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  • Writer's pictureMike O'Driscoll

Cutter's Way and the New Hollywood

Updated: May 14

A couple of weeks ago I read Lynda Rucker's latest Substack piece on her love affair with 1970s American cinema. It's a relatively brief, but nonetheless deeply personal and fascinating attempt to explain the appeal of what's since become known as the New Hollywood. A consensus has grown around the period covered by the term, which is roughly from around the release of Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde and Mike Nichols' The Graduate, both in 1967, to the financial disaster of Heaven's Gate (Michael Cimino) in 1980 that precipitated the collapse of United Artists. Other films by key New Hollywood directors released in 1980 were Raging Bull (Scorsese), Cruising (Friedkin), Dressed to Kill (De Palma), Popeye (Altman) and American Gigolo (Schrader), yet it's Cimino's revisionist western that still has to carry the can for the ruination of the dream of a mature cinema where the auteurs rather than the studios, were in control.

However, its not the New Hollywood per se, nor the different factors (not least the new mega-blockbusters made by two key figures of the era - George Lucas and Steven Spielberg) that played a part in the demise of the notion of director as king, that I want to talk about, though I'd go along with Rucker's description of some of the works most closely identified with the term as "these strangely-shaped, deeply subversive films about odd, damaged people with their ambiguous endings."

Nearly all of the films Rucker cites might fit into this rough template, and even the more obvious genre or exploitation movies that don't (she mentions Dirty Harry and Rolling Thunder, and could just as easily have included films like John Milius's Dillinger, Peter Yates' The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Wes Craven's Last House on the Left, or Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, are both provocative and distinct in their approach to their particular genres. Each of them offers a unique or radical reworking of the standard tropes, from the violence of Rolling Thunder or Last House on the Left, which was on a level not previously seen in Hollywood films; the cynicism on display in both Dirty Harry and The Friends of Eddie Coyle (along with the latter's distinctly downbeat ending and Mitchum playing against type) were not what audiences were accustomed to; and has there ever been a more static, listless and yet elegiac western than Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid?

It's interesting that the apparent creative freedom allowed to film-makers in the New Hollywood era, saw already established directors like John Huston, Sidney Lumet, Roman Polanski and John Boorman hitting artistic peaks with the films they made in the 1970s- Fat City, Wise Blood, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Chinatown, The Tenant, and Deliverance respectively. It also saw some of the best work produced by British and European directors who came to work in Hollywood, including Boorman, Yates, Karel Reisz (The Gambler, Who'll Stop the Rain), John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy, Day of the Locust), Polanksi, Michaelangelo Antonioni (The Passenger), and Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). Maybe it's too simplistic to speculate that their not being American gave them a kind of detachment that allowed for a more critical insight into the American male psyche--after all, Scorsese and Arthur Penn, to cite just two examples, gave us two of the most angry and bewildered protagonists of American cinema in Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle, and Night Moves' Harry Moseby. Yet, to my mind, it's another of these emigre film-makers, a compatriot and co-writer of Forman's The Fireman's Ball, Ivan Passer, who, in one film, most completely captured the essence of the 1970s confused, damaged and generally fucked up protagonist.

In Cutter's Way (1981)--which doesn't even merit a mention in Peter Biskind's seminal exploration of New Hollywood film-makers, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls--Passer gives us not one, but three such depictions of people who, though they might once have represented America at its most hopeful and idealistic, instead saw their lives shattered by the physical and moral corruption of Vietnam and Watergate. Unfortunately for Passer, and United Artists, their film was released--under the same title as the book on which it was based, Newton Thornburg's Cutter and Bone--in the wake of Heaven's Gate's critical and commercial pasting, and with the studio already twitchy about the film's dark tone and ambiguous ending, they spent a paltry $63,000 on promotion, and the initial negative reviews provided another nail in the coffin. Yet, a week later, the film began garnering far more favourable criticism in Time, Newsweek and elsewhere, prompting the studio to farm it out to their 'classics' division who subsequently renamed the movie and entered it a number of film festivals where it won further critical acclaim as well as awards for best picture, director, actor and screenplay.

