Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Just What It Wants

The opening credits of Michael Ritchie’s PRIME CUT roll as cows are led into a slaughterhouse to be turned into hamburgers and hot dogs with the sound of soothing muzak eventually filling the air. We soon realize that not everything in there being chopped up is strictly animal since that shoe must have come from somewhere but regardless the music is perfect for this particular moment in our lives as we all feel like we’re being led down a conveyor belt towards doom. It’s the America we have no choice but to live in right now so relax. We’ll all be turned into sausage soon enough.

To say that PRIME CUT would never be made today might very well be the most obvious thing you can say about the film. It’s almost hard to believe it even happened in 1972. However much the old video box made it look like a typical Lee Marvin action movie, watching it at this point in time makes clear that the film is about right now, about an America that has rotted out from the middle in its destructive belief that the real country is what exists there while grinding all that gets in its path down to nothing. The very concept of what winning in America means permeates Michael Ritchie’s films through the 70s, whether the flag seen in the final shot of THE BAD NEWS BEARS as the team celebrates their loss or the girls competing in the Young American Miss pageant of SMILE. It’s a world where it’s never clear what winning really means but it doesn’t matter since it was probably never going to happen anyway. And when Robert Redford actually achieves victory at the end of Ritchie’s THE CANDIDATE it’s not a reason to celebrate but the end of the dream. In PRIME CUT there is no real dream anymore since this is an America that has been left to fend for itself with the cities full and the long stretches in between mostly empty. It’s a short, violent, twisted, blood red hunk of an action movie and never at all subtle while still doing an appropriately offhand job as the Lee Marvin vehicle that it always appeared to be.

Chicago mob enforcer Nick Devlin (Lee Marvin) is tasked with heading out to Kansas City, Kansas where local meat magnate/white slavery pimp Mary Ann (Gene Hackman) owes half a million to the mob and instead of paying up has taken care of the last few guys who have been sent to collect, even turning the last guy literally into sausage and mailing the links back to the city. With a few other guys in tow as muscle, Nick heads out to Kansas City where he encounters Mary Ann lording over a livestock auction of, not cattle, but of young girls who have been raised to be prostitutes. When one of them, a girl named Poppy (Sissy Spacek) whispers “Help me” he takes her on account until they meet Mary Ann again for the payoff. But it soon becomes clear that Mary Ann has no intention of paying his debt and will be perfectly happy to do away with Poppy, Nick and his men as well.

PRIME CUT is almost so deceptively straightforward in how it’s shot and staged that it can be tough to get a handle on just how weird, how unrelentingly batshit, the whole thing is. Yet somehow the tone almost completely works, a mishmash of Lee Marvin revenge thriller with Americana satire, piercing below the surface to the rot that lies there and the people who insist on keeping things at that level. Somehow Michael Ritchie finds the naturalism in all this perversity, acknowledging what an insane world it is but completely deadpan about what’s really there. The midwest has been left on its own presumably with the mob in charge and even the luxury hotel has stopped using the term Presidential Suite because “they don’t stop in Kansas anymore.” So the likes of Mary Ann’s Meats (“Butchers to the World”) is fully intent on taking the power back as they show off their livestock to prospective buyers only it’s not cows found in the pens but young girls, naked and drugged while the men stand around admiring them. This is, as the film seems to view it, perfectly natural. It’s all just flesh anyway. It’s not clear why Mary Ann, introduced stuffing his face with a literal plateful of guts, hasn’t paid the half a million he owes back to Chicago aside from that he simply doesn’t feel like it. Why should he, after all, his world is the real America that he’s taking back, the place where everyone speaks English like they’re supposed to and places like Chicago being run by the Irish mob that represent the formality of the old world are dying a long, slow death anyway. Oh and, by the way, fuck you. The unexplained moniker of Hackman’s Mary Ann even indicates that he’s perfectly happy to take women’s names away from them as well as their freedom, such is his deep hatred of all things female possibly because he can’t get it up when they’re around. Sissy Spacek’s Poppy, introduced naked and drugged, isn’t even a human being to him, just one more piece of meat who thanks to Nick wakes up into a fantasyland that is the real world (or this film’s version of it) and her innocence turns into curiosity to learn the truth almost immediately. Meanwhile, the much argued over Clarabelle, played by Angel Tompkins, seems to have a past with each male lead character and literally has the name of a cow as if to prove how much she knows that she’s meat herself. Going by appearances, she seems fine with that, going from one guy in the mob to the next while luxuriating in a houseboat by the side of the road, always looking for the next guy she can fuck over and content to do nothing but graze in her own private field.

