What I Remember:
My first viewing of "Cutter's Way" was on cable, probably HBO. I missed it in the theaters. Michael, a close friend from film school, recommended it to me, contending that it was a masterpiece. The original name, “Cutter and Bone” was jettisoned because the producers thought it would make the film sound like a hospital comedy. It does, actually.
I think of three things when I think of "Cutter's Way":
1) It was the last gasp of the '60's. This film came out at the dawn of the Reagan era, and it's message of "don't trust the upper crust" was the last thing America wanted to hear at the time. Considering the huge debacle known as "trickle down economics", maybe they should have been listening! Anyway, don't you think it was pretty clear what the Reaganomics gang meant when they used the word "trickle"? If they'd called it "cascade down" or "torrent down" maybe we could be excused for falling for it.
2) For our two leads, these are defining roles, albeit in different ways. For John Heard, Cutter was the role of his career. Nothing else in his oeuvre approached this performance and character. For Jeff Bridges, it was the breakout role, the first for which he could be considered a serious actor, and the beginning of a long, successful run.
3) In a way, the film borrowed from the Don Quixote/Sancho Panza trope. This time, El Don is a crippled, alcoholic war veteran, and Sancho his handsome wastoid of a best bud. Quixote tilts at windmills (millionaires), Panza warns him of the dangers. It's all very valiant, and even more ill-advised.
The film is not only a great character study (and we can throw in Lisa Eichhorn's Mo as a third very moving portrayal), but a fine detective story. When I saw "The Big Lebowski" the first time, I wondered if the Coen's were thinking of Bridges as Bone when they cast him in the title role. He bumbles through both films in such different ways, one tragic the other comic, yet the left coast burnout connection is unmistakeable.
I loved this movie, and I can't wait to see it again.
"I’m like your leg. Your leg? Sending messages to your brain, and there’s nothing there anymore.” Mo Cutter
Alex Cutter (John Heard) is a disabled Vietnam War Veteran who has lost an eye, a leg, and half an arm. He drinks heavily, and his smart-ass demeanor gets him into trouble regularly. His best friend, Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) is a handsome, uncommitted sort, who witnesses a man in an expensive car drop the dead body of a young woman into a dumpster. He identifies the killer to Cutter when he sees him in a parade the next day, and Cutter realizes that the man is J.J. Cord, local oil tycoon. Cutter becomes obsessed with outing Cord, while Bone refuses to name him to the police. When the victim’s sister (Ann Dusenberry) gets involved, she and Cutter hatch a plan to blackmail Cord. Cutter’s depressed wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn), disapproves of the scheme, and the mutual attraction between her and Bone complicate the situation.
Before I go any further, let me simply say that “Cutter’s Way” is the reason I’m doing this blog. No, not the inspiration for it, I have already made that clear in my first entry all those years ago. What I mean, is that I got to re-watch a movie that I loved, and it was still a great experience over 30 years later. Also, by writing about it, I hopefully will get a few of my readers who haven't seen it to go find this thing and check it out.
Yes, I was correct in saying that the movie represents kind of a dying gasp of anti-establishment sentiments in a decade that would do it’s best to crush that kind of thinking. I was also right in remembering how fine the performances are. And arguably the whole Don Quixote deal was pretty on target.
I was incorrect about a few things however. It’s not much of a whodunit, and Bridges’ character is not a burnout at all. He is more of a waste of space than a wastoid. He’s a guy who uses his looks to 1) screw women with money, and 2) hold down a part-time job selling sailboats at a marina.
The contrast between Cutter and Bone is at the heart of the movie. One is deformed but brilliant and somehow still idealistic; the other is virile, slow-witted and detached. Cutter needs a cause; his life has been destroyed by a war that nobody believed in. Bone wants to run away from confrontation of any sort. In a way, they are a small but accurate cross-section of that generation. Then there's Mo, the woman whom both love, but who has become collateral damage. You don’t need a flashback to understand the history there. This triangle started long before the movie starts, and probably long before the war.
Despite the wordiness of the script, much goes unexplained or at most subtly implied. It takes almost until the climax to understand what the connection is between Bone’s boss George and Alex, and why George feels responsible for him. The fact that George works for J.J. Cord makes the entire film insular. How is it that Bone doesn’t know who Cord is when Cutter reveals him at the parade? We are led to believe that Bone just doesn’t give a shit, and that falls nicely into our theme.
Give a shit— and you get hurt. Don’t give a shit-- and your hair stays perfectly unmussed. Some of us went to jail protesting the war. Others just got high and skipped school. So——were you a Cutter? Or were you a Bone?
