Cutter's Second Chance
When it opened in New York 36 years ago today, an edgy thriller with interesting but not quite big-time stars and a premise that could not be summed up in a 10-word tagline faced a lackluster reception and closed quickly. That might have been all there was to the story of the film adaptation of Newton Thornburg’s novel Cutter and Bone, which also served as the movie’s moniker and which might have suggested surgical horror more readily than moody mystery. At that time, early in the year, United Artists was still reeling from the staggering setback called Heaven’s Gate and its acquisition by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and didn’t have the focus to apply resuscitative resources to another marketing “challenge.” But the studio’s fortunes picked up when the latest Bond opus For Your Eyes Only became a summer box-office hit and other movies like two-time Oscar® winner Raging Bull and solid performers Thief and Eye of the Needle (a Twilight Time title) did sizable business, and the new management decided to rechristen United Artists Classics, which had been their specialty unit to handle bookings of repertory screenings from their film library, as an “art film” distribution label to distribute smaller films that required some TLC. And first out of the gate that September was a rerelease of this diamond in the rough from earlier in the year, now called Cutter’s Way (1981). Somehow, this second chance was met with fresh eyes that saw something different and daring in this quietly atmospheric, marvelously acted (by John Heard, Jeff Bridges, Lisa Eichhorn and Stephen Elliott), grippingly directed (by Czech émigré Ivan Passer) and bruisingly scripted (by Jeffrey Alan Fiskin) conspiracy tale which spoke to the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era of institutional skepticism, corrupt corporatocracy and the resentment of the discarded and disenfranchised. Los Angeles Times aisle sitter Kevin Thomas zeroed in on the characters – “three Santa Barbara drifters – Cutter (John Heard), a brilliant, boozy vet who lost his left eye, left leg and most of his left arm in Vietnam; his best pal Bone (Jeff Bridges), a golden boy and compulsive womanizer who gets by hustling rich women; and Cutter’s wife Maureen (Lisa Eichhorn), who drowns her sorrows over her husband’s fate in vodka drunk straight from the bottle” – and the slowly unwinding story – “That Bone is briefly a suspect in a rape-murder and later believes he knows who the real killer is provides Cutter’s Way with a plot that allows it to evolve into one of the most devastating indictments yet filmed of the neglect of Vietnam veterans [and] at the same time…is an elegant and suspenseful genre piece shot through with flashes of the darkest humor.” Late, great Time critic Richard Schickel was an early champion of the film, and his response may have played a part in persuading the studio to give this film of subtle charms and deep resonance another chance. “It works, in part, because…Passer is a junk-ball twirler with an ability to put a loony backspin on bitterness….More importantly, he finds a way to make one care about losers without imputing hidden heroic virtues to them. And writer Fiskin knows how to construct revealing scenes economically, with characters talking truly tough instead of merely smart-mouth.” He gave particular credit to Heard as “the energy cell powering the whole works….The alternation of charm and rage, of bravado and self-pity – above all the watchful intelligence in the eyes, judging just how far he can go before people revolt against his manipulations – all this marks Heard’s as a big but never too broad performance. That somehow one keeps liking him, laughing at him, worrying about him, speaks of a gift that goes beyond craft, just as Heard’s portrayal of a wildly obsessed lover in 1979’s Head over Heels did. [Head over Heels would reemerge in 1982, given a similar second shot from UA Classics as Chilly Scenes of Winter, a recent TT release.] He is one of the very few actors who can retain their humanity while tumbling over a psychological edge.” Thirty years later Empire reviewer David Parkinson would revisit Cutter’s Way, asserting: “In reinventing Moby Dick as film noir, Passer examines notions of freedom, responsibility and paranoia with a forensic savagery that makes this the last great film of the New Hollywood era. Like the ’70s output of Pakula and Lumet, Passer's tense thriller stands as a classy monument to the paranoia of post-Watergate America.” Given another opportunity to catch fresh eyes as well as long-time admirers via TT’s April 2016 hi-def Blu-ray release, Cutter’s Way also features an acutely perceptive Julie Kirgo/Nick Redman Audio Commentary and Isolated Music Track highlighting Jack Nitzche’s superb score. Through March 31, it’s available at 50% off original list as part of the MGM March Madness Promotion. Are more second chancers out there?