Who would’ve thought the local 4-H fair has a sleazy side?
You know how people like to talk about the “gritty” films of the 1970s? Prime Cut could fit that description, with its ample amounts of female nudity, bloody violence, and tough-guy swagger. But it also has an offbeat sense of humor and a bright, cheery Kansas farmland setting. There’s probably nothing else like quite it in the gangster/crime genre.
In Chicago, when people owe money to the mob and they’re not paying up, the bosses send in their favorite enforcer, Devlin (Lee Marvin, The Magnificent Seven), to bust some heads. This time, Devlin’s off to small-town Kansas, where a rival gangster named Mary Ann is stirring up trouble. But this Mary Ann is no pig-tailed castaway—it’s Gene Hackman (The Royal Tenenbaums), whose meat-packing plant is a profitable front for drugs and prostitution.
Before Devlin takes on Mary Ann and his army of overall-wearing thugs, our antihero first rescues a young girl, Poppy (Sissy Spacek, Carrie), from Mary Ann’s stables, becoming her protector and father figure. Along the way, it’s revealed that Devlin and Mary Ann have a history, the local 4-H fair has a sleazy side, and that you should never mess with guy named “Weenie.”
Director Michael Ritchie is not a household name, but he certainly had an interesting career. Prime Cut was one of his earliest films, which was followed by a political comedy, The Candidate, and then by the kid-friendly classic The Bad News Bears. He flirted with horror in 1980-81 with The Island and Student Bodies, where he adopted the notorious “Alan Smithee” pseudonym. From there, it was string of comedies throughout the ’80s, including Fletch, Wildcats, and The Golden Child. In the ’90s, he turned to more family-friendly fare, such as Cops and Robbersons, The Scout, and A Simple Wish. During this time, he also returned to his dark comedy roots with the infamous TV movie The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom. All this would seem to paint Ritchie as a “work-for-hire” director, but there is something to his style that shows he knew what he was doing. He does not have recurring themes or images, like you’d find in the work of, say, Tim Burton or David Lynch, but each of the above films contains a certain unseen strange element; a sense that the “world” of the film is not quite the one you and I inhabit.
Throughout Prime Cut, it’s clear that Ritchie knows exactly what he’s doing as director. He makes every scene and every shot count in some way, even if it’s not obvious on first viewing. The film opens with a lengthy credit sequence, shot inside a slaughterhouse. It’s not overtly graphic, but there’s just enough blood and guts on screen to let us know just how icky the process is. But watch carefully. As the scene goes on, there are little hints dropped here and there that something’s not quite as it should be. What’s really going on isn’t explained until afterward, about 15 minutes into the movie, when we first meet Devlin and there’s the first real piece of dialogue. Ritchie continually sneaks in little details throughout the film that foreshadow events or are subtle in-jokes. When Devlin and his men take their first trip through the countryside, they pass by a sign marked “Fairgrounds,” and they see a combine churning up the crops. This hints at future scenes, but it’s also darkly comic, because these shots are cut with Devlin’s men loading their guns.
Ritchie doesn’t skimp on the action, either. This is a tough and gritty crime movie at its heart, so there are no explosions or high-flying kung fu battles. But you can expect gunfights and fistfights galore. This is the kind of action where every time the trigger is pulled, it counts in some way. Also, each action scene starts with a long, tense build-up, such as Devlin driving to confront Mary Ann with a realistic-looking thunderstorm raging ahead of him.
But the film mixes the gangland scenario with its heartland scenario. The concept of the meat-packer who also runs a prostitution racket offers opportunities for a lot of gags about the bad guys treating women like cattle. But then it stops being satirical and turns literal. During Mary Ann’s “private sale,” Devlin encounters women herded into pens, like cows in a barn. It’s disturbing, but weirdly comical. Also note how one of the film’s bloodiest gunfights takes place in a field of sunflowers, again mixing grotesque violence with bright, happy imagery.
None of this stylistically dark comedy would work, though, without solid actors moving the story forward. Lee Marvin is as cool as always as Devlin. This is the one guy no one messes with. You can tell just by looking at him. Whether he’s throwing punches, tossing out snide one-liners like, “You just bought the farm,” or just coldly staring down his opponents, Marvin simply commands the screen. Hackman, meanwhile, does his usual act of juggling laughs with seriousness. As Mary Ann, he can turn on a dime and transform from eccentric millionaire farmer to cold-blooded psycho. Mary Ann doesn’t care about anything but his fortune, and he doesn’t care who he kills or abuses to get it. Sissy Spacek spends most of the movie slightly dazed, but that’s her character, caught up in a situation she barely understands.
Picture quality on the disc is mostly good, although in dark scenes the background sometimes flickers from black to light grey and back again. Dirt and grain, however, are kept to a minimum. The 5.1 track is excellent. During the final gunfight, you’d swear Lee Marvin is in your living room, plugging hillbillies with his shotgun. Sadly, there are no extras, which is unfortunate. Any information about the making of the movie and the ideas behind it would have been appreciated.
If you love tough crime flicks, but you want to try something different, this is the movie for you.