Part of the Czech New Wave movement in the ’60’s, Ivan Passer co-wrote two of Milos Forman’s hugely successful early works, “Loves of a Blonde” and “Fireman’s Ball”. There’s no way that you would think that he could handle this material having seen that work. Apparently his work directing Czech new wave classic “Intimate Lighting” was the reason UA and producer Paul Gurian chose him. Sadly for Passer and “Cutter’s Way”, the UA people in charge left the company for Fox, and the new executives in charge didn’t like the movie. When it premiered, NY Times critic Vincent Canby panned it, and the studio almost buried it. Yet one week later, Time Magazine’s Richard Schickel and Newsweek’s David Ansen both raved about it, so it had a new life.
Passer gets the atmosphere of Santa Barbara and that Central Coast feel just right. There is a juxtaposition of big money and hippie bohemia that makes it the prefect setting for this story. As I said earlier, he also gets career defining performances out of his leads.
Jeffrey Alan Fiskin wrote the script, which has so many memorable lines and exchanges that you can’t keep count. Cutter’s commentary during the parade is classic in itself, as he sexualizes even the most wholesome of cheerleaders, and generally leads the league in snark per second.
There are wonderful moments, like when the victim’s sister Valerie goes boating with Bone in an effort to get him to commit to fingering Cord. When he refuses to commit, they dock, she jumps out of the boat, and Bone offers her a lift. She turns him down and says that she’ll hitchhike instead. Ouch! Thank you, Bone. I’d much rather be raped and killed and dumped in a dumpster like my sister than get in your car.
A weird moment occurs when, after a devastating tragedy, George, Cutter and Bone all go to a polo match. Huh? When Cutter goes manic after seeing Cord there on his pony, the scene makes a bit more sense.
Photography was by Jordan Cronenweth, who bracketed this film with work on Ken Russell’s “Altered States” and Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner”. Those two films are probably as iconic for visuals as anything in the past 50 years, so that is quite a resume. “Cutter’s Way” will not make anyone forget about either, but has it’s moments, particularly some of the soft focus shots of Mo, and the sailing sequence. He also makes a big deal about Bone’s bluer than blue eyes, and Cord’s sunglasses. Along with Cutter’s eyepatch, there is definitely a theme going on here.
The music by Jack Nitzche is very ’70’s, and very similar to his score for Forman’s masterpiece “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”, minus the Indian tom toms. The main instrument is a “Glass Harmonica” whatever the hell that is. It sounds like a Theramin and a Saw had an out of tune baby. I think it’s like an instrument made out of the same principle as when you run your finger around the edge of a glass and it makes that “whoo” sound. It’s quite unsettling, and it works well with the story. I also loved the use of incidental music at the climax, when Cutter and Bone have crashed Cord’s party. There is a Flamenco duo in the house, and a Mariachi band on the patio. As the action goes back and forth, the changing music reflects the tension.
What more can I say about John Heard in this film? It is a powerhouse performance, one that takes what Jon Voight did in “Coming Home” and ups the ante. Watch this film, then watch Tom Cruise in “Born in the USA” and then tell me who did a better job. His voice is raspy, his delivery ranges from Popeye’s snide comments sotto voce to the screaming mania of Nicholson in “The Shining”. His physical demeanor is astounding; how he races around with a prosthetic induced limp is nothing short of miraculous. If this film were released today, he’d be a lock for an Oscar nomination.
The role was intended for Dustin Hoffman, but he had timing conflicts. Did “Cutter’s Way” catapult Heard into Hoffmanesque leading man status? Hardly. He worked with a lot of top directors; Scorcese, Penny Marshall, Ridley Scott, Robert Redford and many more. He has 171 credits to date on IMDB, but he never became a household name. Maybe he should have changed his name to like J. Matthew Heard, then we wouldn’t confuse him with John Hurt.
As for Bridges, he definitely steps aside in the film to let Heard shine. He does ‘diffident’ farely well, and I guess he looks hunky in a Californish way- surfer dude/chick magnet. You certainly wouldn’t know from this film which of the two would go on to be the bigger star. That being said, he is spot on for the character, and shows flashes of what would later be a more developed artistic talent.
The really interesting supporting turn is from Eichhorn, who plays Mo Cutter as a depressed alcoholic struggling with her love and loyalty to her wounded husband. She has a nasality to her voice, which amplifies the pain and silent suffering she is going through. The scene where she gives in to Bone’s advances is particularly heartbreaking; you can tell she is being pleasured, but her face reflects the pain her betrayal is causing her. She is either laughing, crying or both at the same time. I also loved a moment earlier in the film when she and Bone have been drinking out of a vodka bottle, and Mo reaches out for what looks like Bone’s hand. He goes to hold it, but her smile recedes and she simply says, “Bottle”. It is a chilling moment for sure, and you know there is no solace Bone can give her for her predicament.
ON SECOND LOOK
No way this shouldn’t be considered a classic of American Cinema. It is the first movie I would put on that list of “The Greatest Movies You’ve Never Seen”. From opening to climax it is pitch perfect, and the performances, script and theme are as good as it gets. Call it what you want, “Cutter’s Way” is a masterpiece, just like my friend Michael said.
On First Look: ✭✭✭1/2 On Second Look: ✭✭✭✭