If appraised solely for its attitude, style, and tone, Prime Cut would easily qualify as one of the best crime films of the ’70s. A Midwestern noir set primarily on a cattle ranch and the surrounding area—think county fairs and wheat fields—the movie boasts crisp low-angle cinematography, offbeat situations, rough violence, and tasty performances by actors including Gene Hackman, Lee Marvin, and Sissy Spacek. It’s hard to think of another action picture that features a hay-bailing machine as a potential murder weapon—or one that features a scene of a mob enforcer getting chopped up and packaged as a tube of sausages. Yet for all the things Prime Cut does well, the movie fails in the most important regard. The script is an absolute mess, with murky characters pursuing unclear goals based upon perplexing motivations.
The narrative is so poorly constructed, in fact, that it’s often difficult to enjoy the movie’s amazing moment-to-moment texture. One gets the sense that director Michael Ritchie and his collaborators wanted to present a movie so cryptic and hard-boiled that it was devoid of clichés and easy explanations. If that was the goal, they succeeded. Yet the filmmakers sacrificed clarity on the altar of cinematic style. Having said all that, Prime Cut is pretty damn badass whenever it locks into a groove.
The principal focus of the story is a Midwestern gangster nicknamed “Mary Ann” (Hackman), who has decided to cut ties with his former bosses in the Chicago underworld. Running a dugs-and-prostitution ring out of his cattle ranch, Mary Ann has become a beloved community leader thanks to his largesse and a feared opponent thanks to his cruelty—he’s the proverbial big fish in a small town. After several operatives have failed to rein in Mary Ann’s reckless behavior, Chicago bosses send hired gun Nick Devlin (Lee Marvin) to set Mary Ann straight. Immediately upon his arrival at Mary Ann’s place, Nick takes possession of Poppy (Spacek), a teenager whom Mary Ann’s goons have kidnapped and drugged for sale as a sex slave. That’s where the story goes off the rails. Instead of focusing on his mission, Nick spends a lot of time hanging out at his hotel, wining and dining Poppy (even though he seems not to have any sexual interest in her), and articulating vague plans for giving Mary Ann a hard time. Meanwhile, Mary Ann picks off Nick’s men with apparent ease.
Much of what happens during the movie’s lugubrious middle section is interesting simply because of novelty—for instance, the shootout during a county fair—but the story gets particularly aimless whenever Spacek is on screen. Thus, when the movie finally trundles into a bloody final showdown at Mary Ann’s place, the dramatic stakes have become so dissipated that it’s hard to care what happens.
Amazingly, the three leads manage to give interesting performances despite the script’s shortcomings. Marvin blends humor and a dash of romanticism into his signature ice-cold persona, so he’s frequently riveting. Hackman essays one of his most monstrous villains, and he’s terrific in small moments like the bit during which he capriciously buys a child’s pet cow and sends the animal to the slaughterhouse. Spacek struggles to figure out what purpose she serves in the movie, because at one moment she’s eye candy (Spacek performs a long sequence wearing a see-through dress), and at the next moment she’s the film’s soul (demonstrating anguish at the abuse of women). Even though all of this is quite perplexing, one is unlikely to find a better-acted or better-looking mess of an action flick.
Prime Cut: FUNKY