Wednesday, February 21, 2007

I'm Just Gonna Go Find a Cash Machine

Two films, 16 years apart that are basically a dark mirror image of each other. That’s how I see the relationship between “Cutter’s Way” filmed in 1981 and “The Big Lebowski” in 1997. It doesn’t hurt that both star Jeff Bridges as a beach bum, slowly implicated in an ever evolving murder mystery due to the assumptions of a delusional best friend. They both use a young girl (dead and maybe dead) as a morose starting point for their infantile (and at times imbecilic) quest for the truth. They both represent a class war between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. If you’ve seen both films, the similarities are too great to ignore. And both films punctuate, in their own ways dramatic and comedic, the leanest characteristics of film noir.

Released in 1981, Ivan Passer’s “Cutter’s Way” caught the tail end of the 70’s noirs- phenomenal films that carried such a dark undercurrent and featured a great sense of nihilism that they virtually ‘out-noired’ the original black and white films. Films such as “Chinatown”, “Night Moves”, “Charley Varrick”, “Hustle”, and even to some extent “The Long Goodbye”, all featured an air-tight script with stories gleaned from the 40’s, but fully realized in that 1970’s feel that highlighted psychological mood and atmosphere over twists and turns (though these films had those too). These films, perhaps influenced by the growing pessimism generated by Watergate, Vietnam or inflation, were darker, meaner and all 4 feature dynamic endings that rank pretty high on the ‘bummer factor’. The detective doesn’t always solve the case, and they often end up worse and more disillusioned than when they were dragged into their moral quagmires of death and deception in the first place. I won’t give away any of the cruel twists of fate, but I dare anyone to find an iota of happiness when the curtain closes over J.J Gittes, Gould’s Marlowe, Harry Moseby or Varrick. And I won’t even mention the fate of Phil Gaines, as those fans of Robert Aldrich’s “Hustle” are well aware. Bottom line, 70’s noirs believed in nothing (to paraphrase quite the humorous nihilist in “Lebowski”) and they rubbed our collective noses in it.

“Cutter’s Way” missed the 70’s deadline by just over a year but its mood, lingering attention to a formalized plot, and especially shocking ending lends itself naturally to the best noirs of the 70’s. I can certainly forgive its ill-timed release. Starring Jeff Bridges as Richard Bone, his character sells yachts in an exclusive California town. He spends his time between his boat and crashing at his friend’s house, a disfigured and crippled Vietnam vet named Cutter, played to delirious perfection by John Heard (yes, that father from “Home Alone”). In the mix is Maureen (Lisa Eichorn), Cutter’s estranged wife who’s become secondary to his booze and violent impulses. After Bone’s car dies one night in an alley, another vehicle pulls up behind him and dumps a young girl’s body in a trashcan. Oblivious to the crime that’s just occurred behind him, Cutter leaves his car behind, getting only a glimpse of the man as he speeds off in his expensive car. The next morning, when detectives come calling on Bone because of his stalled car just yards from the dead body, he becomes a witness in a brutal homicide. It’s not long before Bone “thinks” the perpetrator is J. Cord, oil tycoon who happens to own half of the sea-side town where everyone resides. The only discerning factors driving Bone to this decision is the fact that Cord is wearing a polo hat and dark sunglasses like the darkened figure in the alley. Forget the fact that 1/3 of the film takes place within the secluded polo field and nice restaurants that dart this sunny California town. Obsessed with solving the murder and befriending the dead girl’s sister, Cutter relentlessly feeds Bone with suppositions and formulates a plan to blackmail Cord. The logic is simple- if he pays, he’s guilty and they return the money and hand him over to the police. The murdering, rich son-of-a-bitch has to pay! Of course, nothing goes as plans, and Cutter’s dementia as he desperately tries to pin the murder on Cord envelops his life, pushing his wife away even further and releasing both Bone and himself into a collision course that results in even more loss of life. The character played by Jeff Bridges, shown to be quite the ladies man, wants nothing more than to lounge on his boat, bed beautiful women and live off the scraps of his rich friends. It’s the persistent cracking psyche of Cutter that drives the story down its dark trail as he pushes everyone towards a climax that’s inevitable… and all the while holding onto the “truth” through a few ‘possible’ ideas by Bone. Sounds eerily familiar right?

Flash forward to 1997 when Jeff Bridges embodies the Dude, a California slacker who wants nothing more than to smoke pot, bowl and bed beautiful women in “The Big Lebowski”. Due to an unforeseeable set of events caused by a simple case of mixed identities, The Dude soon becomes embroiled in the plot to find a missing young girl. When he mentions his misfortune to his Vietnam vet best friend, Walter (played by Jeff Goodman) and infers his perception of the truth, Walter pushes the film forward through his own delusional presuppositions. Need I go any further?

It’s been a long time since I listened to the commentary by the Coen Brothers or watched them interviewed about “The Big Lebowski”, but I can’t imagine them not mentioning that this film is a blatant homage or re-imagining of “Cutter’s Way”. While “The Big Lebowski” certainly aims for laughter (and gets it in spades), it’s still a remarkably assured film noir, intricately plotted, and filled to the brim with deception, goofy femme fatales and blackmail.

“The Big Lebowski” feels like a film released at just the right time, both in the Coen Brothers own progression of filmmaking as well as the timing of a comedic film noir. Coming on the heels of a rather dour and serious attempt with “Fargo”, the Coen Brothers didn’t feel the need to produce another, instead tackling the genre this time with giddy delight and comedic abandon. And, if one thinks back to the year of 1997, film noir as a whole was getting washed away in glossy and surface ‘neo-noirs’, sparked by the critical and financial success of a fresh faced talent named Quentin Tarantino. For every “Red Rock West”, “The Last Seduction” or “The Underneath”, there were 3 “Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead” or “Truth or Consequences N.M”, films more pre-occupied with copying the success mold of Tarantino rather than showcasing interesting and honest variations on the noir genre. “The Big Lebowski”, above all else, revealed a keen sense of awareness about the lack of creativity and electricity built into the current stable of modern noirs, and it decidedly punched holes in everything dramatic. No film up until this point really had the balls to accommodate a straight up noir structure with such a ferocious sense of humor (and if anyone can think of one, please let me know!)

So, we have two films, same actor, same plot, 16 years apart, mirror images of one another. Coincidence? I don’t know, but whether it’s a coincidence or not, I’m genuinely glad to have both films around. And about the post title, my apologies, its late and I couldn't think of a catchy one so I just used my favorite line from the film.

1 comment:

Adam Ross said...

I realize I'm a little late to the party here, but great post Joseph! I'm a big fan of both of these films and had never made the connection.

I love the atmosphere in Cutter's Way -- it was filmed in Santa Barbara, a city I briefly lived in during my youth and the film's portrayal of the locale is pretty spot-on.