Sunday, September 21, 2014

Prime Cut (1972) review



Lee Marvin (Nick Devlin), Gene Hackman (Mary Ann), Sissy Spacek (Poppy), Gregory Walcott (Weenie), Angel Tomkins (Clarabelle)

Directed by Michael Ritchie

***WARNING! This review contains nudity***

The Short Version: Nihilism and misogyny are the secret ingredients in Michael Ritchie's slow-cooked gangster opus that stretches from the mob-infested Chicago streets, to the slime lords dwelling in the Kansas flat lands. There, men are ground up into sausages to the accompaniment of an orchestral version of Skeeter Davis's 'The End of the World', and women are sold at auction for prostitution rings. You'll also see a meat-lovin' lunatic use a big weenie as an assault weapon. PRIME CUT is prime beef cooked well done.

Mob hitman Nick Devlin is hired to squeeze out Mary Ann, a Kansas CIty kingpin who not only welshed on a $500,000 debt to a Chicago crime boss, but sent his collector back in a pile of weenie sausages. This mid-western mafioso's specialty is meat -- both in a meatpacking plant and a female slavery ring. He and Devlin share a past together, and their shared animosity boils over into a violent shootout between big city enforcers and country fried mobsters.

The director of movies like THE BAD NEWS BEARS (1976), THE ISLAND (1980), FLETCH (1985) and THE GOLDEN CHILD (1986) was behind this grim, down and dirty crime opus from 1972. It's more akin to sick and twisted Euro crime trash like RICCO (1973) than anything resembling THE GODFATHER (1971). But unlike either of those two movies, PRIME CUT is marinated with a twisted sense of humor. This is evidenced right from the start during the opening credits sequence where visuals let us know that these slaughterhouse and meatpacking employees are preparing a "special order" of beef for a rival mobster in Chicago. It's this flirtation with cannibalistic cuisine that leads Lee Marvin to butt heads with beef masters, Mary Ann (Hackman) and his brother Weenie (Gregory Walcott).

When our two Tough Bastards greet each other a little over 20 minutes in, Mary Ann is scarfing down a plate full of beef tripe while a barn full of creepy men in suits ogle doped up naked women being auctioned off. Both men know one another (everybody in the mob seem to be one big dysfunctional family). They exchange words pontificating metaphorically as if the world was one big slaughterhouse. The two really do not like each other at all, and Devlin's condescending quips are as lyrically offensive as Mary Ann comparing everything to a slab of meat. This rude, crude, and socially unacceptable first reel puts PRIME CUT into perspective and the film only gets more off-kilter the more you stick with it.

Lee Marvin is in top form as the extremely confident hitman, Nick Devlin. The odds are always stacked in his favor, and virtually everybody is afraid of him aside from Mary Ann's wacko, hot dog lovin' brother, Weenie. Who else could defiantly walk into the trash palace of a guy who makes hamburger out of people who piss him off and insult everybody in the place? Playing this sort of rugged, stone cold Tough Guy was second nature to Marvin; he'd been playing them for years in westerns, war pictures, and gritty crime films such as PRIME CUT. Devlin is all business, unaffected by the veritable backwoods criminality he immerses himself in down in Kansas City. 

Gene Hackman had just come off of playing tough cop Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle in William Friedkin's THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971), and now he was back playing sadists again, a la THE HUNTING PARTY (1971). In that latter film, Hackman had pretty much the same philosophy towards women in that they are little more than pieces of meat to be pounded and tenderized for consumption. He was a brutal sadomasochist who seemed to harbor a hatred for women that only increased when another man took his property from him. A similar scenario unfolds in PRIME CUT. There's no difference between "cow flesh and girl flesh" as he puts it. Possibly the biggest difference between both characters is that Hackman is something of a caricature of the far more serious and deplorable scumbag he essayed in THE HUNTING PARTY. To add to the bizarre nature of this movie, Hackman's name in the film is Mary Ann, and his even more demented brother answers to Weenie! And they're referred to as the pigsfoot brothers! It's never revealed why, or how he came to have this name, but likely there's a sensational reason for it. Mary Ann might be a full-fledged lunatic, but he was terribly prophetic on how Chicago would turn out.

Sissy Spacek got her first role of note in PRIME CUT. She starts out as a tragic character, but things take a decidedly uplifting turn for her once Devlin takes her away from Mary Ann's trough. Spacek was in her early 20s in this movie, but was made up to look far younger in the iconic horror film, CARRIE from 1976. For PRIME CUT, Spacek shows off her "dirty pillows" on more than on occasion, so Margaret White would not be pleased at all. She's fantastic in this picture, and it's impossible not to like that infectious smile of hers.

There's no gory scenes, yet PRIME CUT has absolutely no problem being a nauseating movie strictly by way of its tone and lack of social graces. Even the seemingly normal locals have bizarre behavioral quirks about them; and in spite of the grotesque nature of Robert Dillon's script, there's this streak of black humor branded into it. Whether it's the constant references to meat and offal, Devlin taking Poppy to a fancy restaurant wearing a see-through dress (she's naked underneath); or Weenie trying to stab Devlin with a hot dog, you can't help but snicker at this lovably revolting movie.

They don't call it the Underworld for nothing, and upside down is how society is depicted in PRIME CUT. Poppy is as innocent as people get in this movie. Just by her dialog, she's been sheltered from a society that has treated her like trash. She has this child-like mentality that's even more disturbing in that her recollections to Devlin sound innocent on the surface -- masking the reality that she's been raised as a slave and prostitute since adolescence. The more they talk, Devlin becomes a surrogate father to Poppy since she's never had one. In the depressing world Ritchie paints, you're either the man leading the cattle to slaughter, or you're the cattle.

The clash of two opposing mob factions -- one in the city, the other in the country -- is metaphorically brought together during the thresher chase. After Devlin and Poppy are saved, the metal monster gobbles up a car, spitting out the pieces wedged into bales of hay; the sprawling greenery of the fields at war with the metallic modernity of men whose guns do their talking. Moments earlier in the bizarre, surreal cow fair sequence, Mary Ann once more explains the folly of city gangsters, telling Devlin all he knows is concrete. This enormous piece of farming equipment consumes the mafia man's car -- swallows it up and shits it out. 

The crew on this independently made production do a fantastic job of turning Calgary, Alberta, Canada into a seedy mid western criminal underbelly as portrayed in what is supposed to be Kansas City, Kansas. The wide open fields, seemingly barren of human life are eerily captured in Gene Polito's camera. PRIME CUT isn't a subtle film, or one that strives for showing entrancing imagery. It wants to turn your stomach. Still, some striking imagery does make it in here; particularly a violent storm that's caught on film, and yet again, another metaphor for the carnage that's about to ensue.

Where's the beef, you ask? It's right here in Michael Ritchie's unsettling, tongue in cheek gangster thriller. Whereas THE GODFATHER is the Whopper of mafia movies, PRIME CUT is McDonald's equivalent, the Big n' Tasty of the genre. Not for vegetarians, or the easily offended, PRIME CUT is 100% USDA approved.

This review is representative of the Paramount DVD.

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