Prime Cut (1972)

Director: Arthur Penn
Cast: Gene Hackman, Matt Dillon, Gayle Hunnicutt, Josef Somer, Guy Boyd
(Paramount, 1985) Rated: R
DVD release date: 14 June 2005

by Nikki Tranter
PopMatters Books Editor

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One of the most affecting moments of my movie-going life occurred two years ago during Gary Fleder’s Runaway Jury. Gene Hackman’s character, big-time trial lawyer Rankin Fitch, confronts Dustin Hoffman’s prosecutor in a courthouse washroom. My reaction had nothing to do with what was going on the film, and everything to do with the notion of a Hackman/Hoffman showdown. Moments like this, I remember thinking at the time, are why I watch movies.

Hackman is always affecting, no matter the movie. And this comes in handy when looking back at a couple of lesser-known Hackman movies fresh to DVD: Prime Cut and Target. The latter is luckiest to have Hackman. In this mostly pedestrian spy story, he plays Walter, attempting to connect with his dropout son, Chris (Matt Dillon), while his wife (Gayle Hunnicutt) sets out on a trip-for-one to Paris. Walter takes Chris fishing and talks about girls, but it’s only after a mysterious midnight caller alerts Walter that his wife has gone missing in France that the pair really bond.

But while father and son get close, the audience just gets lost. Target couldn’t be further from The Conversation or The French Connection. The whole dad-is-actually-former-CIA-operative angle could have worked had development of that particular plot deviation not been so severely lacking. Picture it: Mom’s missing, so Chris and Walter grab a flight to Paris to find her. At the airport, a Victor Buono-looking fellow accosts Walter, sticking a gun to his spine and a familiar bracelet in his coat pocket. Bing-bam-boom, Buono-type is shot dead by a crazy-eyed German guy, and Walter is in the middle of a hostage crisis, aided by some old spy buddies. First, though, he’s gotta tell Chris he’s a rough and ready former secret agent. After all the shooting and running around, this is the part that stumps Chris: “You worked for the CIA? I don’t believe it.”

If you’ve seen any of Hackman’s previous “espionage” efforts, you can pretty much predict every step this one will take. Sometimes the film’s contrivances are just dull (the traitor is obvious from the second he first appears), while others are downright offensive: while on the hunt for his beloved mom, forced into car chases and escaping gunfire, Chris finds time to have an affair with a sexy backpacker. Actually, Chris is pretty much behind every offensive scene in the movie, including screaming at the top of his lungs when he eventually finds his mom, who, incidentally, is strapped to a bomb with bad guys nearby. How bizarre, really, to think that Arthur Penn, who directed Hackman to an Oscar nomination for Bonnie and Clyde and in Night Moves, tolerated such silliness, including Walter’s observation to one villain: “If I see you again, I won’t see you again.” Ick.

Prime Cut has its own ick factor, but this time it works in its favor. Lee Marvin plays Nick Devlin, a mob enforcer sent to Kansas City to collect some owed cash from a mysterious gangster and slaughterhouse owner named Mary Ann (Hackman). Though Mary Ann is notoriously unwilling to pay up (as he’s inclined to turn persistent debt collectors into meat products), Devlin’s bosses are convinced that if anyone can get the dough, it’s him. The job doesn’t go as planned and Devlin finds out more about Mary Anne’s business dealings than he wants to know, including an odd Farmer’s Market, where Mary Ann sells “top-grade” women to the highest bidders.

Opening on a psycho called Weenie (Gregory Walcott) as he’s banging a cow in the head with a sledgehammer, the movie persists with the craziness. Some images, such as the bare ass on the slaughterhouse conveyor belt, and a pile of naked women on sale at the market, are so completely nutty that the simple mob revenge plot seems completely incidental. The entire movie, really, is like a giant absurdist painting, with bits including a car-eating hay baler, a fairground shootout, and Sissy Spacek (stunning in her first feature film role) attending a classy dinner in a see-through gown. And any time Hackman is on screen, he’s doing something nasty, like forking globs of cow guts into his mouth.

Prime Cut‘s sheer oddness makes it memorable. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but along with these new discs, 2005 has also seen the release of the Hoosiers and Get Shorty special editions, and the long-awaited DVD release of Bonnie and Clyde, and Night Moves is on its way to DVD in July. Even if you’ve got to endure the lowlights of his career with missteps like Target, this seems like a good time to be loving Hackman.

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