Friday, August 19, 2005

Eat More Meat: Prime Cut (1972)

Badass mob enforcer Nick Devlin (Lee Marvin) is sent from Chicago down to Kansas City to take care of a renegade criminal named Mary Ann (Gene Hackman) who owes his city-dwelling associates $500,000. Though content with living the life of a country meatpacker and fostering the illusion of a respectable businessman, Mary Ann is selling something far more choice than hot dogs and steak. “Well, cow flesh, girl flesh,” he states, when confronted by Devlin. “It’s all the same to me. What they’re buying, I’m selling.” The blue skies, sweeping wheat fields, and the wholesome afternoons spent at the county fair are unable to disguise the festering rot underneath Mary Ann’s American Dream. Devlin and his mob muscle snatch a young girl (Sissy Spacek) from one of Mary Ann’s private auctions—drugged and naked girls penned in cages like farm animals—and whisk her away to a downtown hotel where Devlin falls chastely enamored of her. But Mary Ann’s boys steal her back, forcing Devlin to mix his business with what truly matters to him.

Though the film has been largely forgotten, director Michael Ritchie (The Candidate, Smile, The Bad News Bears, The Island) and screenwriter Robert Dillon craft something bizarrely special here, easily making Prime Cut one of the best crime films from the 1970s. This caustic pulp masterpiece sticks the knife into heartland America and never offers up a reprieve, even when its vice-grip of a plot cranks too tight and borders on outright absurdity. Marvin is at his laconic supercool best, as is Gene Hackman doing what he’s always done so brilliantly—play gleeful sleeze to the hilt. The supporting cast is finely sketched as well, especially the superb Gregory Walcott as Weenie, Mary Ann’s head-cheesed brother/enforcer. Unfortunately, the ending with Marvin and company releasing the rest of the girls from their “orphanage,” comes off as silly and contrived in its everything-is-right-with-the-world morality. But it smacks of studio interference more than an artistic miscalculation. Nevertheless, this savage, exciting, and darkly humorous postmodern country noir is prime good white trash entertainment. Dig it and dig in.

I should mention that this was one of my first formative film experiences. I’m not sure how old I was at the time, but I remember being taken to the drive-in theater, all snug in my one-piece pajamas and blanket, and waking up during several of the film’s more grotesque sequences, much to my wide-eyed horror. Talk about parental guidance! And the scene where Marvin and Spacek are chased in a wheat field by a combine machine left an indelible tattoo upon my soft, impressionable brain. Am I scarred because of it? Hell no! I thank my parents for being so reckless (I also have fond memories of being taken to the drive-in and waking up during The Wild Bunch at some point, probably in some sort of re-release. They also took me to see The Jungle Book at the drive-in, so there is evidence that my parents had some sensitivity of what was appropriate for my age; they were just inconsistent is all. Subsequently, my mother took me, aged ten, to see Apocalypse Now during its first theatrical run at the Joy Theater in Tigard, complete with the soon-to-be discarded destruction of Kurtz’s compound credit sequence. Man, talk about formative experiences!) and clueless. Despite what the parental do-gooders and naysayers would have you think, I’ve grown up eh . . . okay, I think. At the very least, I’ve got a wide-ranging love of film. So thanks, mom.

Prime Cut is available on DVD from Paramount Home Entertainment.

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