Cutter’s Way (1981)

First published by Little White Lies

Much as womanising slacker Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) finds himself late one evening in a rainy Santa Barbara alleyway at the same time as a silhouetted figure dumps a young woman’s body there, Cutter’s Way suffered the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Adapted from Newton Thorburg’s 1976 novel Cutter and Bone, Ivan Passer’s film was released under the same title, only to receive a critical drubbing, be withdrawn from screens a week later, and then renamed and repackaged for United Artists’ arthouse division, and ultimately for VHS (where its reputation really grew). This was the early Eighties, when American cinema, ruled over by Spielberg and Lucas, had become all about action, spectacle and escapism, and the downbeat preoccupations of the previous decade had lost their currency. Cutter’s Way, on the other hand, was pure Seventies cinema – all anti-heroic character studies, unresolved narratives, and introspective examinations of the damaged American psyche. No wonder that this moodily subtle neo-noir, released in the same summer as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Escape From New York and Arthur, should fail to capture the public imagination.

When Bone sort-of witnesses the alleyway incident, his old friend and polar opposite Alex Cutter (John Heard) steps – or at least hobbles – in and takes up the cause the same way he takes up everything: with a vengeance. Having lost a leg, an arm and an eye to Vietnam, Cutter is an embittered, articulate and angry alcoholic, determined to expose the ills, real or imagined, around him, even as his long-suffering, equally dipsomaniac wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn) waits either for Cutter to grow up or for a Prince Charming to come rescue her on a ‘proud white charger’. Bone might just be that hero, were he not so averse to any kind of decisive commitment. Meanwhile, convinced by mere circumstantial evidence that local oil magnate J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott) is the murderer, Carter drags a reluctant Bone into a scheme to blackmail the tycoon into a confession. Tragedy will strike, Bone will at last be driven to action, and a hero will indeed ride in, albeit belatedly, on a white horse.

If Cutter’s Way opens with footage from a Santa Barbara fiesta (with US flags prominent in the background), these celebratory images are rendered unnerving by a combination of slow motion, monochrome processing and Jack Nitszche’s wonderfully discordant score. It is as though we are witnessing the jaundiced view of Cutter, who sees in any street parade a concealed history of exploitation, abuse and murder, and who is himself, in all his war-scarred state, the very embodiment of an America whose Vietnam-inflicted traumas may never heal. Yet Cutter’s paranoid posturings of disillusionment are their own kind of fantasy, and while he never doubts the guilt of the establishment, Bone and the viewer remain less certain, until in the end the ‘group therapy’ scenario that Cutter has been both directing and play-acting is left, like Cutter himself, with crucial parts missing.

Anticipation: The Dude avant the Dude?

Enjoyment: It’s a fantastic Seventies film, only from the Eighties.

In Retrospect: Exceptional script, direction and performances make this elliptical neo-noir a forgotten classic.

© Anton Bitel