dir. Michael Ritchie
Although the seventies were a time of sexual explicitness in Hollywood cinema, the seeds were planted earlier. Throughout the fifties and sixties, as Hollywood films competed with both TV and the racier pictures coming out of Europe, the previously puritanical Production Code became far less strict. Movies during this period were much freer to explore previously taboo subject matter (e.g. sex, fornication, and fucking), and some of the more maverick directors pushed the limits of good taste to the breaking point. Throughout this same period, the sexual revolution was also in full force. And when the Production Code was finally abandoned altogether in 1968 and replaced by the ratings system, what resulted was a full on fuck-fest on the silver screen. Of course, with all this free love came the inevitable reactionary backlash. As time rolled on, directors were far less interested in depicting fun sex, but rather in showing the supposed consequences of a liberated citizenry.
Unfortunately, this backlash resulted in a disproportionate number of, even the most mainstream seventies flicks, showing graphic depictions of rape. These films took full advantage of the newfound cinematic freedoms while, at the same time, punishing viewers for liberated sexual attitudes. An offshoot of this trend was the white slavery movie. In these pictures, unsuspecting young women are forced into a life of prostitution by sadistic businessmen. Although the idea of white slavery was not new, it had not been depicted in film with such ferocity until the seventies. It was in this genre, in particular, that filmmakers could give in fully to grotesque sexual fantasies under the guise of cautionary sexual tales. Although the majority of these films were lower profile drive-in fare, a few of these movies were studio pictures. And few of them were as outlandish as Michael Ritchie's gem Prime Cut.
Although Michael Ritchie did not have a prolific career, he did helm a string of solid, entertaining pictures throughout the seventies. He is one of those directors whose work most people are familiar with (The Candidate, The Bad News Bears, Fletch), yet whose name is virtually unknown. Incidentally, he came very close to being included on a previous list I made of almost great directors. Like so many directors of his generation, his work saw a sharp decline in quality over the course of the eighties (not to denigrate Fletch). Whether he just lucked out in the seventies as a director for hire, or he actually was a great director who just stopped caring by the time the 80s rolled around, I can't say for sure. But if someone were to argue for Ritchie's genius, Prime Cut's opening scene would be a good piece of evidence.
This sequence depicts the process by which a cow becomes delicious, delicious food. This scene is reminiscent of those films frequently shown on "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood" in which the production of certain commodities was shown in detail (that is, if "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood" were produced by PETA). As the titles come across the screen, we hear the high pitched sound of a slaughterin' saw accompanied by the bisection of names on the screen. All the while, elevator music is pumped into the abattoir. As slaughterhouse workers mindlessly do their job, a shoe moves unnoticed along the conveyor belt. Although it won't be made abundantly clear until a few scenes in, we have been introduced to Murphy, an Irish hood from Chicago who ran afoul of Kansas City filth entrepreneur/rancher Mary Ann (played here with sadistic glee by Gene Hackman), and wound up as a strand of hot dogs. The slaughterhouse motif, implied cannibalism, and saw sounds in the credits were, no doubt, inspirations for Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
As the movie kicks in, we learn that Mary Ann is in debt to the Chicago mob to the tune of $500,000. Seeing as it does not like to be trifled with, the mob sends Nick Devlin to Kansas City to set things straight (Devlin is played by Lee Marvin, a full-time alcoholic who, in his spare time, turned in stellar performances in some of the coolest movies of his era). When Devlin finds Mary Ann, he soon discovers that, aside from delving in the farm business and the drug trade; Mary Ann also deals in young women, whom he keeps naked, drugged and penned up like prized hogs in the middle of his barn. As if to drive the point home, Mary Ann states, "Well, cow flesh, girl flesh, it's all the same to me. What they're buying, I'm selling." A thoroughly appalled Devlin takes a girl named Poppy (Sissy Spacek in her first major movie role) in his custody as exchange for some of the money he's owed.
Mary Ann is none too pleased with his situation, and he engages in a battle of wills with the Chicago mob as the wise-cracking Devlin continually gets Mary Ann's goat. In the film's second half, a series of plot twists unfold in purposefully noiresque fashion. We soon learn that Mary Ann's wife Clarabelle (obvious much) previously had relations with Devlin (along with any man that happened to wander into her field of vision), and during a final barb-filled encounter, Devlin bids her a nasty farewell. Meanwhile, Mary Ann has kidnapped Poppy, and Devlin grabs a few men to aid him in her rescue. Taking place on Mary Ann's ranch, the film climaxes in a predictable though entertaining fashion.
If anything, Prime Cut excels in excess. Aside from the subject matter and copious Sissy Spacek nudity, Prime Cut is over the top and obvious in other less obvious ways. The aforementioned slaughterhouse scene goes on much further than good taste necessitates. And later in the film, when a fight breaks out at a county fair, and gun toting hillbillies open fire on Devlin and Poppy, the fair spectators take no notice. This is just an everyday ritual for these folks, after all, why should they react? In this and many other ways, Ritchie presents us with the most exaggerated view of small town folks. The tone of this movie is best captured, however, in the climax to the fair chase scene. It is here that a wheat thresher destroys an empty car (yes, this is how the scene ends). For what seems an eternity, we watch as the entire damned car is devoured by the thresher. This scene has no reason to exist, but damned if it ain't entertaining. Much the same can be said of the movie itself.
[Side Note: Prime Cut's imdb page lists the following keywords: Kansas City, Female Frontal Nudity, Female Nudity, County Fair, Female Full Frontal Nudity. In the interest of protecting viewers who haven't seen this movie, imdb has blocked these keywords with a warning that states: Spoiler Alert! Rollover or vote to view plot keywords! (I'm not entirely sure why they need that second exclamation mark, by the way). If imdb didn't have the foresight to block these spoilers, unsuspecting readers would have had this movie ruined in finding out that it involves not only Kansas City and a county fair but also that it contains three different kinds of female nudity! (I take it back, random exclamation marks are fun!)]
[Second Side Note: When I looked up pictures for this movie on the interweb, the majority contained a nekkid Sissy Spacek. I actually did want to include pictures of the pig/ho pens because the absurdity of it all has to be seen to be believed. I did not know what Blogger's policy is, regarding nudity, however. Seeing as I didn't want to risk the loss of my blog, I decided not to post the pictures. Anyways, it's none too hard too find these pictures if you really want to see them.]
Here is the opening credit sequence: