as so much bestial flesh, and turn men into sausages: if they just had a little more respect for the human body, things would be a lot smoother.

It is, I guess, a ‘moral’ that befits the film’s sheer strangeness. And I hardly think it’s meant to be taken in entirely as po-faced a manner as my extrapolation above. After all, Prime Cut’s ‘messages’ tend to be a little more mixed than all that. On the one hand, the film trades off the ruthless, ‘Point Blank’ Marvin persona, but on the other, it softens that by his feelings towards Spacek and the orphans (mostly just paternal, it seems). At the end of the film, he is entirely the benevolent protector: accompanied by those of his men who’ve survived, he takes Spacek to the orphanage where the girls are groomed for the white slavery racket, and frees them. The last shot shows said liberated orphans running off into the fields, gambolling like lambs (and bringing to mind Spacek’s line, earlier in the film, about being let out into nature in the summer). Over it all runs a jolly Lalo Schifrin cue with prominent whistling (spaghetti western Morricone with the sting taken out, you might say). My first impulse is to see it as conformist drivel, but it’s pretty hard to feel that way if you think about it all.

To explain why, one final detour is needed. Film-wise, in the 70s, cynicism and nihilism tended to be the order of the day – more often than not, you had to let your main characters die in the final reel. Take ‘Easy Rider’ (OK, it was made in ’69, but you get the picture): Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper couldn’t just ride off into the sunset. Why? Well, I think there was still some sense that the anti-heroes needed to be ‘punished’. Yes, this was the New Hollywood, with renegade young film-makers given free rein to do whatever the hell they wanted (I’ve read ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’), but I have a feeling that the subversion was still being kept in check – just a little. It was all very well for Eastwood to happily count out the loot at the end of ‘For a Few Dollars More’, and American audiences lapped that up as much as anyone else, but those who controlled the picture-making industry in the US of A seem to have figured that, while they could exploit this new market for anti-heroism, they had to add in a touch, however slight, of moral finger-wagging, which somehow ‘justified’ it all. ‘FAFDM’, after all, was made by those degenerate (and Catholic) Europeans…So ‘Easy Rider’ opens with a similar illicit deal (money for dope, rather than dead bodies) but ends with the bikers getting their ‘just deserts’. Of course, the film-makers themselves weren’t intending this sort of cautionary tale element – it was more part of the film’s myth-making project (would Shane have seemed so iconic if he hadn’t been dying when he rode off on that horse?), in which drug-dealing bikers were the new cowboy heroes, sharing in their western predecessors’ freewheeling spirit and disregard for the rules of oh-so-barbarous ‘civilisation.’ Fonda and Hopper’s death at the hands of rednecks (like Nicholson’s earlier in the movie), is their comment on the often destructive clash between 50s and 60s values, between generations, between different philosophies and ways of living, as well as on the failure of the American dream (new or old) – “we blew it.” But at the same time it could be use to dull the subversive impact of the film as a whole, bookending it with a cautionary note. Don’t try this at home, kids – you’ll only get blown off the road with a shotgun, even if the Byrds are singing you a dinky little ballad (“all he wanted was to be free – and that’s the way it turned out to be”.)

How does that relate to ‘Prime Cut’? Well, the movie’s ending is a parody of the idealised, Norman Rockwell dungarees and cattle-ranchin’, country-livin’ world that the film has turned on its head throughout, as well as being a piss-take of the whole idea of the happy ending – but, like the man/beast dialogue discussed above, it’s also meant to be taken at least half-seriously. And in that way it’s more unnerving than any of those nihilistic, ‘Easy Rider’-style endings where the (anti)hero bites the dust. Both subverting and conforming to the anti-clichés of the 70s American thriller, it’s illustrative of a time when you often just didn’t know what the hell you were supposed to think about what you were saying – and in many ways, that’s the beauty of it. I’m not meaning to suggest that it’s a completely morally relative film, but its moral uncertainty certainly is a key part of its overall beguiling strangeness. It’s true to say that they just don’t make ’em like this anymore – and it’s hard to believe that they ever did.