Prime Cut: Lee Marvin takes on Gene Hackman in this lurid, satirical gangster thriller that epitomizes the eccentricity of 1970s cinema

Lee Marvin has done some of the weirdest and wildest movies of his time, but nothing comes close to Prime Cut(1972). At first glance, the film, directed by Michael Ritchie and co-starring Gene Hackman, appears to be just a typical Lee Marvin ‘tough guy’ action thriller, but the film is layered with some truly dark humor and even more bizarre sex &violence to create an exaggerated parable of 1970s America.

The 1970’s was a decade of truly out-of-the-box, experimental filmmaking, where anything normal or traditional was considered anathema. Everything had to be tweaked or deformed in some way to be acceptable to the public and the critics. It was not enough to make a simple gangster thriller, it had to be The Godfather, which mined deep social and political issues like capitalism and family bonds by expanding the confines of its genre. This was the time when filmmakers openly pushed boundaries and taboos, embraced a heightened realism that went out of its way to mine the depths of human depravity, and explored the limits of sexuality and violence onscreen to reflect the sexual revolution and disillusionment with Vietnam War. The period between 1971 and 1973 was particularly potent, when there was a series of such films releasing practically back to back, which led to an outcry in social and media circles as to the ill-effects of cinema on society at large. Films like Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange, Dirty Harry, The French Connection, The Exorcist, Last Tango in Paris, Deep Throat etc., where testing the limits of how much of sex and violence could be explicitly portrayed on film, even as they wrestled with serious topics of crime, sexuality, politics and law & order. It led to heated discussions in the critical circles as to whether or not the films are just being exploitative, or just honestly showing the exploitation inherent in the society of the times. Director Michael Ritchie’s film Prime Cut(1972) arrived right in the middle of this, and disappeared quickly as well. It was considered so low-brow, obnoxious, sickening and disgusting that some critics even cringed from reviewing it. Indeed, the film is totally bonkers, like a lot of films from that decade; it definitely feels like a film that can never be made before or after, and hence it has a vitality and eccentricity that very few films possesses.

On the surface, the film is a pretty straightforward gangster thriller: a hardened enforcer, Nick Devlin (Marvin), is tasked by the Irish mob in Chicago with recovering $500,000 in cash from a Kansas City crime-lord, Mary Ann, played by Gene Hackman. Nick follows two enforcers previously sent by the bosses to collect, neither of them returned alive. Accompanied by two young, strong-arms from the Irish mob and another graying veteran as a backup, Nick makes his way to Kansas. He meets up with Ann at his ‘livestock’ auction, where he finds Ann to be non-receptive to the mob’s wishes. After some not so subtle threatening from Devlin, Mary Ann promises to pay up the next day at the fair. But Nick is double crossed again, as Mary Ann sets his goons upon him, to hunt him down; Nick is almost killed by a reaper, while hiding in the Wheat fields. Meanwhile, Nick rescues a girl named Poppy from Mary Ann’s clutches and takes her away with him to his hotel. Mary Ann’s goons invade the hotel suite and kidnaps Poppy. Devlin decides that enough is enough, and launches an all out assault on Mary Ann’s mansion with his crew. In the ensuing bloodbath, Mary Ann and his army are eliminated and Devlin returns to Chicago with Poppy. Obviously, this is the plot of a pedestrian mainstream gangster thriller which promises a routine star vehicle for Marvin, but just a few seconds into the film, we realize that that’s not the case. The first shots of the film take place inside a slaughterhouse; as the viewer watches a cow executed, disassembled, and then processed unceremoniously on a series of conveyors and savage apparatuses that grind down the tissue into hamburger paddies and hot dogs. If that isn’t grotesque enough, we soon find signs that a human was added to the mix. A pair of butt cheeks here, a wristwatch there, and a solitary shoe. When it’s all over, at the other end of this metallic mangler, a slimy bozo named Weenie (Gregory Walcott) wraps up several beef-human sausages and prepares them for delivery. As it turns out, the human who was turned into sausage was the second enforcer send by the mob to collect from Mary Ann. Apart from being a gangster, Mary Ann is also a meat packer, who has his own plant (which is used as a front for dope smuggling) where sausages of all kinds of meat are prepared. Turns out that the first enforcer who was sent to collect was much more lucky: he merely drowned in the Missouri River

From here on, the film gets crazier and crazier. Apart from Hackman playing a character named Mary Ann, and gangsters being turned to sausages, Sample this:

  • The Weenie dude is so-called because of his habit of carrying wieners around in his pocket; some of them made out of the ground-up bodies of his enemies, which he uses as a weapon.
  • A woman named Clarabelle (yes! It’s all cows in this heartland , and she is played by the beautiful Angel Tompkins), who is Mary Ann’s wife, lives in a luxurious houseboat with a mirror on the bedroom ceiling. She shares a past with Devlin; she is more than happy to be widowed, so that she can get back with Devlin.
  • A county fair right out of Picnic or State Fair goes merrily on its way, with 5,000 gullible hicks indifferent to the fact that a running shotgun battle is being waged in their midst.

