Ivan Passer’s '80s neo-noir is one part detection and nine parts defiance.
It won’t have escaped anyone’s notice that during the 1980s Hollywood provided us with a whole lotta buddy cop movies – Lethal Weapon, Tango & Cash, Red Heat, Dragnet, Turner & Hooch, ad nauseam. They ranged from the good (or perhaps more accurately the passably entertaining) to those featuring dogs.
However, right at the beginning of the decade – in 1981 – one film showed us how this type of movie could have been done and how investigating a crime most certainly shouldn’t. That film was Cutter’s Way. As genuinely moving as it is completely deranged, its investigators weren’t cops, they were outcasts – a gigolo and a disabled soldier – and they weren’t haplessly amusing, or at all honourable, until their bravura final gesture.
Set in Santa Barbara during fiesta season, right from the start a strange sense of fatalism pervades; a quivering, melancholy melody plays out over slow-motion images of the parade. John Heard plays the titular Alex Cutter: one-eyed, one-armed, one-legged and invariably blind drunk. Cutter is a Vietnam veteran first shown combining the arts of making new friends and causing trouble.
His loyal buddy is the differently afflicted Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges), a smooth operator as practised in avoiding conflict as Alex is meeting it head on. He’s a drifter/gigolo who we encounter moustache first, as he leaves a glamorous older woman (Nina Van Pallandt) whom he seems to have bedded whilst trying to flog her a boat.
Waiting for Cutter back home is the long-suffering Mo (Lisa Eichhorn), an addled apparition of a woman; whilst her husband’s alcoholism is of the show-stopping variety Mo has retained her elegance, there’s even a touch of saintliness about her, although she’s deeply unhappy. When Bone tells her she looks beautiful, she finishes his sentence with a sarcastic, "considering"; he accuses her of sticking around "waiting for the resurrection."
The trio are drawn into a murderous mire when Bone witnesses the brazen disposal of a young woman’s body and fingers powerful businessman JJ Cord (Stephen Elliott) as the culprit. When he tells Cutter he’s thrilled and sinks his teeth into it – in the manner of the aforementioned Hooch. Cutter hatches a (terrible) plan to blackmail and trap Cord and, without a scintilla of sensitivity, he’s drags the girl’s grieving sister Valerie (Ann Dusenberry) along.
The recent BFI-led return to cinemas has seen Cutter’s Way rightfully reappraised. The film is based on the novel 'Cutter and Bone' by Newton Thornburg (also the original name of the film) though screenwriter Jeffrey Alan Fiskin rewrote it to differentiate the latter stages from Easy Rider. Through a combination of internal politics, initial critical dismissal and an inability to see its potential it was shamefully neglected by United Artists and, commercially, it sank like a stone.
Today Jeff Bridges is rightly considered one of America’s greatest living actors, but in Cutter’s Way two performances put his preened playboy Bone in the shade. Heard excels in the role that Dustin Hoffman was originally cast in – Cutter is an ex-member of the elite and an idle intellect, scraping by on sympathy and good will. He’s a shaggy hound, radiating self-hate, pushing his wife toward his best friend in anticipation of his own demise.
As Mo, the wonderful Lisa Eichhorn subtly conveys a lifetime of disappointment and longing in (too) few scenes. Eichhorn ensures that Mo is tender rather than bitter, hopeful instead of foolish, luminous as oppose to downtrodden and it’s impossible not to feel her pain.
Made at the beginning of a decade where Hollywood prided itself on glossy male heroics. Cutter’s Way does things with more honesty. It’s an unvarnished portrait of men who kill, ditch, disrespect or neglect women, who dump them in trash cans, walk out on them, or who place them in harm’s way. And, if there’s a lighter moral to this story it’s "don’t stay sad, get on a horse and get even".