Nick (Lee Marvin), a Chicago underworld enforcer, heads to Kansas City to collect money from Mary Ann (Gene Hackman), a ruthless mobster, who uses a meat packing plant to grind enemies into sausage and sell young women as sex slaves. Nick purchases one of these women, Poppy (Sissy Spacek), in an attempt to save her. This sets off Michael Ritchie’s Prime Cut (1972), a slight diversion that does little favors for Kansas City and the meat packing industry, but makes for an entertaining viewing experience for those who can leave logic at the door.
Prime Cut is proof that the ‘70s is American cinema’s greatest decade. It isn’t a good film, but it’s thematically and stylistically similar to the decade’s best offerings, which makes it far more interesting than anything Hollywood has produced since. Once Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Graduate (1967) hit theaters, American cinema was reborn, and filmmakers released one daring film after another until Steven Spielberg and George Lucas introduced Hollywood to the concept of the summer blockbuster. Some ‘70s films, like Chinatown (1974) and Taxi Driver (1976), are well-known classics, whereas others, like Prime Cut, are flawed experiments that are too intriguing to be dismissed outright. The lesser American films of the ‘70s are more worthwhile than today’s accomplished films because filmmakers back then took more risks.
Ritchie’s filmography is filled with risky choices. The Candidate (also from 1972), for example, mocks America’s election cycle long before it actually became a joke. The Bad News Bears (1976), a vulgar sports film, uses little league baseball to criticize American exceptionalism. Prime Cut takes jabs at capitalism, which is crudely represented by Mary Ann and his meat packing plant. These films showcase Ritchie’s political sensibility, and it is this sensibility that saves his films from banality.
For all of its flaws, Prime Cut contains a few memorable moments. For example, there’s an extremely exciting scene in which Nick and Poppy are being chased by a harvester’s combine, and a perversely funny opening credits sequence in a slaughterhouse. These moments significantly elevate a film that, given its poor character development and plot, should be a waste of time.
The talented cast makes the best of one-note characters. Hackman owned the ‘70s with his character studies, and his performance as Mary Ann is over-the-top fun. Hackman shows here that he can make any film watchable. The tone of the film is confusing, and we’re never quite sure if Ritchie has made a tongue-in-cheek comedy or a serious drama. Hackman plays to both extremes, and it’s a joy to watch. Marvin’s performance as Nick is fine, but unlike Hackman, he plays it completely straight and doesn’t seem to be in on the joke.
In addition to Hackman and Marvin, the film features Spacek in her debut screen appearance. Poppy is the thankless victim role, but Spacek humanizes her with vulnerability and forces us to care about her situation. It’s amazing to see how far Spacek has come since her emergence in the ‘70s, and if her recent performance in Netflix’s Bloodline is any indication, she’s still a captivating actress who can surprise us.
After the demise of the Hays Code, American filmmakers gleefully filled the screen with sex and violence. This explains why a young Spacek is nude for most of the film. Once filmmakers were granted artistic freedom in the late ‘60s, they pushed the limits of that freedom as far as they possibly could throughout the ‘70s. They often used sex and violence to make pointed political statements about sex and violence. Prime Cut, for instance, provides a glimpse into a misogynist community of mobsters who traffic young women. Despite the film’s humorous quirks, violence against women was a bleak reality that many American filmmakers in the ‘70s confronted head-on. Quality notwithstanding, Prime Cut has much in common with Alan J. Pakula’s Klute (1971), one of the definitive films of the ‘70s.
Like Klute, Prime Cut makes a connection between capitalism and chauvinism, and shows that many young women are vulnerable to acts of sexual violence by men. Before the abandonment of the Hays code, subject matter like this was often relegated to B-movies, most notably the seedy noirs of the ‘40s and ‘50s. In the ‘70s, however, high-profile filmmakers tackled the toughest subjects in major releases. Rather than offer mindless escapism, they commented on a complex world. Realism was their creative goal, and in order to convey it, camerawork became grittier, scenes were shot on location instead of studio lots, and ordinary looking character actors replaced glamorous movie stars. Prime Cut has all of these qualities, and although it doesn’t add up to a cohesive whole as well as masterpieces like Klute, it’s a quintessential ‘70s film nonetheless.