In spite of these belated accolades and recognition, Ivan Passer would never again make a film that came anywhere close to what he achieved with Cutter's Way. His career drifted along in a series of unmemorable genre movies and TV work until he died aged 86 in 2020. Jeffrey Alan Fiskin's intelligent screenplay makes for three entirely convincing protagonists, and I should also note Jordan Cronenweths' numinous and noirish cinematography (a year later he would shoot Blade Runner), as well as Jack Nitzsche's haunting, zither-based score.

The film's meandering, almost dreamlike plot (the film's opening shots, as the screen slowly transitions from black and white to muted colour, themselves have the hallucinatory quality of a dream), tells of feckless gigolo and would be yacht salesman, Richard Bone, played by Jeff Bridges, whose car breaks down in a Santa Barbara alley one night after a sterile assignation with an older, married woman. Bone witnesses a car pull up behind him and a man getting out and dumping something in a trash can. The next day the body of a 17 year old girl is discovered in the trash, and Bone (his car being found nearby) is questioned by the police as a suspect. Later, while attending a street parade with best friend Alex Cutter (John Heard) and the latter's wife, Maureen or Mo (Lisa Eichorn), Bone sees local oil baron JJ Cord and proclaims "That's him." Though he later backtracks, suggesting that he meant Cord merely looks like the man he saw, Cutter--an alcoholic Vietnam vet missing an arm, a leg and an eye--becomes obsessed not only with the notion that Cord is Vicky Durand's killer, but with bringing him to justice. It's an obsession that Bone largely resists, even after the involvement of Vicky's sister Valerie, who colludes with Cutter in a scheme to blackmail Cord whereby, if he responds as they hope, he'll incriminate himself. Bone lets himself be persuaded to take part in the blackmail only after Cutter has told Mo about the plan.

Mo thinks the whole idea is crazy and wants nothing to do with it. Bone though, only pretends to play along with delivering the blackmail letter to Cord's downtown HQ and when Cutter discovers the deception, he and Valerie take matters into their own hands. The blackmail scheme has fatal consequences that only strengthen Cutter's obsession with Cord, motivating him to strike back against what he sees as the myriad wrongs of the world--not just the physical and mental scars he suffered in Vietnam, but against the system that sent men like him to fight unjust wars, from which rich, powerful men like Cord profited. “He’s responsible,” Cutter tells Bone, “him and all the motherfuckers in the world just like him ... because it’s never their ass that’s on the line. It’s always somebody else’s. Always yours, mine, ours.”

Stephen Elliott as Cutter's nemesis, JJ Cord.

Brendan Boyle, discussing the film in a 2020 piece for The Ringer, while commenting on readings of the film as dealing with class, speculated that Cutter's resentment of men like Cord stems from his--and Bone's--having fallen from the graces of the same "quasi-noble class" to which Cord belongs. Boyle points out Cutter's friendship with yacht vendor (and Cord lackey) George Swanson, and to his references to Bone's Ivy League past. These references perhaps echo Bone's past as indicated in Thornburg's novel, where, prior to the start of the narrative, he had walked away from a marriage and parenthood, as well as a succesful career in advertising back east. Bone, as both Cutter and Mo point out, has a habit of walking away--from conflict (somehow, unlike Cutter, he avoided the draft), from responsibility, and most crucially, from commitment. It's apparent from Mo's first appearance, when he witnesses her getting up late at night to retrieve a bottle of vodka from the fridge, that Bone is in love with her. It's clear too that Alex's treatment of Mo--he's constantly deriding her, or talking talking crudely about other women in her presence--is something that grates on Bone. When, at one point, Cutter slaps her across the face, Bone steps in and warns him against doing it again, while Mo, resigned and yet somehow maintaining a defiant dignity, merely says, "You thinks that's the first time?"

