Nick Devlin (Lee Marvin), an enforcer for the Chicago Mob, is sent to Kansas City to collect a debt from a rancher and meat packer named Mary Ann (Gene Hackman). Mary Ann was sent by the mob to run things down there and now claims the fiefdom as his own. Previous enforcers were dealt with in a way appropriate to Mary Ann's chosen industry. Nick takes his trusted driver and three mob goons with him to collect the money. Upon their arrival, they find Mary Ann presiding over a livestock auction, but the livestock in this auction is the meat packer's second source of income, prostitution. Nick rescues Poppy (Sissy Spacek), a drugged out young woman, and they leave. Neither Nick or Mary Ann will give in to the other, leaving only one conclusion.
"Prime Cut" directed by Michael Ritchie, and made in 1972, is a new film for me. Recently, Ebert and Roeper featured a number of Lee Marvin films new to DVD. I have never been a fan of Marvin, but the films looked intriguing so I gave a few a try and also revisited "The Professionals", one of my favorite films starring Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin.
It is important to remember that the film was made in 1972 because it strikes the viewer as dated. Shortly after Nick rescues Poppy, he buys her a dress (she was naked at the livestock auction) and they go to dinner at the fancy restaurant in his hotel. Poppy's new dress does little to hide her breasts, but she seems blissfully unaware as the older men and women in the restaurant stare at her. All the time, Nick and Poppy ignore them, trying to have a conversation. Everything about this scene screams early 70s to me, from their conversation to the `subtle' look at class. Later in the film, Nick and his goons arrange to meet Mary Ann at the local county fair and collect the money. This sequence is introduced with a series of close ups of a man walking on stilts, children laughing, etc., all meant to disorient the viewer before letting them become familiar with the new setting. Again, very 70s.
There are many sequences in the film which are strange, unusual and interesting, ultimately making the film worth watching. From the opening sequence; Mary Ann's demented brother, Weenie (Gregory Walcott) gets rid of one of the mob's enforcers (perhaps the most memorable scene), to a harvesting machine chasing Nick and Poppy through a corn field, Ritchie seems to be paying homage to Hitchcock and it works. The action scenes are interesting and hold your attention. Even the scene set in the corn field, which is close enough to be called a rip off of the famous chase from Hitchcock's "North By Northwest"; Ritchie adds a little touch at the end to make it memorable and interesting. You won't be able to stop watching it.
When the story turns to more sedate matters and everything relies on the actors, the film is less successful. Marvin seems to have been most comfortable portraying mobsters, generals and cowboys throughout his career. His demeanor is well-suited for these types of roles. He merely has to stare at most men and they will surrender. This persona works well with this character. But when Nick is supposed to be human, it doesn't work. When Nick takes Poppy to dinner, it isn't clear if Nick is trying to romance Poppy or become her supportive "Uncle". She clearly seems to be flirting with him but Nick doesn't seem to return the favor. Thankfully. At this point Marvin was 47 (Wow, he looks older. But I guess he always did.) and Spacek was 22. Not very age appropriate. This scene works if Poppy is flirting with Nick; he has just saved her from a life of prostitution and her life has been pretty screwed up to that point. But it would be creepy to watch Marvin's Nick putting the moves on the younger actress.
Gene Hackman is always interesting to watch. A villain with the name Mary Ann is going to have to be fairly menacing. Hackman follows occasional outbursts with a quick smile or joke, trying to hide his true menace. This performance reminded me exactly of Lex Luthor and makes this character seem all the more like a dry run for the villain he would play in the "Superman" films beginning in 1978.
Sissy Spacek is good, in her first starring role, but the part is a very traditional take on the female sidekick so prevalent in action films. For a great performance, check out her later work in "In The Bedroom".
"Prime Cut" is a memorable exercise in action filmmaking. Two sequences from the film will stay with me for a long time. Can you figure out which ones?