Written by Robert Dillon, all of this walks a very fine line between gritty and satirical and what-the-fuck-is-this, with dialogue that is forever cryptic presumably referring to past events which will remain mysterious yet the wit it contains is always sharp and it makes even the bit characters pop. It’s a tone that the screenwriter went for again a few years later with 99 AND 44/100% DEAD, another oddball crime film set in its own hermetic universe but in directing that film the great John Frankenheimer seemed to have no idea what tone he was going for and it’s pretty much a total botch, one of his worst films (when he later brought Dillon along as one of the screenwriters on FRENCH CONNECTION II things turned out considerably better). But the way Michael Ritchie, who I’ve long thought of as Hal Ashby’s scrappier younger brother, approaches PRIME CUT he seems to casually accept the nastiness of the tone required so each moment grabs us as we try to figure out just what the fuck is really going on. Right from his first moment onscreen Lee Marvin gets some of the best close-ups of his career, always willing to use the pure force of his presence as a part of the humor as he walks around Kansas City ready to kick the crap out of people in his white shoes. Willing to get right in Marvin’s face, Gene Hackman chews all over his glorious dialogue like, “Chicago’s a sick old sow, gruntin’ for fresh cream. What it deserves is slop. Someday they’re gonna boil that town down for fat” as if he’ll still possess his balls as long only as he keeps talking. The film revels in the shots of the two guys going at each other and when the plot meanders it still brings something unexpected to each scene, something even more surprising in case we were sure we had a handle on it all. The silent touches also catch just the right particular vibe like the moody, all-night limo journey Marvin takes through the heartland out to Kansas City and the swank hotel they stay at while they’re there, complete with a dining room overstaffed as if waiting for a civilized society that will never return. The drive out to the big climactic shootout features thunder rumbling overhead also lets the fiery Lalo Schifrin score kick in big time, letting us soak into the anger that’s been bubbling up and the nasty groove of what the film is ultimately going for.

In a Middle America where the girls are desired for their flesh, the women tend to the milk while the men are all about the meat and guns, barely seeming to care who they’re gunning down. No one seems bothered when all the guns come out at the fair anyway, maybe because it seems so normal. If you’re searching for civilized society, you won’t find it here. The big chase setpiece through the wheat field involving a thresher chasing Nick and Poppy is just as absurd while still becoming a NORTH BY NORTHWEST centerpiece that feels even more dangerous no matter how crazy it gets and Ritchie shoots the hell out of it, with the machine somehow becoming an otherworldly monster in the Kansas heartland with the way the film dwells on it going on longer than you’d expect, the action combined with the farmland that is totally unfamiliar to these guys. Even a shootout in a field of sunflowers almost becomes more about the serenity of the way they’re placed in the frame than anything but the action is still pulled off in a way that I doubt even Walter Hill could have done any better.

Since it’s a film about the behavior of men coming at each other like bulls more than an airtight plot the best moments where we can separate from what’s going on in this bizarre world and just go with it. When Nick comes looking for Clarabelle out on her houseboat I’m not even entirely sure what they’re talking about or why he needs to be there but everything about the scene feel like the correct kind of sleaze, even the way the shots framed in a way that comes off as the living embodiment of pulp novel covers. The energy to the camerawork keeps things moving even if the dry aesthetic makes it feel like it could have been shown cropped on the 4:30 movie, naturally with all the nudity cut out. There’s also some very 70s nastiness that takes things beyond the comic book satire but looking at the film now it plays like how the real cartoonish villains of 2017 also take things far beyond the buffoonery they’re best at. Goddamn them, as one of Nick’s boys repeats a few times and he’s right. The film may be a satire about misogyny set in an openly misogynist world but it still features those elements anyway and doesn’t apologize for lingering over the details, the see-through dress that Nick gives to Poppy and when she wears it an old guy can’t stop staring at her. This is not a pleasant world for women and maybe teaming up with someone like Nick Devlin, whose name indicates that he’s no angel himself, might be their best bet. He isn’t any better than anyone else, definitely not in this world, but the way he instinctively seems to know to treat Poppy almost as an equal feels like a small miracle.