It's the relationship between the three that's at the heart of the film, giving it a depth and emotional complexity that similar neo-noir movies of the period lack. Much as I'm a fan of The Parallax View, The Conversation and Night Moves, none of them achieve the raw honesty depicted in Passer's film. It's not only Cutter who's been crippled by his experiences: both Mo and Bone bear their own emotional scars. She numbs her pain with alcohol, caught in a kind of stasis as though waiting for something to change, something made clear when she tells Cutter (who's suggested she's too burned out from booze and pills to know anything about guts), that "Guts is hanging around in this pigsty month after month waiting for you to get the nerve to start living again." We can sense in her sticking with Alex, the memory of the man he used to be--the one glimpsed in a photo in Swanson's office, a younger, whole Cutter, enjoying himself on a yacht, a product of the optimism of the 60s, before the rot set in. On the surface, Mo does seem burnt out, a fatalist capable of moments of defiance and almost impossible hope, as when she returns home one day with fresh meat and vegetables, as though these might provide the impetus for a new start.

Lisa Eichorn as Mo Cutter

There's an incredible rawness and vulnerability in Eichorn's performance, yet it's one that eschews histrionics. Instead, she invests Mo with a stillness that gives the film it's emotional centre, so that even when she's sharing a scene with her two terrific co-stars, our attention is drawn to Mo--to that expressive face, the smile that seems born out of the bliss of intoxication and which itself masks a profound sadness, and in particular those eyes, that signal her awareness of just how weak and hopeless Cutter and Bone really are, one caught up in some deluded, messianic quest for justice, the other doing his utmost to avoid taking any kind of responsibility; yet at the same time we understand that she still cares about these two men, that she loves them, despite their flaws, and the numbing effect of alcohol on her own sensibility. One believes that Mo somehow anchors both men's lives, keeping them grounded in reality, and that without her, they'd be far more rootless, disillusioned and broken than they already are. Despite everything it costs her--her health, beauty, career, children (though in the film she and Cutter are childless, in the novel, Mo does have a toddler, who may or may not be Cutter's son)--she remains loyal to Alex, recognising in him the vitality she seems to have lost, and perhaps clinging to the hope that one day he'll find the strength to start living again.

Her relationship with Bone is more complex and more bittersweet, particularly when she finally allows herself to succumb to his advances. Despite her fears that having sex with him might mean he'll lose a friend, and her awareness, when Bone persists, that he "really is a slave to it," she has a need for the kind of affection and tenderness that Cutter is no longer capable of. Allowing herself to be seduced by Bone is not so much a sign of weakness, as it is of her human vulnerability, the need we all have to make a connection. That she cries throughout their subsequent lovemaking, suggests perhaps how overwhelmed she is by her own emotions, but also reveals a residue of guilt at betraying Alex. When, afterwards, she tells Bone to relax, that "the Richard Bone fan club is now complete," her cynicism is clearly a mechanism for self-protection. Jeff Bridges' expression after Mo tells him this, perfectly conveys Bone's mood of weary self-disgust, his recognition of his own lies. There's a heartbreaking moment at the end of the scene, when, despite having assured her that he will stay the night, after he thinks she has fallen asleep on the couch he--once again--walks away. The camera lingers on Mo sleeping in the muted earthy light, when her eyes open and the fragility of her smile morphs into disappointed self-realisation, telling us that his departure, his slinking away in the night, was only what she'd expected.

Rucker makes an interesting observation about the male-centric nature of many of the most powerful of the New Hollywood era films, and it's worth quoting at length. She says, "There’s something resolutely masculine in so many of the films from this era that are among my favorites ... it’s the male characters who become the point of identification for me as the viewer, so many of these men who treat women like discards or for whom women barely seem to exist (and yet so many of them are also seemingly unable to live without women and are not even what you’d call functional when they are around)." Rucker's description seems to precisely represent the situation in Cutter's Way, except that Eichorn's Mo, though appallingly used by both her husband and Bone, is for me, and most critics I've read on the film, as much a point of identification as either of the two men.

It's an astonishing performance, particularly given it was only her third or fourth movie role--she was primarily known for her Golden Globe nominated role in John Schlesinger's 1979 wartime romance, Yanks--and even more astonishing is the lack of recognition for how great she was in the part. It says something too that most of her subsequent career has been spent playing supporting roles in minor films or TV shows. Much later, the American Film Institute, in a rare moment of retroactive insight, called her playing of Mo "the most underrated performance of the decade."

