Classic Corner: Cutter’s Way

It takes a big man to admit when he’s wrong, and I’m 6’4”, so I admit that I’m wrong a lot. And I’m going to do it again, right now. A couple of years back, I wrote a book called It’s Okay With Me: Hollywood, the 1970s, and the Return of the Private Eye (PLUG), covering (as you can guess) the private eye movies of the ‘70s. While promoting it, someone asked me if Cutter’s Way was included, and I stuttered and stammered a bit, because I’d missed that one entirely – I hadn’t even seen it, at that point. (It was also harder to see then than it is now, as it’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime.) I squirmed out of it by pointing out that since it was released in 1981, it technically didn’t qualify.

When I finally saw Cutter’s Way last year, I felt like a schmuck, because it so clearly should’ve been in that book – even with a 1981 release date, since it’s full of the same “last movie of the ‘70s” energy as contemporaneous films like Raging Bull, Cruising, and Dressed to Kill. But more importantly, it’s clearly of the same spirit as those ‘70s P.I. movies, like Night Moves and Hickey and Boggs and The Long Goodbye; in fact, when viewers draw the line (and many do) from The Long Goodbye to The Big Lebowski, Cutter’s Way is an essential, direct link between the two films – featuring, as it does, both the former’s Nina van Pallandt and the latter’s Jeff Bridges.

He stars as Richard Bone, who we first meet on a run of bad luck – leaving a misfire of a sexual encounter with a married woman, his car breaks down in the middle of a rainstorm, prompting one of the films most relatable moments: this grown man, yelling to no one in particular, “F*CK YOU TOO!” In the midst of this mess, he sees another car pull into the alley, and a man throwing something into a trash can. The next morning, he discovers that “something” was the body of a young woman, and his abandoned car has made him a suspect.

After a lengthy interrogation, the police release him. He heads to the Santa Barbara “Founder’s Day Parade,” with his buddy Alex Cutter (John Heard); they plan to watch, mostly ironically, while beginning the day’s drinking (if the previous day’s even ended). But on one of the floats, he recognizes the man from the alley – though when he discovers it’s a powerful local businessman named J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliot), he thinks maybe he didn’t see him after all. Cutter, immediately obsessed with taking down The Man, tries to interrogate his pal, with little success – “I’ve been doin’ this all night long with professionals, Alex!” But Cutter won’t be stymied, becoming an amateur sleuth, and later (with the help of the victim’s sister), an amateur blackmailer. Bone indulges him, but only to a point.

One of the most jarring elements of the picture, for the contemporary viewer, is the seemingly incongruous casting; in his later years, Bridges’s work has hewed much closer to the kind of operatic eccentrics that Heard here plays so well, while Heard would play much more straight-forward (almost straight-man) types. But the against (subsequent) type casting works to the film’s advantage; nothing you’ve seen Heard do will prepare you for what he’s up to here, as a roaring, drunken Vietnam vet with a missing arm, bum leg, and eye patch. He is, for much of the film, abrasive and unsympathetic; at various points, he’ll slap his girlfriend (“You think this is the first time?” she growls after), drop the n-bomb, endanger those he cares about, and generally act like a jerk. Early on, as Bone exits their regular watering hole, Cutter throws his cane and busts the bar’s neon beer sign; the off-camera barkeep’s weary “That’s goin’ on your tab, Cutter” gives us more information about this character than a full novel could. (In another memorable meltdown, he smashes up a phone booth and beats the hell out of a stuffed animal before pumping several bullets into the poor carnival prize.)

Bone will try to make excuses for his friend (“The war, you know…”), but he doesn’t make much of an effort; Bone doesn’t make much of an effort at anything. He seems to have coasted, for most of his life, on his astonishing good looks, but we get the feeling that the tank is running dry; in his very first scene, van Pallandt doesn’t exactly praise his sexual performance, and the best he can muster up on his way out the door is a weak, “Well, it’s been better for me too.” This handsome, empty stud is a good fit for Bridges, who was entering a rich period of playing golden boys who’ve lost their lustre (The Fabulous Baker Boys, at the decade’s end, was perhaps the apex of this run) – he looks put together, but he’s completely broken. Their pal George (Arthur Rosenberg), the responsible member of their peer group, tells him things like “I think in the end you’re gonna tire of all this drifting” and “Sooner or later, you’re gonna have to make a decision about something,” and it feels like you can watch the spirit of the ‘70s curdling into the ‘80s, the kind of thinking that got boomers settling into real jobs and turning into yuppies.

The buddy dynamics between Cutter and Bone are, to put it mildly, complicated; these are two guys who’ve heard each other’s nonsense often enough to call it out (“When you were getting’ laid in the Ivy League, I was getting’ my ass shot off”), and often, they’re both right. Their allegiances and cast-offs are as fleeting as the wind, and when Bone and Cutter’s wife Mo (Lisa Eichhhorn), who have been circling each other for the entire movie, finally give in, it’s barely over before the waves of regret hit. In a movie filled with quietly devastating moments, none lands harder than Bone quietly sneaking out afterwards – and her eyes opening immediately after he does, indicating that she was waiting for him to leave anyway.

Those tiny flashes of human observation were the stock-in-trade of Ivan Passer, a key member of the Czech New Wave (the film opens with a beautiful outsider’s tableaux, as composer Jack Nitzche’s music, strange and discordant, plays over slow-mo images of that most Americana of events, the holiday parade). He worked in a loose, shaggy style, and like his 1971 masterpiece Born to Win, this is a burn-out hang-out movie. The drug of choice was heroin in that film, booze in this one, and his sense of lived-in atmosphere is so secure that we get the feeling, in the hung-over opening scenes, that this is how a lot of their nights (and mornings) play out.

Eventually, of course, Cutter and Bone must confront their Big Bad, and they bluff their way into a swanky event at his home to take him down. We’re ready, thanks to the movies, to watch them make a scene, humiliate the bad guy, and see to it that justice is done. But that’s only what happens in movies. When Bone is finally face to face with Cord, he’s met with the icy gravitas of real power – he doesn’t raise his voice, and doesn’t have to. This is the kind of tycoon that would run roughshod over the 1980s, and knock people like Cutter and Bone out of the way without hesitation.

But that was all to come. Cutter’s Way was the victim of a notoriously botched release; United Artists, then falling apart thanks to the boondoggle of Heaven’s Gate, barely promoted it at all and pulled it from theaters after only a week (under its original title, and the title of the Newton Thornburg novel it was based on, Cutter and Bone). The studio attempted to remarket it as a specialty release, along with some film festival playdates, but in spite of critical raves, audiences stayed away. It’s not hard to guess why; like Jake LaMotta in the studio’s Raging Bull, a character a key UA exec deemed “a cockroach,” the film’s protagonists are often unsympathetic, which wasn’t an obstruction through most of the 1970s. But this was now a marketplace made by the likes of Rocky and Star Wars, and what people wanted out of popular cinema had shifted. After the feel-bad cinema of the ‘70s, audiences went to the movies to see what they could be. Bummer movies like Cutter’s Way showed them who they were afraid they were.

“Cutter’s Way” is streaming on Amazon Prime through June 30th.

Jason Bailey is a film critic and historian, and the author of five books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Playlist, Vanity Fair, Vulture, Rolling Stone, Slate, and more. He is the co-host of the podcast "A Very Good Year."

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