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Paranoid’s Paradise

June 21st, 2011 · 6 Comments

“The companies, the majors, were afraid of it. They felt that it’s a downer, that the main character is going to be not very likable. And they also were suspicious about the genre, because they kept saying that the murder mystery plot isn’t very strong, which they were right about! They really wanted a murder mystery. Finally they said yes. Then they regretted it, I’m sure. And now they are glad.” — Ivan Passer interviewed by Jonathan Rosenbaum in New York, July 1981

Cutter’s Way (1981)
Directed by Ivan Passer
Screenplay by Jeffrey Alan Fiskin, based on the novel Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg
Produced by Paul R. Gurian
105 minutes

Coloring outside the lines of its literary source material as much as a movie adaptation needs to, Cutter’s Way is a damn near perfect picture of character, atmosphere and idiosyncrasy. This is a rare film that feels like it leapt to screen from the Smith Corona of a 20th century novelist without any artificial sweeteners; you can smell the cigarette smoke dangling in the air. Firmly in the Han Solo stage of his career, Jeff Bridges stars as Richard Bone, a fop who divides his time between boinking housewives, pimping sailboats in Santa Barbara and shirking responsibility at large. His best friends are a one-eyed, one-legged, one-man wrecking ball named Alex Cutter (John Heard) and his wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn), whose sultry bloom is beginning to peel behind alcohol and her marriage to Cutter, a Vietnam vet.

Returning from a session with his latest paramour (Nina van Pallandt), Bone abandons his piece of shit Austin Healey in an alley. There, he encounters a man dumping a woman’s body in a trash can. When Bone tries to intercede, he’s nearly run over. Selling his alibi to the police, Bone is introduced to Valerie Duran (Ann Dusenberry), the spunky sister of the murder victim who asks Bone to help her nab the killer. He prefers to celebrate Old Spanish Days with Cutter and Mo, but while watching a parade, identifies the killer as J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott), an oil company tycoon who owns Santa Barbara. Refusing to suffer the indignity of another fat cat buying his way out of a crime, Cutter hatches a scheme to nail Cord. Bone resists getting involved until his fatalistic friend leaves him no choice.

No fan of the mystery genre per se, Newton Thornburg published his fourth novel Cutter and Bone in 1976 to raves and respectable enough sales for Paul R. Gurian to option the film rights. Screenwriter Jeffrey Alan Fiskin was hired to adapt a screenplay and the project was set up at EMI, where it may have been hoped that The Deer Hunter had wet the public’s appetite for Vietnam themed movies. Director Robert Mulligan was attached and Dustin Hoffman pursued to play Alex Cutter. When Hoffman dissipated, Mulligan moved on. Gurian ultimately turned to Ivan Passer, a Czech filmmaker whose 1965 debut feature Intimate Lighting may have impressed the producer with its nonjudgmental look at human nature. When Jeff Bridges agreed to play Bone, United Artists stepped in to bankroll the quirky, character driven lark.

Management upheaval at United Artists during the fiasco of Heaven’s Gate (in addition to contemptible reviews in the New York Times and New Yorker) prompted the studio to orphan Cutter and Bone in March 1981 after one week in limited release. A flurry of ecstatic reviews and film festival awards forced UA to reconsider and six months later, the film was rereleased under a new title: Cutter’s Way. It remained enough of a marketing enigma to stay off VHS until 1991 and DVD until 2001. Meandering and moody, Cutter’s Way doesn’t have the payoffs of a popcorn thriller. As a sensual rendering of three souls, their environment and their personal aberrations, the film is exhilarating. Cast and performed to perfection, cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth lit the picture like some dingy beer hall of dream while Jack Nitzsche composed the bewitching musical score.

Tags: Based on novel · Cult favorite · Drunk scene · Gigolo · Interrogation · Love Triangle · Murder mystery · Paranoia · Party Crashers · Reckless Driver · Reconstructing Crime Scene · Road trip · Unconventional romance · Vigilante

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Flickhead // Jun 21, 2011 at 5:44 am

    As Alex says, “Great art demands a great audience!”

    Nice write-up. If anyone’s got the glass harmonica-and-zither score on mp3, drop me a line!

  • 2 Roger L // Jun 21, 2011 at 9:27 am

    Well spoken. Thornburg’s source managed to balance the character with a boiling-under mystery the way the best most resonant mysteries do (Chandler, Cain, etc.) and the casting delivers the well- observed characters. Depending on my mood, I turn to this film and see a buddy picture, a love story, an existential drama, a mystery, and an avant-garde art piece. Solidified my love for Bridges, and made me realize Heard has never had the opportunity to show how good he can be since.

    Keep up the good work! Roger

  • 3 Adam Ross // Jun 22, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    My family lived in Santa Barbara for a short period not too long after this was made, and watching CUTTER’S WAY always brightens my fading memories of my time there.

    Mo is such a devastating character, and it’s remarkable that she’s able to carve out such an impression in the midst of Heard and Bridges’ hurricane.

  • 4 J.D. // Jun 27, 2011 at 8:14 am

    Nice look at this forgotten gem of a film! The cast is so uniformly great with John Heard really stepping up with a truly astonishing performace. The way he and Jeff Bridges bounce of each other in their scenes together is incredible. You really believe that these guys are long-time friends by their casual short-hand and how easily they get under each other’s skin. Great film.

  • 5 Joe Valdez // Jun 27, 2011 at 10:32 pm

    Ray: Here’s the best I can do. It’s hard to say what one thing is so wonderful about this opening credits sequence. I love the faded 8mm look and the title font as much as I do the zither.

    Roger: Spot-on observation. I love how Cutter’s Way allows you to act on it and see different things as opposed to throttling a plot or any one genre down your throat. It’s like a UFO. I’m not sure what I saw, but it was a part from the norm for sure.

    Adam: I really wish I shared your fondness for Santa Barbara; I got haplessly lost there about two years ago on my way to Monterey amid all the student housing and pledged that I had seen all of that town I wanted to. I couldn’t agree with you more though about Lisa Eichhorn. What a revelation she was!

    J.D.: John Heard tears through this movie like a tornado. I think all guys have known somebody like Alex Cutter, a dude who jabs his middle finger into the eye of the Man whenever he can. It’s too bad this movie was disregarded. I would’ve liked to have seen Heard go on to do more than Home Alone.

  • 6 Ned Merrill // Jul 31, 2011 at 5:44 pm

    Actually…CUTTER’S WAY appeared on home video via MGM-UA Home Video in the early to mid-1980s, ’85 at the latest. The VHS (and Beta?) was housed in one of those fondly-remembered oversize, grey clamshell boxes utilized by MGM-UA up into the mid-’80s.

    You can see an image of that very cover here:

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