It’s a nasty piece of work in multiple ways, an ultra-tight 86 minutes that never dwells on the moment but thanks to editor Carl Pingitore (who cut DIRTY HARRY right before this, but most of his credits are in TV) it keeps moving and ends before we’ve totally figured out the thing. It focuses on the twisted mood and what it’s trying to say more than the story so a few elements feel underserved; Marvin’s cohorts who he travels from Chicago with aren’t particularly memorable and even when the film becomes truly nasty the overall satirical undercurrent possibly keeps it from leaving too much of an impact. Maybe with such a minor plot focused so much on the milieu of the whole thing coming up with something more drawn out was never a big priority. This isn’t Don Siegel directing CHARLEY VARRICK where the plotting allows all the pieces to fall together beautifully, this is Michael Ritchie directing what may be a little too much of a goof but one that never loses its edge so PRIME CUT is unique and still a little jaw-dropping in its commitment. It’s a film with bad guys who may be vicious, who have no ideas of what to do with women beyond locking them up or just raping them but in the end they’ve got nothing, as limp as that sausage Lee Marvin gets attacked with near the end. They’re just not smart enough to have other ideas. Which sounds familiar these days. Near the very end Poppy is told that Chicago, which she’s never seen, is as peaceful as any place on Earth. The way PRIME CUT views things, it just may be the truth.

There’s an elegance to Lee Marvin’s work here even down to the smallest gestures and he seems totally comfortable in his skin, fully aware of where he’s supposed to be in the frame. He’s not the deadly machine Walker in POINT BLANK but a man with his own code that he doesn’t reveal to anyone (“He is who he is,” as his driver correctly describes him at one point) but he still gives the sense that he’s a little off too, a misfit that fits in with this world perfectly, not worried so much about loyalty to his job as just making sure that things are taken care of and still, since he’s Lee Marvin, the coolest. Up against him, Gene Hackman is playing a son of a bitch who’s all talk and he doesn’t hold back, making every word out of his meat loving mouth count which reveals his power and his impotence all at once. One shot of him lying on his back near the end anticipates his position near the end of UNFORGIVEN twenty years later and it’s a reminder of what Hackman could do in the ferociousness that he was able to bring during his best moments. As Poppy, Sissy Spacek comes off as a tiny revelation, unaware but never naïve, still a lot to learn but never stupid, making the way she describes her closeness with best friend Violet unexpectedly sweet in this context. She’s completely fearless when certain amounts of nudity are required and her interplay with Marvin is the one part of the film I wish it could spend more time on before the credits roll. The unapologetic vibe Angel Tompkins gives off as she lounges around on her houseboat makes you wonder how much backstory she really has with each of these guys, Gregory Walcott of PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE is Hackman’s brother Weenie, Janit Baldwin is Poppy’s best friend Violet and Eddie Egan, the real-life Popeye Doyle, plays the Chicago mob boss who hires Marvin.

Even now while watching PRIME CUT I find myself half waiting for it to turn into the normal version of what I expect it will be and that never happens. That’s one of the things I like about it. The film moves, burrowing into its nastiness while acknowledging how fucked up it is, aware of how darkly twisted in its blunt force that it is every step of the way. Oddly, the film seems to have opened the very same week in June 1972 as that other Michael Ritchie film THE CANDIDATE which is also focused on America just with a little more naturalism mixed in with the satire. This sounds like a good double bill to try sometime. Vincent Canby in The New York Times liked one more than the other (you can guess which; he called PRIME CUT “somewhat sick-making and essentially silly”) but although he saw connections between them in how the country was portrayed by the two he didn’t really care and he was never one to go much below the surface of a film anyway. As for post-70s Ritchie, his output in the 80s included THE SURVIVORS (doesn’t work, but has an ending that’s always stayed with me) as well as FLETCH (still pretty good but you already know that) along with a number of junky, sloppy star vehicles like WILDCATS, THE GOLDEN CHILD, FLETCH LIVES, films where the happy endings are as hollow as everything else in them. But as for right now, I suspect that as long as we keep eating meat the America of PRIME CUT is still going to be there. So I’ll keep trying to eat more vegetables. For Michael Ritchie, who passed away back in 2001, it wasn’t about winning, it was just about being alive. It’s hoping against hope for the next day. It’s being human. It’s being free. Right now things seem more complicated than that but there are days where it feels like little else matters quite so much. And if we’re ever going to treat human beings like human beings, it’ll have to start somewhere.


Coyote said...

An excellent piece on an underappreciated director; this movie makes me wish Ritchie had done 99 and 44/100% Dead (second choice: Mike Hodges).

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

If Mike Hodges had directed 99 and 44/100% Dead (with Michael Caine?) would it be Pulp? I keep trying with that movie, hoping it'll suddenly become great and never happens. Glad you liked the piece, many thanks!