Sunday, July 15, 2007

Flesh and Bone

In the May-June issue of Film Comment, Brynn White writes of Lee Marvin, "Marvin wanted the audience to grimace and stiffen, but he always wanted them to look back, captivated by what they had seen, gradually finding poignancyin human nature's initially repellent capacities." In Michael Ricthie's "Prime Cut" (1972), Marvin does just both- creating a silent hunter who makes us grimace when he dispatches Gene Hackman's henchman as well as stirring a few gentle emotions in the way he resurrects the empty childhood of a girl (Sissy Spacek) sold into sexual slavery. "Prime Cut", along with "Point Blank", are the best renderings of a man on a quest for something greater. Although they're both fairly straight-forward examples of the strong, silent type that made Marvin a star, they're also the quintessential types of filmmaking that earmarked their respective eras. While "Point Blank" cashes in on the late 60's feel and mood, "Prime Cut" is loose and spirited in a way that only the best films of the 70's captured. While Michael Ritchie would go on to make other classic examples of the period (namely "Smile" and "The Bad News Bears"), "Prime Cut" stands out for its efficient, focused, and nasty way of telling a very ordinary story.

From the opening credits, "Prime Cut" establishes itself as an attack on good manners; a man's body is seen laying inside a Kansas City meat factory converyor belt. The belt starts up, and we're given glimpses of the process that creates our daily beef intake. The camera follows as the body is eventually turned into sausage links. The links are packages up and mailed to a mob boss in Chicago, courtesy of 'Mary Ann' (Gene Hackman) as an affront to the big city boys who sent someone to his small town to collect money. The idea of disposing of a body within a meat packing plant seems elementary today (think of the passion that would've stirred up in a film like "Fast Food Nation"!), but it seems especially grotesque in 1972, which only begins the heated and bloody collisions that stack up in "Prime Cut".

It's not long before the Chicago boss sends his toughest henchman in to negotiate with Mary Ann. Enter Lee Marvin. Upon arriving in Kansas City, Marvin walks right into the barn of Mary Ann, who's in the middle of an auction for beef and drugged, nubile young girls. One of these girls catches Marvin's eye, but not for the same sexual reasons that other men are lined up. Marvin takes the young girl (played with sensual abandon by Sissy Spacek) and makes his intentions clear to Mary Ann. Pay or consequences (and most undoubtedly hell) will be coming. From there, "Prime Cut" explodes into a frenzy of single, efficient vision. It continually subverts the suspense and film noir genre, creating 2 setpieces that feel terrifying in their mundaneness. The first occurs when Marvin and Spacek run from Mary Ann's blond-cloned henchmen from a small town carnival. They end up in a wheatfield where a combine begins to chase after them. Hitchcock watch out. The second, a setpiece that acts as the thrilling finale, places Marvin in the middle of a sunflower field, automatic machine guns blazing. Not only does Richie nail the logistics of the gun battle with great audacity, but he manages to make it feel like anyone (even Lee Marvin) could fall at any minute. Marvin stalks through the battles with great confidence, but what differs from this melee and the ones he surrounded himself during "Point Blank" is the fact that he's fighting for something greather than himself. The undercurrents of father-child relationship between Marvin and Spacek echo loudly throughtout the final few minutes. Which, again, makes the bloodshed all the more palpable.

"Prime Cut" is a film that's hardly ever mentioned when 70's classics are thrown around, but it's a masterwork that demands to be seen. Recently released on video for the first time, maybe now is the perfect chance for everyone to seek out an unheralded gem.


Adam Ross said...

I love this movie. I think it's great how we never get an explanation to why a mob boss is named "Mary Ann," and the early tease about Marvin's machinegun when his flunky starts to open its case. I too liked Spacek alot in this, she really had a great run to open her career (Badlands, Prime Cut, Carrie and 3 Women in a span of 5 years).

Joe Baker said...


you're right about the Mary Ann name- there's so much funkiness to this movie that I'm sure will never be explained. I think my favorite scene has to be the silent trip in the car that Marvin and his guys make towards the final battle. There's something adrenaline busting about the way the music thumps on the soundtrack and we're given short glimpses of Marvin piecing together his gun. Reminded me of a Jean Pierre Melville film on acid.