add to this: car-eating combine harvesters; packets of Beef Hearts given as payment in place of stacks of Dollars; Chicago gangster mistaken for milk expert at livestock judging competition; and brothers in a homoerotic relationship; you get the drift. But all this pales in comparison to Mary Ann’s real business

Regarding Mary Ann’s livestock auction, which was mentioned earlier; the livestock aren’t heads of cattle; rather, they’re young girls, drugged up and displayed naked on beds of hay – like cows in a pen – for prospective buyers . Mary Ann runs the sordid business of human commodities and, on the side, maintains a false front of a girls orphanage—to raise his product from a young age, like veal, keeping them docile and unaware, until they become products on the line, they are certified to be virgin, and can be bought to stock the local bordello anywhere . When Devlin arrives at the auction, we see a truly crowded market, with perverts and possible buyers drooling all over them. For Mary Ann, all flesh is the same – cow flesh , girl flesh – it makes no difference to him. The girl Poppy, whom Devlin rescues from Ann’s clutches is played by Sissy Spacek in her movie debut. It’s a truly courageous performance, where she has to be totally naked most of the time. On one level, the film is a twisted fairy tale. It is no coincidence that the film is set in Kansas. Devlin is the wonderful wizard of Oz, Poppy is Dorothy and Mary Ann is the wicked witch. Poppy has been kept sedated in the pen, and it is in her drugged out condition that she unconsciously begs Devlin for help. So when she wakes up, she is in a plush five star hotel, it’s truly a magic world for her; Dorothy transported to Oz. Devlin and Poppy makes a beauty and beast like couple, he being much older than her, he is more of a father figure than a lover. It’s most evident in the very next scene that takes place in the hotel lunchroom attended by swanky old squares. Devlin walks in with poppy wearing an almost completely see-through gown. She is totally innocent, having being raised in seclusion, so she is turned on when men in the crowd starts leering at her, while their wives look on disapprovingly. That is until Devlin returns their leers with his shark-like smile and they all turn their sights away. The scene exposes the hypocrisy inherent in the heartland crowd; that’s another theme of the film: big city VS Midwestern heartland; big cities like New York and Chicago being considered the den of corruption and every kind of evil as opposed to the idyllic, bucolic paradise of the Midwest. It is most evident in the scene of the fair, where we see how someone like Mary Ann can hold sway over the populace by making empty promises and basically putting up a grand show for them. The fair itself is portrayed like an exaggerated parody of the idyllic, rural life, complete with marching band, and  cows and pigs all around, with Mary Ann distributing gifts to little kids. You also see how callous and unconcerned the people around are (completely immersed in the ongoing spectacle), when a full blown gun battle breaks out in their midst, as Devlin and Poppy are hunted by Mary Ann’s men. But director Ritchie does not push this to the extent to criticize everything about the rural landscape. The boys from Chicago are genuinely happy to be dropped off in this lush, rural environment. They are in awe of the greenery and the natural beauty surrounding them. Director Ritchie makes sure to use these beautiful locations to the maximum effect, especially in the action scenes; it provides a picture book quality to the twisted fairytale unfolding on the screen.

Nothing in director Michael Ritchie’s career, before or after this film, prepares you for Prime Cut. Ritchie made his debut with the Robert Redford starrer Downhill Racer (1969), with Hackman co-starring. Prime Cut was only the second motion picture in Ritchie’s career, which transitioned into edgy political satires like The Candidate (1972)(again with Redford) and into sports comedies like Semi-Tough (1977) and Wildcats (1986), and then later became a journeyman director of studio comedies with major stars of the 1980’s, such as Chevy Chase and Eddie Murphy at their height—titles like Fletch (1985) and its sequel, and The Golden Child (1986). My favorite Ritchie film is The Candidate; it was both incredibly funny and extremely poignant, with a superb lead performance by Robert Redford as the titular political candidate, who discovers the hypocrisy and superficiality in a political election race. Ritchie’s films always had an element of satire that’s exaggerated to the extreme in this film. And just as he rubs the audience’s noses in the hypocrisy and Machiavellian dealings of a political campaign in that film, he does it here too, except that as a satire of heartland criminal life, it’s beef and hog that he chose to rub the audience faces in. That’s what really turned the audience off during the film’s release. The film was terribly misunderstood at the time as a straight movie garnished with excessive sex, violence and grotesque image of blood, guts and viscera. People just didn’t get the satirical aspect of it, as well as the twisted fairy tale quality of it; Marvin being always dressed in white suits and white shoes; he is the white Knight invading the castle of Hackman’s black Knight. Not that the film is an unsung classic or even a great film at that, it’s not; at about 87 minutes, the film is crisp and tight, but it feels unfinished; Screenwriter Robert Dillon’s minimal characterization and cartoonish exaggerations does not always work; i also have a feeling that a lot of scenes were edited out. but, its a terribly interesting and for most parts exciting film.