I can't think of a better performance by Jeff Bridges, and that's saying something given his roles in films as diverse as The Last Picture Show and Winter Kills, The Big Lebowski and Crazy Heart. He's marvellous in all of these and many more but to my mind in Richard Bone, he gives us something that these other performances have only hinted at--a portrayal of a man who, on the surface, is charismatic and charming, possessed of good looks and the ability to put people at their ease, his, for want of a better term, essential Jeff Bridgesness, but who realises that it's all a put on, a sham, that every bit as much as his friend Cutter, he's a man who, for different reasons, is afraid to live. Living would mean staying the night with Mo, telling her he loves her and meaning it. It would mean accepting responsibility, growing up (even his car, a green Healey convertible, alerts us to his immaturity), to committing to something.

Jeff Bridges as Richard Bone

In Thornburg's novel (itself a powerul and gutwrenching work), we know what Bone is running from--family, career, all the things he's convinced himself are tying him down, constraining him from being Bone, the real Bone, but the film gives us very little of his past. In the book, he has no job, but the movie sees him working for Swanson as a yacht salesman--not a very succesful one, given his need to solicit payment from the bored socialites he seduces. But we don't know how long he's been doing this--the character is, I guess meant to be early to mid-30s--but as with Mo and Cutter, we get the impression that Bone is a child of the 60s, a counter-culture idealist scarred by the reality of Charles Manson, Vietnam and Watergate. His listlessness and lack of purpose serve as a metaphor for America's post-war confusion, its loss of status, its directionlessness.

If Bone is afraid to know, or at least try to find, himself, Cutter is the opposite. Throughout the film, he's engaged in a quixotic quest of self-discovery. As much as Vietnam has physically robbed him of parts of his physical being--the missing arm, leg and eye--it's also robbed him of his identity, his sense of who he once was. The first time we meet him he's holding court in a dive bar. Seeing Bone enter he says, "Ishmael returns ... how goes the search for that fiendish leviathan of the deep, Moby Dick?" The allusion to Melville's novel isn't merely the prelude to a crude joke, but signals the obsessive and ultimately doomed quest on which he will soon set out. Like Ahab, Cutter pursues his own great white whale in the form of the white-haired JJ Cord, who we first glimpse at the parade astride a white horse. It's no co-incidence that at the film's climax Cutter is riding that same horse as he charges through a picture window into Cord's mansion.

John Heard, who, up to this point was perhaps best known for playing Jack Kerouac alongside Nick Nolte's Neal Cassady in 1980's Heart Beat, invests Cutter with an authentic sense of rage and bitterness. Although he would later go on to work with Alan Pakula and Martin Scorsese, co-star with Nastassja Kinski in Paul Schrader's Cat People remake, as well as playing the father of the protagonist of Home Alone and its sequel, it's hard not to feel that, like Eichorn and Paser, Heard never quite fulfilled his potential. Yet, in Alex Cutter, it's impossible to imagine any other actor in the role.

John Heard as Alex Cutter

Although for the most part, Cutter comes across as a crazed force of nature, at times self-pitying and spiteful, at others foul-mouthed and given to spitting crude but hilarious invective at friend and foe alike, one always gets the impression that he retains some vestigial humanity. There are two scenes following on from one another that show us a glimpse of this lingering compassion. The first is when Cutter, with Bone and Swanson, stands outside the incinerated ruin of his house where Mo has been burned to death. The desolate and haunted look on Cutter's face, his one restless eye looking down and to the left, as if searching for the reason why Mo was killed, and then that moment when his expression shifts from one of suppressed rage and grief, to reveal that he knows exactly why, that she's dead because of his reckless actions. The camera then picks out a few significant tokens of their life together: the charred timbers of house, the blackened bed-springs, the ruins of a wicker rocking chair, the smouldering embers of a couple of books, all of this, his expressions seems to imply, being the sum total of their relationship. The film then immediately cuts to the morgue where Bone has accompanied Cutter to identify Mo's burned body. The former's reluctance is palpable but Cutter, in what seems like a moment of self-laceration, is determined to confront the horrible reality of her death. As the attendant unzips the body bag, Cutter reaches out to touch her blackened hand; he pauses for a moment, looks at the attendant and, with the ghost of a smile on his face, as though remembering what she had meant to him, utters the single word, "Mo." It's a shattering moment, one that brings home to the viewer that the heart of the movie has been exposed and ripped out, triggering Cutter and Bone's headlong rush toward a fatal confrontation with their nemesis.

