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“Cutter’s Way,” A Great, and Very Underrated Film

Some movies, even if one likes them, are probably one-time experiences. A few others you want to see multiple times over the years. Then there are those very rare films which simply stay with you. It is a combination of the scenes, the acting, the dialogue; and then the import of the film, what it might be saying, even though it is, probably deliberately, not so obvious as to that last aspect.

“Cutter’s Way,” a 1981 film which many have not heard of, is that for me. It stays with you, it makes you think, and feel its emotional impact. I will share a little bit about it with you.

The film was based on a novel by Newton Thornburg, called “Cutter and Bone.” I have this book; I had started to read it, maybe even before I saw the film. But I just read a bit of it before putting it down. It seems to be a very hard-boiled noir about two friends named Alexander Cutter and Richard Bone, who live in Santa Barbara, and are solving a mystery of some sort. The language and scenes are rather violently graphic. Writing a good modern noir novel is very hard; some of them want to go over the top with language, violence, and dark cynicism. Maybe I will give the book a try again, but probably not, because it might somehow detract from the movie.

But the movie is something special. Perhaps it was, somewhat similarly to “Chinatown,” a result of the combination of American sensibilities directed by a European, in this case the Czechoslovakian-born, highly regarded director Ivan Passer. The screenplay was written by Jeffrey Alan Fiskin, and there is a poetry to it, somewhat like in my favorite, “Out of the Past,” though the lines and metaphors here are darker. Frankly, with the rarest of exceptions, no one writes scripts like this any more. There are lines which you don’t forget, most, but not all, spoken by Cutter.

The movie starts with a haunting scene. Jack Nitzsche’s brilliant score’s theme plays, as you see a parade in beautiful Santa Barbara, taking place in slow motion. The effect creates a dreamlike atmosphere, and a sense of haunting memory, but almost as if the scene isn’t real. It is real, but the movie does deal with a sense of memory versus illusion. I think that it is one of the best opening credit movie scenes that I have ever seen. The movie has to be good after that!, and it is.

“Cutter’s Way” is about three people who have a long history together. We learn some of the backstory near the end, but we can figure most of it out as it goes along. According to Cutter, and there is no reason to disbelieve him, he is from a respected family. His father was a business partner with a man named J.J. Cord, who ultimately cheated and ruined him while becoming perhaps the most powerful person in the city.

Alex married a woman, Maureen (Mo), whom his friend Richard Bone has been attracted to for years. Bone, played by Jeff Bridges, is the classic “golden boy,” handsome, athletic, but with no ambition, and no interest whatsoever in causes. After going to an Ivy League school, his career is now as a sort of semi-gigolo who gets money from women, and who likes to sail, which Alex and Richard’s boyhood friend George, who works for Cord and rents and sells yachts, lets him do. George thinks he would make a great salesman, but that is too much effort for Bone.

Cutter, played by John Heard in a truly bravura performance, went to Vietnam, and came back having lost an arm, a leg, and an eye. He has been compared to Ahab in “Moby-Dick,” with his thirst for vengeance–against something or somebody, essentially everybody who was behind the war, profited by it, took advantage of those who sacrificed in it. He is full of anger, bitterness, regret, and yet a sense of humor; and occasionally you can see the person he was, beneath that. He is always entertaining to watch; it is not a morose film, though it is powerful.

I think that Heard should have won the Academy Award for this performance. Yes, it may sometimes be a bit over-the-top, but Heard was such a great actor that he imbues Cutter with something all his own. I believe that Dustin Hoffman was originally slated for the role, but had other commitments; and then the director or producer chose Heard because of seeing him onstage in “Othello.” Heard is one of the most underrated actors of his era. See him in “Chilly Scenes of Winter,” as well, where he is so intelligent and yet vulnerable, in a charming movie with a bittersweet quality.

So there are these three people, Cutter, Bone, and Mo, in this relationship, which really is a vestige of what it probably once was. Mo has become a sort of ruminative semi-alcoholic, who still loves Cutter, but knows that the relationship is no good. Bone makes semi-passes at her, and tries a little to see that Cutter does not get into trouble with his acerbic belligerence.

Then, on the day that is first shown over the opening credits, Bone, trying to drive home in the rain from a night with a rich woman, sees a car stop beside a trash can, and someone get out and throw something in. He thinks little about it, until the next day, when we learn that it was the body of a teenage girl. Bone is initially suspected of the murder, but he clearly did not do it. The next day, he and Cutter and Mo go outside to watch the Santa Barbara Founders Parade, which is led by J.J. Cord, riding his horse. Bone thinks that this is the man he saw, throwing what turned out to be a body in the trash can.

Instantly, Cutter thinks that Cord is the murderer. He comes up with a theory as to why he did it: he picked up the woman, they were going to have sex, he couldn’t perform, and she laughed at him, so he killed her. And he is going to get away with it, just like in Vietnam, just like all those people got away with things in that era. And Cutter is going to try to get him: blackmail him, and then when he pays up because he is guilty, they will turn him in. At least that is what he says to Bone and Mo about it.

