Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The First Lebowski: CUTTER'S WAY (1981)

Every once in awhile a man has to pause. Every once in awhile a man has peer into the decades behind him, take a cursory flip through Leonard Maltin and wonder... is John Heard really a good actor? I mean, is he awesome? Or is he too much too late?

The question is answered the same time as you ask: do all 1970s movies involve grizzled vet loners going after corrupt power father figures like they're lone wolves growling valiantly but for naught against the dog food industry?

As Robert Evans would say, you bet all 1970's movies involved grizzled loners growling for naught against the machine. And they all must have a big crowd scene parade, or a wedding, or a political rally, or some place where they can see some willowy female figure in a white dress representing old world innocence reduced to a symbolic lamb sacrifice against the coming storm of dread and draconian soul-eating.

Perhaps a bit shaggy, CUTTER'S WAY can't make up its mind about itself: is it called CUTTER'S WAY or CUTTER AND BONE? Is it an Elmore Leonard-ish beach bum crime drama, a Vietnam vet character study, a dysfunctional buddy comedy meets California corruption tale, or an elegy to the American dream ala DEER HUNTER? A quirky tale of a small California town where everybody knows your name and you can drink right out in the open and not be arrested, ("Hey man! I have a beverage here!") it's CHINATOWN meets MIDNIGHT COWBOY divided by BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA meets NIGHT MOVES + SHAMPOO divided by THE DEER HUNTER if Roger Altman started to direct it, got replaced by William Friedkin, who turned it over to Louis Malle. It's got a little of a lot and sure it's brilliant but by 1981 these tropes scan like quirk-by- numbers. Why shoehorn the whole evil murder plot in there at all? And Heard overplays so much and acts so drunk that a murder case seems way too much for him to handle, or care about. He should be using some of that voracious animal intellect to not piss his pants, like the rest of us!

Those pants really tied the room together.

In short, this movie could be a prequel to THE BIG LEBOWSKI, wherein a younger Dude, still played by Jeff Bridges, deals with a similar conspiracy by the much saner approach of saying fuck it and going bowling, and Bridges' Vietnam vet wreck of a buddy John Goodman but a little scrawny fucker with only one leg and an eye patch. Goodman would have shaken the shit up in CUTTER'S WAY, but Heard can't do much more than ride a horse through a window. As Sam Eliot once said: "Take her easy, Dude... I know you will, too."

CUTTER takes it too easy, way too easy. It started as a project back in 1971 and if it had been released in 1972 instead of the early nine years later it would probably have been a hit and a modern classic like your DEER HUNTER and your CHINATOWN, but studio regime changes as well as trend shifts delayed its completion and release, and by 1981 people had grown a little weary of the traumatized vet loner solving a rich man's crimes and getting nothing but alienated. I remember reading some good reviews in the local newspaper when CUTTER finally did come out, but I knew even then, at 14, that the 1970s were over. We'd all had a good laugh at the HEAVEN'S GATE debacle, and grown tired of the undignified trash talking--chronicled in PEOPLE magazine--between the stars of DEER HUNTER and COMING HOME over the 1978 Oscars, with one side bashing the other over its 'demonic' portrayal of the Viet Cong and the other side bashing the other over its idealized liberal critique of Bruce Dern. One more film about a Vietnam vet disillusioned and seeking to overturn the turtle of American politics wasn't going to make us leave our sofa, not in 1981. We craved fantasy, escape, ET!!

And lo, ET was on his way, to trade us our innocence for some magic candy--like a safety class stranger--just one year after this last gasp of 1970s corruption-venting. In 1981, being disillusioned about America was universal to the point it had disappeared from notice.

And for some of us, John Heard was just too... Kevin Bacon-ish? No denying he's ferocious here and gives it 111%, but seeing the film now, long past any due date, I honestly don't know how I feel about him, or the film. All the ingredients are there and maybe that's the problem. It's like the film was given an unlimited shopping spree at the seventies' paranoia cliche' store and just had to clean the place out.

But hey, it's worth seeing some time when you're high on 1970s Vietnam-gate, and what a double bill it would make with LEBOWSKI! May I recommend an angle on which to view them, for political meta-purposes? Just have Bridges = Blue States / right brain (far out, man) and the vets (Goodman and Heard) = Red states / left brain (guns break class barriers). The corrupt power elite figure in each equals the 'real' corporate shadow puppets (Halliburton, Enron) that capitalize on the dissonance between the colors/hemispheres to steal everyone's IRA and soul. Keep this in mind and let the bowling balls and cocktails fall where they may.

The fine and trenchant blog OUT 1 reviews CUTTER here, and draws a similar Lebowski conclusion while dealing more with the plot and production of the film itself. It makes a fine double bill with this post! Tell them the Dude sent ya. I know you won't, too... you'll forget.

I know I have.


  1. The novel CUTTER AND BONE was pretty gripping (at least when i read it twenty years ago). It was out of print for a long while, but was reprinted recently, with a forward by George Pelicanos. Maybe a bit elmore leonardesque, but i tell ya, i couldn't put it down.

    I have the movie on my Netlix list. Your review is good, and thanks for no spoilers!


  2. Thanks, Otto! I'm in the camp that one should never do spoilers, or even describe the plot. You make me feel I need to read that book!

  3. Sometimes there's man... wow, I lost my train of thought, there...

    Excellent post! I think I like CUTTER'S WAY a bit more than you do... I'm still digging on its '70s-esque nihilistic ending as Heard takes one fer the team and Bridges finally becomes a believer? And is there anything more eerie than that shot of Stephen Elliott putting on his mirror shades? No wonder Bridges does what he does.

    I also think that Lisa Eichhorn who plays the long suffering Mo is note perfect. She really does an incredible job in this film.

  4. Consider it added to my queue.

  5. I'm going to have to check this one out, great review. Though I hate to be that guy. "Lebowski"

  6. Erich, you do need to read the novel, though it might make you think less of the film. Endings are very different -- as I'm sure you're shocked to learn.

  7. I had much the same reaction to this film: by 1981 this stuff was a little played out despite the best efforts of the people involved. A lesser-known Bridges movie from the '70s that I enjoyed wholeheartedly was the fictionalized Kennedy assassination thriller WINTER KILLS.

  8. Thanks for the link, Erich! As the Wu Tang Clan once said, we're back in the game now. Looking forward to a more active 2011.

    (And great piece here, as usual).

  9. A friend recommended Cutter's Way to me and I really dug it. Parallels with The Big Lebowski (the fulcrum of JB's career?) were in the back of my mind as well, CW is a sort of headier version of similar material. And I do think it's better than Blow Out, The Parallax View, and some of the other paranoid thrillers. It's got a real heart to it, the menage a trois relationship at the center of it all (Bone, Cutter, and Mo) adds a human touch. Just started the novel . . .


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