The most exciting parts of the movie are the action sequences, dynamically staged by Ritchie and photographed by cinematographer Gene Polito. Take the sequence where Nick and Poppy escape Mary Ann’s men into a wheat field. It’s thrillingly Hitchcockian in design and staging. They hide in the tall crop, evading sight from their armed pursuers. The scene is empty and quiet, and oddly claustrophobic. In the distance, a wheat harvester approaches, its teeth-like blades rotating. We barely take notice. The mood recalls the famous crop duster scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest , where Cary Grant is chased by the crop-duster plane. and, as the harvester gets closer, suspense builds; the machine keeps coming, and its only stopped when Nick’s colleagues crash a car into its jaws, leaving their vehicle chewed into scrap. Later, Nick and his men take the offensive. They launch a clandestine attack on Mary Ann’s compound by sneaking through a field of tall sunflowers, a most unlikely and strangely beautiful place for a thrilling shootout. But what sets up this shoot out is ‘the’ most horrifyingly chilling sequence in the film. It’s more chilling than anything we have seen up until then, in a film that’s full of such scenes. It’s the scene just after Poppy is kidnapped from Devlin’s hotel suite; Devlin goes looking for her in Mary Ann’s warehouse; there he  finds a young prostitute, violet, a friend of Poppy’s, who had betrayed Mary Ann. Mary Ann has punished her by offering her body to a band of workers for a nickel a piece. Nick approaches the frightened, traumatized and physically brutalized girl, and notices that she’s holding something. Devlin forces her clutched hands open, and a pile of nickels drop out of her hand and falls on the floor. What happened to the girl is a severe warning to Devlin, as to what will happen to Poppy. It is at this moment that he decides to mount a full on attack on Mary Ann’s castle; and Ritchie exaggerates this moment to the maximum, giving it a mythic quality; there is rain, lightning and thunder, as Devlin and his army pack their weapons and get ready for the assault. It’s in these scenes that the fantasy nature of the film becomes fully evident; the white knight going into the villain’s castle to save the damsel in distress. And for the finale, Nick drives a semi-truck onto Mary Ann’s farm, smashing the gate and demolishing the greenhouse in a final blow. In the shootout that follow, Weenie is killed and Mary Ann is fatally wounded. Devlin does not kill him; he just takes Poppy and walks away. Despite the modest farmland setting, Ritchie handles the action as a  grand set-piece. Lalo Schifrin’s score, which is terrific throughout, kicks into high gear here, giving a  rousing feel to the proceedings. The film ends with Devlin and Poppy liberating the other girls from Mary Ann’s ‘orphanage’; with Devlin taking Poppy with him to Chicago.

Apart from its outright weirdness, the most interesting aspect of the film is the showdown between Marvin and Hackman, two completely different type of actors. Marvin is a completely self-contained actor, who shows and does very little; who looks content in whatever he does, while Hackman is an actor who does more and who wants to do more. He is wildly over the top in the movie, with a permanent, devilish smile plastered on his face befitting a malevolent emperor of his domain. This was his first role after his Oscar winning performance in The French Connection, and i have a feeling that he signed on for this before that film was released.  Marvin seems to have started from where he left off from his cult classic Point Blank; the character has a lot of similarities with his iconic ‘Walker’ from that film: a tightly coiled, man on a mission, who moves quickly, talks less, and when he talks, it’s lightning quick and terse. In his introduction scene, he is asked by a rookie killer what to do with his predecessor’s remains which has been converted to sausages. Marvin asks: “Was He a good man“, when the guy nods affirmatively, Marvin retorts: “Well, then bury him“. Another very interesting scene is: while leaving Chicago with a backup killer barely out of his teens, Marvin has their car stop at the kid’s house so he can bid his mother goodbye. When the kid insists that he come out and meet his family, he hesitates for a moment, then agrees; he briskly walks out, shakes hands with his mother and siblings and get back in the car, all within seconds. His brisk, cat like movements, especially that iconic walk – made famous from Point Blank (reviewed here) – is on show here as well. In the scene where he rescues Sissy Spacek; He takes one second to bargain with Hackman, then quickly wraps a towel around Spacek’s naked body, grabs her in his arms and walks out of Hackman’s lair into his car. It’s the same when they reach his Hotel, he takes her in his arms, jumps into the lift and deposit her in his suite, even as he protectively and affectionately watches over her. His energy and pace is on display in the mythic  climax scenes as well, where he shoots down Hackman and his men. Marvin, who was a real-life soldier in World War II, did not need much practice with firearms or in acting tough. His life was scarred by some truly brutal experiences in war, and it was natural that he gravitated towards playing these tough guy roles. Indeed, the ultimate pleasure of watching this movie –  with all its weirdness and wildly exaggerated tone and elements – is watching Marvin on the move. Just for that, this film comes highly recommended; but watch out, there is a big possibility that the film might just turn you into a full time vegetarian.