PRIME CUT, an atypical Michael Ritchie film, keeps throwing up WTF moments that keep you watching, alright. The opening slaughterhouse sequence makes you quite anxious that you’re going to see real cows get killed onscreen, but instead shows you something far more peculiar.
The next cow in line for slaughter has a naked person draped over it. Said person is then rendered down into sausage-meat and mailed to Chicago. The film’s theme is this established in quite a visceral way: Is man no more than this?
Then Lee Marvin is brought in by the mobbed-up Chicago meat industry to take care of some dissident criminals in the Kansas meat industry, who turn out to be led by Gene Hackman. Marvin in this flick is a lot like Richard Stark/Donald Westlake’s Parker character, who he sort-of played already in POINT BLANK, only Parker was always an independent operator and Marvin here is strictly for-hire.
Anyhow, with a group of associates, Marvin drives to Kansas and starts teasing the sleeping tiger that is Gene Hackman, until things eventually get bloody. And then bloodier.
The next moment when you have to collect your astonished eyeballs off the rug, run them under a tap and reinsert them, is when Marvin walks into a barn where Hackman and cronies are socialising around pens full of doped-up naked girls. Herein lies the problem with Robert Dillon’s script, at least as it reached the screen. The plotline involving an orphanage furnishing its barely legal inmates to the sex trade would seem to be trying to make a point about the exploitation of women, but the film is interested in naked females’ bodies at the expense of their characters. Sissy Spacek, as Lead Naked Girl, is portrayed as having basically no mind at all, kind of a cringeworthy male fantasy of the uneducated sexpot. Her friend Janit Baldwin gets horribly gang raped offscreen, is rescued, but then totally disappears, as if she could be of no further interest to us once soiled. Spacek never displays any curiosity about her fate.
But Dillon does admittedly keep serving up odd and memorable bits, as in the Frankenheimer mob comedy 99 & 44/100% DEAD, which he also scripted. Ritchie is right there along with him, driving into a prairie storm and lingering lovingly on a prolonged sequence in which a combine harvester eats a car, presented as a kind of automotive cannibalism. The clincher is when a great bale of grassy machinery drops out of the back of the harvester, like a vehicular stool. Half-wheat, half car, it reminded Fiona of Brundlefly’s mashed-up remains at the end of THE FLY.
Truly great Lalo Schiffrin score, archetypally beautiful/ugly 1970s lensing by Gene Polito.
Ritchie’s documentarist eye is also active, singling out grotesque bits of business, strange faces and quirks of behaviour or scenery at every turn.
The reason for all the disgustingness is apparently an investigation, by the film, into man’s claims to being a higher organism, despite being made of meat and prone to the same base appetites as the supposedly lower animals. When a wounded thug begs Marvin to finish him off, saying, “You’d do it for a beast,” Marvin points out, “You’re a man.”
“There’s no difference.”
“Yes there is.”
Marvin walks away, leaving him to bleed out in agony — so there’s a difference between men and beasts, but it isn’t necessarily in favour of the men.