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Cutter's Way - Re-release of 1981 film starring Jeff Bridges

Study in decorum and ethos is a lost classic and 70s swan song

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Cutter's Way - Re-release of 1981 film starring Jeff Bridges

In an early scene in 1981’s Cutter’s Way, the bronzed Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) gets out of bed and we see the ripple of a six-pack as his stomach hits the light. Shortly afterwards we see his old friend, Alex Cutter (John Heard), a Vietnam veteran with one eye, one arm and one and a half legs. Metonymically we might believe that Bridges has spent the last ten years tanning and training on Venice Beach, while Cutter fought in the jungles of Vietnam, and devoted the last five or six years of his life nursing physical and mental anguish. And that is more or less how it turns out to be.

Essentially Czech émigré Ivan Passer’s (Intimate Lighting) slow-burn Californian film, adapted from Newton Thornburg’s novel Cutter and Bone, is a study in decorum and ethos, with the smoothly practised womanizing Bone taking care of the decorum, while the broken Cutter searches out not just a way to live, but a justification for his bitterness. But does Cutter simply find himself falling ever deeper into paranoia as he searches for signs of corruption wherever he looks, or does he think he is really on to something when Bone is caught up in the murder of a young woman? Bone is innocent of course, and no charges are forthcoming, but when Bone spots the likely killer at a parade, Cutter reckons it is time this fat-cat multi-millionaire should be brought to justice.

Passer’s film is less conventional thriller, nor even paranoiac thriller in the tradition of The Parallax View or Three Days of the Condor, than a quizzical study of two men whose bodies and personal histories are radically different, and how every decision made carries this sense of ethos (or lack of it) because of different perspectives. It is almost as though the film is asking how difficult it is for the healthy and lucky to see injustice, and how the unhealthy and unlucky see it so often and in so many places that their judgement becomes questionable. How, the film asks, can the healthy adopt Cutter’s way, how can the healthy body sense the injustice of the unhealthy, especially when the unhealthy is looking constantly for external justification for his bodily pain? Thus we see Cutter haranguing friends at a card table early in the film, and driving his car into the neighbour’s garden later in the movie. At another moment his wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn), an internally fragile woman possessing a way with one-liners that manages to lower her own self-esteem whilst taking apart that of another, tries to improve things with the novel idea of buying groceries instead of booze. It is no wonder Bone wants little to do with Cutter’s grand, conspiratorial claims and his dissipated way of life. Yet at a certain point inexorable reasoning, and not just Cutter’s wailing despair, forces Bone into a decision, or rather an act of decisiveness.

This great film offers two loosely seventies cinematic figures: the surfing, laidback or narcissistic gigolo type often played by Bridges, occasionally by William Katt (Big Wednesday, Carrie), or Richard Gere (American Gigolo), where there is a Waspish comfort to life, with man apparently and obliviously surfing the zeitgeist. At the other end there is Peter Boyle in Joe, Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, and all those swollen, pig-headed and often overweight vigilantes played by actors like Joe Don Baker in Walking Tall, or gnarled and wrinkled and tired of life, as practised by Bronson for much of the decade. Cutter’s Way seems to bring the two strands together, interweaves them, and at the same time eradicates from the laid back his obliviousness and from the vigilante his fascist tendencies. It consequently arrives at an ethos that transcends the bodily pains and the historical anguish as the clean-cut Bone realises that even he cannot deny there are occasions where an ethos must be adopted impersonally. As the film concludes, Bone points the gun at the oncoming industrialist as his dying friend lies in his arms, and fires the gun. The credits come up as the gun is fired, but we are still left with the realisation that Bone fires the gun through Cutter’s hands. Is this yet another example of the lean, tanned Bone practising self-preservation, or is it an acceptance that Cutter would want it this way – would want his last grace and testimony to be that of taking out a corrupt industrialist who, however indirectly, would have been responsible for sending him to Vietnam?

Perhaps it is remiss to give away the ending, but the film is thirty years old and is surely getting a re-release not on the strength of its storyline but for the quality of its thematic significance and its low-key neo-noir visuals. Shot by Jordan Cronenweth not long before doing Blade Runner, the film has an eerily ambiguous opening that plays image against sound, as Jack Nitzsche’s (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) plaintive string score is contrasted with the slow motion images of a street parade. It is as though even its continuity errors (what happens to one young woman who disappears from the film?) and its meagre release contribute to its mysteriousness. United Artists, busily being almost bankrupted by the mega-budgeted Heaven’s Gate, released it as Cutter and Bone, spent a measly $63,000 on publicity, and got some negative reviews. Ready to pull the film, the company backtracked when some positive ones came in and they re-released it under United Artists Classics, and under its present title. And here it is, thirty years on, getting another re-release. The French have the term le film maudit for movies that seem cursed, but this can often be a blessing in disguise as the film, instead of possessing a blockbuster big splash, offers a slow, ongoing ripple. It might have been Heaven’s Gate that was the grand UA film of the time, and worthy of a re-release of its own, but this $3m budgeted study in human feeling is the ugly duckling little brother that is also something of a seventies swan song. As John Pattison astutely noted in the Guardian recently : “it's like the last Hollywood movie of the 1960s, in which the aspirations and ideals of that long-gone decade finally soured irrevocably on its dazed, burnt-out survivors.”

Cutter's Way

  • 4 stars
  • 1981
  • US
  • 105 min
  • 18
  • Directed by: Ivan Passer
  • Cast: Jeff Bridges, John Heard, Lisa Eichhorn, Ann Dusenberry

Boozy Vietnam vet prods his aimless mate Bridges into action after he thinks he has witnessed a murder. Welcome reissue of this low-key, downbeat and culty thriller.

Elsewhere on the web

Cutter's Way trailer

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