Having earlier on told Bone the world is short of heroes, Cutter takes it upon himself to fulfill the role. At the parade, he wears what looks like a child's version of a cowboy hat; later, after drunkenly crashing his car into his neighbour's vehicle, knowing the latter will call the police, he rinses his mouth with mouthwash to mask the smell of alcohol, and dons his old combat jacket in preparation for a performance, that of crippled war hero. Back outside--now apparently calm and sober--to face the consequences of his actions, he tells the police officer he has to do his duty, and that "Duty's something I know a little bit about." Even though he's completely in the wrong, and has rudely insulted the neighbour's wife, telling her "Hey, my old lady's got a vibrator your ass would love," Heard somehow manages to get us to root for Cutter in the confrontation. He's even prepared to use his infirmity to his advantage, reminding the much bigger and brawnier neighbour, when the latter makes to attack him after the police have departed, that "I'm a cripple."

After Bone's claim that Cord might have been the man he saw dumping a body, Cutter assumes the role of a private dick, first concocting the blackmail scheme with Valerie, and later on, investigating Cord's past, looking for clues as to his whereabouts on the night of Vicky's murder, gradually piecing together a timeline of the man's actions. Up to this point, it almost seems as if he's playing a game, acting out his Don Quixote fantasies, only to find the windmills he's been tilting at, have a bite as vicious as any dragon's. Following Mo's death, he becomes the vengeful hero, like one-legged Ahab, hunting his own leviathan even if it means his own death. At the very end, in a magnificent sequence, he has, literally transformed into a modern equivalent of the ultimate western hero, John Wayne, the man on the white horse, reclaiming it from the usurper, Cord. Although fatally injured as he crashes through the window, Cutter's grand gesture finally prompts Bone into action. Having been captured and beaten by Cord's men, and in the middle of being interrogated by Cord when Cutter explodes into the scene, Bone, who up until now has been defined by his capacity for inaction and avoidance of commitment, tells his friend that "it was him" (meaning Cord), and when Alex dies, takes hold of his hand with a gun still clenched in his fist, and, as though vindicating Swanson's claim that sooner or later, he's "going to have to make a decision," points the gun at Cord and squeezes the trigger as the screen abruptly cuts to black. It's a devastating ending in that Cutter is dead and, we assume, Bone will end up in prison for murder, yet at the same time there's something glorious in seeing Bone finally making a decision--deciding that Cord is indeed the killer, even though there's nothing concrete but his own arrogance to condemn him.

Cutter charges toward his final confrontation with Cord.

The ambiguous nature of the ending is entirely in keeping with other films of the era, films like The Parallax View, Night Moves, Two-Lane Blacktop, Chinatown, The Long Goodbye or The Conversation, and denies the viewer the consolation of reassurance that things will turn out right in the end. It's this very real sense that America itself, at the end of the social and political upheavels of the 1960s and 70s, can no longer function in its traditional role as the World's hero, the possibility that it no longer has the answers, and that the American Dream was simply one more lie we told ourselves, that leaves us with what Boyle in his piece, calls "that terror of uncertainty".

Cutter's Way (1981)

Dir. by Ivan Passer

Screenplay by Jeffrey Alan Fiskin, based on then novel Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg.

Produced by Paul R. Gurian for United Artists.

Starring Jeff Bridges, John Heard, Lisa Eichorn, Ann Dusenberry, Stephen Elliot, Nina Van Pallandt and Arthur Rosenberg.

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