The victim’s sister, played by an appealing and sexy Ann Dusenberry, wants to join in this plan. They try to get Bone to help, but he wants no part of it, keeps telling Alex that he is imagining things out of his own psychological desires to get someone.

And so the story develops. It is possible that Dusenberry’s part was somewhat cut, because she just disappears from the movie, which is a shame, because she is very good. But it scarcely spoils the film. Among the many themes of the movie, is the push-and-pull between Cutter and Bone. Alex is determined, angry, bitter, and wants someone to pay. Bone likes his indolent life, does not want to commit to anything, particularly if it puts him at risk, since Cord is very rich and powerful. Cutter calls it “walking away.” “Do your walk, Bone, like you always do.”

What makes this film so wonderful, besides the acting, the dialogue, and the forward pace, is that there is no simple message handed to the viewer, though there ultimately is indeed a point of view. All of these characters are flawed, but they are real and involving. And things do come to a climax, with an unforgettable last part; and to me, a perfect final scene. The film does say something, and the ending is as good as that of almost any great dramatic play.

“Cutter’s Way” is of course to some extent about Vietnam, and what it did to the American psyche. Trying to explain his motivations to Bone, Cutter says, “I watched the war on TV like everyone else. Thought the same things. You know what you thought when you saw a woman with a baby lying face down in a ditch. The first one was real easy. “I hate the United States of America.” You see the same damn thing the next day, and you move up a notch. “There is no god.” But you know what you finally say, what everybody finally says, no matter what? “I’m hungry.” “I’m hungry, Rich, I’m f—–‘ starved.” And Bone says, “So you pick out somebody, you blackmail him.” Cutter says “I didn’t pick him out, you did. And he isn’t somebody, he’s responsible.”

Some have compared this to Ahab’s statements about the whale Moby-Dick. I don’t know if that is intended, though Cutter does have a wooden leg. But it has been an occasionally recurring fictional theme, or archetype, if one likes that term. This movie works on several levels, and most important, it does work.

There is a term, “neo-noir,” which has been used to refer to movies that have some of the aspects of film noir, but were from a period after the “noir cycle,” which was from about 1947-1956, and are not in black and white. Some people like to use the term a good deal, but I think that there were few great “neo-noirs.” The three I think are the best are “Chinatown,” which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. “Dark City,” by Alex Proyas, which was a brilliant inversion of noir, in that the noir world we are shown was artificially created by other entities, perhaps drawn to those themes. And then “Cutter’s Way,” which many have not heard of, and I don’t even know if it ever has been shown on television.

But in my opinion, it is a great film, one of a kind, really, though it does have some echoes of “Chinatown.” It is not a perfect movie, but what is? (Well, “Casablanca,” “Vertigo,” and “Out of the Past,” but that’s just my opinion, of course). “Cutter’s Way” has great acting, brilliant dialogue, a very atmospheric score, and causes one to remember and think about the past and its echoes in the present. What more can one ask of any film?

8 Responses

  1. Absolutely with you it agree. In it something is also to me this idea is pleasant, I completely with you agree.

  2. I loved that movie. I only saw it once (on TV, so I know it’s been broadcast). I also agree with you on Chinatown (I think Roman Polanski should be in prison, but there’s no denying he’s a great director) and Dark City.

    • I’m glad that “Cutter’s Way”was on TV at least once, though I never see it listed, at least not on TCM.

      “Dark City” was one of Roger Ebert’s top films of its year, but it was overshadowed by “The Matrix,” a somewhat similarly themed film, about one-hundredth as good. Ebert did a commentary track on the DVD of “Dark City,” and then another one when the Director’s Cut was released, without Kiefer Sutherland’s voiceover intro, which I think the film was better without. The first time I saw it, I turned it on about 40 minutes in, not knowing anything about it, and that was quite something to try to figure out, as if I were in the story. Ebert only did about three commentary tracks, one being “Citizen Kane,” so you can see how much he liked “Dark City.” It is a wonderful commentary track.

      • I guess my issue with the Matrix was the implausibility of the basic premise. I’m betting anybody who took a thermodynamics class (hi, RD!) was similarly unimpressed. If you just switched off your brain and enjoyed the special effect it was okay. I agree that Dark City is a far better movie.

  3. A great underrated film I recommend is “Proof” (2005) starring Anthony Hopkins and Gwyneth Paltrow.

    You don’t have to be a mathematician (or a professor’s daughter) to find it a compelling, hauntingly powerful film.

    • I have heard of it, but looking it up, I don’t think I have ever seen it, so I will try to get it. Hopkins is always superb, I have his performance in “King Lear” to watch. I see that Rebecca Miller,daughter of Arthur, and wife of Daniel Day-Lewis, collaborated on the screenplay with the original play’s author.

    • While I haven’t seen the movie version of Proof, I did see the Broadway production. (The play originated at the Manhattan Theatre Club and transferred to Broadway in 2000.)

      Roz in NY/NYC

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