Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Prime Cut (1972)

Prime Cut is a prime cut of pulp fiction served with a large side order of American Gothic. 

Directed by Michael Ritchie, it has a great, mouth watering trio in Lee Marvin, Gene Hackman and - in her screen debut - Sissy Spacek, who each invest strong performances in the ensuing hard boiled weirdness.

Marvin stars as Nick Devlin, a hard as nails enforcer for the Chicago mob who is given the mission to go to Kansas City and bring back half a million dollars in mob money that cocksure slaughterhouse kingpin Mary Ann (Hackman) has been creaming off for himself, arrogantly believing Chicago to be a town of old men and kids and therefore now no longer a threat to his private enterprise. Indeed so arrogant is he that he has sent back previous enforcers the mob sent his way - ground up into sausages. Yuck.

Undeterred, Devlin and his men arrive at Mary Ann’s ranch in the middle of a livestock auction like no other - groups of well dressed men survey the pens full of young, doped naked girls, sourced from local orphanages and runaways. The repugnant Mary Ann, and his even more loathsome brother Weenie (Gregory Walcott), have got themselves a white slavery racket to run alongside the legitimate ranch business. One of the girls is Poppy (Spacek), who Marvin rescues, before giving Mary Ann an ultimatum to meet him the next day to pay the debt back in full. 

Needless to say, the money exchange doesn’t go down as planned leaving Devlin with no option but to take Mary Ann’s organisation apart piece by piece. Well, it's what you expect from Lee Marvin really isn't it? But the tone of what occurs is perhaps not as you'd expected, because Prime Cut is a surreal, distinctive and quirky little thriller. 

American cinema of the 1970s seemed to have a gleeful phobia about the rural areas of their country; Deliverance, Southern Comfort etc. In Prime Cut, Kansas gets more or less the same treatment. It's more the American Nightmare rather than the American Dream; a corrupt cabal which sees Mary Ann scratch the back of, and in turn have his back scratched, similar sweaty stetson wearing Republicans each with denim dungaree clad corn fed blond haired, blue eyed farm boys to do their bidding, lethal shotguns in hand. The county fairs and turkey shoots on display here take a peculiar, disturbing and bizarre aspect, and pose a great threat to Marvin and his fellow Chicago interlopers who make no concessions for their environment, dressed in their city suits and cruising through town in a sleek black Cadillac as if they were a small recon platoon of an occupying force looking to crush the locals under their expensive boot heels. 

Of course this peculiarity leads to several 'WTF' moments, most notably in one of the film's crucial set pieces which sees Marvin and Spacek fleeing a menacing combine harvester through a vast wheat field much like Cary Grant escaping the crop duster in North By Northwest. It looks impressive, but - like the film in general - it has no relation to reality. For a start who tipped off the fat farmboy at the wheel of the harvester to attack? Why does Marvin continue to hold Spacek's hand as they desperately try to evade its impending assault? Surely splitting up could help them to run faster and even evade the peril altogether? The scene ends with the Cadillac, driven by Marvin's faithful chauffeur, smashing head on into the harvester - which promptly digests it!  

It's the cast that really make Prime Cut worth watching. There's nothing new here from Marvin but then there really doesn't need to be; this is the kind of role he can do in his sleep and, on occasions here, it looks like that's exactly what he's doing. Laconic, wryly humourous and authentically tough, his Devlin is never less than convincing. For what was her first major screen role, Spacek - one of my favourite actresses - is straight out of the traps here as Poppy. She performs the doe eyed, troubled ingénue to perfection and there's a wonderful asexual relationship between her and Marvin, her avenging angel. My favourite scene with the pair has to be the one where they dine in  a posh Kansas City restaurant. Poppy's young naivety means she has elected to dress in something she thinks is pretty rather than something respectful and suitable, and so they arrive with her clad in a see through, figure hugging green evening dress (and Spacek certainly looks a knockout here!)

The rest of the clientele, the refined Kansas townsfolk (as opposed to Mary Ann's set) look on and judge internally, but one dead-eyed look from Marvin soon has them turning their heads! Poppy recounts the story of her time at the orphanage and her closest girlfriend there (who is at this point in the clutches of Mary Ann's brother, the brawny man-child Weenie) with the inevitable confession of a flirtation into naive lesbianism. But what could have been a moment of leering sexuality and nudge nudgery for the audience is  respectfully kept away from what is essentially a respectful almost father and daughter like relationship between Marvin and the considerably younger girl. In the wake of several truths coming to light over on this side of the pond regarding care homes in the 1970s, the plot here about the orphanage literally handing over their charges to Mary Ann to sell as sex slaves gives the film a chilling resonance.

It goes without saying that Gene Hackman is just as good here as his co-stars. A year on from The French Connection and he greedily accepts the challenge of playing the bad guy this time around. (Interestingly, Eddie Egan, his co-star from The French Connection and the real life cop who inspired the role of Popeye Doyle, appears in the film's opening scene as the mob boss who orders Marvin down to Kansas) Hackman's a repulsive sight to behold here, whether its cheerfully feasting on offal in his debut scene or reverting to infancy - and reaching levels of homoeroticism - to tussle around on the carpet with his brother whilst the moneymen organise the accounts, he holds your attention brilliantly proving he's more than a match for Marvin's screen presence.

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