Richard Bone: “You know, you’ve got one big problem.”
Alex Cutter: “What’s that?”
Richard Bone: “Your imagination.”
Alex Cutter: “These are just the facts, Rich. I mean, I haven’t even begun to let my imagination loose on this one.”
I’ve always loved movies since I was a child, but in 1981 I was studying in France and I spent most days attending cinematheques and talking to cinephiles. It was quite an education. One day, I went to see “Cutter’s Way” (1981) directed by Czech filmmaker Ivan Passer and became a man obsessed. Here was a film that was so unpredictable and felt to be unfolding in a loose and dreamlike manner – and it starred Jeff Bridges. I must have seen it five times, and I must have bored all my eighteen-year old friends urging them to see this work that took place in a California city unlike any I’d seen before in movies – Santa Barbara. The atmosphere that envelops the characters in this noir film was intoxicating – and what it has to say about America and the disillusionment of a generation immediately following the Vietnam war and the 60s was heartbreaking. The film remains a fixation of mine – especially because later in life, I ended up gravitating to the American Riviera. Last night, revisiting it, I was mesmerized at how vital it feels. I relate now more than ever to Cutter and Bone – and their existential discontent.
The film is an adaptation of the novel “Cutter and Bone” by Newton Thornburg. During Spanish Days in Santa Barbara, on a rainy night in an alleyway, Richard Bone notices a car pull over and dump something in the garbage. The following day he’s brought in for interrogation for the murder of a young cheerleader – and during the Fiesta Parade he sees the man he saw the night before – Tycoon J.J. Cord – one of the richest and most powerful men in town. Bone is a small time hustler who has been drifting aimlessly – spending his days looking after his best friend and Vietnam veteran, Alex Cutter. Cutter lost a leg, an arm and an eye in Vietnam and the internal wounds have not scarred. He drinks heavily and is angry at the America that mangled him. “Look, our glorious past, commission of Santa Barbara,” he spews at the crowds. “Happy padres, happy Indians. The blessings of the white man. Wiped out in less than two hundred years by disease and forced labor.” Cutter takes an interest in Bone being able to identify Cord as the murderer and imagines a conspiracy theory and a blackmail scheme in order to appease his demons. “The world lacks heroes,” he urges Bone. In the meantime, Cutter’s abused wife – Mo – has been living a very unsatisfied existence not knowing how to connect with him – and struggling with her feelings for Bone. She’s turned to alcohol for comfort.
The murder and the sleuthing is the MacGuffin. The dysfunctional triangle of Mo, Cutter and Bone is where the drama and our fascination lies. Bone has the physical capabilities, but he is internally paralyzed – unable to make a choice or a commitment in life – riding on his good looks and luck. Cutter has all the rage and the motivation but has been dealt a physical blow. Together, they make for a heedless and tragic pair. Mo is caught between them. “I’m like your leg,” she tells Cutter. “Sending messages to your brain, and there’s nothing there anymore.” In the extraordinary and unforgettable climax – Cutter and Bone must literally pull the trigger together.
Santa Barbara is used as an enigmatic location. Having lived here for more than twenty years, I have never seen anybody capture the allure of this city as well as director Passer. He depicts the sundrenched glow and the gloom that hangs over our city as a state of mind that encases these characters that are fighting internal battles. The first reviews of the film were negative and its release was curtailed. Then critics started raving but the rollout was already botched. “Cutter’s Way” has slowly found its rightful place as the masterpiece that it is. Sadly, Passer died last January.
The acting across the board is extraordinary. This is one of Jeff Bridges’ best performances. Who else could have played this ambivalent beautiful man? It is a very tricky performance, and he pulls it off. John Heard is fantastic in the role that is bigger than life. He snarls and insults – yet you always sympathize with this man who calls himself a cripple. Lisa Eichhorn as Mo was named by AFI as one of the most underrated performances of the 80s.
Cutter: “I watched the war on TV like everybody else. Thought the same damn things. You know what you thought when you saw a picture of a young woman with a baby lying face down in a dictch, two gooks. You had three reactions, Rich, same as everybody else. The first one was real easy: ‘I hate the United States of America’. Yeah. You see the same damn thing the next day and you move up a notch. ‘There is no God’. But you know what you finally say, what everybody finally says, no matter what? ‘I’m hungry.’”
Available to stream on Amazon Prime, Tubi and Pluto TV and to rent on Apple TV, Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, Vudu and iTunes.
Screenplay by Jeffrey Alan Fiskin
Based on the novel by Newton Thornburg
Directed by Ivan Passer
Starring Jeff Bridges, John Heard, Lisa Eichhorn, Ann Dusenberry and Stephen Elliott
Director Ivan Passer on the Making of “Cutter’s Way”
“Cutter was not your average commercial sure thing. One reason I wanted to do this story was that I was getting sick to my stomach of what I called the cripple mania— Jon Voight in Coming Home, and various TV shows, the good guys got wounded and they were even better after that. I felt there was an absolute distortion of what actually goes on when somebody gets maimed internally or physically. It doesn’t usually make them better people. Most of the time, from what I have seen, it makes them dangerous.”
Passer on Casting “Cutter’s Way”
“Casting the picture is the most frightening part of the movie-making because if you go wrong there, forget it. We were discussing many different actors and one day in New York I went to see Shakespeare in the Park—Othello. Suddenly this guy came onstage—John Heard playing Cassius—and something about his presence made the whole audience quiet down. You can feel the spark. I knew instantly that John was the actor for the part of Cutter…It may be because of a dog this movie got made. UA was hesitating, but at one point they said, okay, the script is fine, everything is fine—if you get Jeff Bridges to play Bone you have a green light. So somebody arranged a meeting with Bridges, myself and Paul Gurian, the producer of the film. We drove out to Malibu, where Jeff lives in this nice run-down sort of ranch. We rang the bell, and Jeff came out barefooted in jeans and opens this wooden gate which looks like it’s going to fall down any minute. There were two dogs standing behind him—one sort of normal-looking German shepherd and one mean-looking cross between a shepherd and a coyote. He had his ears pointed backward and he was looking sideways at us and, I knew, not liking us at all. We said hello. Obviously at that moment you don’t say too much—you can blow the project right there. So Paul leans forward to kiss this dog. And suddenly it jumps. It looked like it bit off his left cheek. Suddenly there’s this guy standing there with a frightened expression, bleeding profusely. Jeff said, “Oh my God” and ran for his car and we put Paul in. Luckily there was a plastic surgeon who was building his house nearby. They worked on him for about two hours. We never discussed the film, but obviously [smiling] Jeff had no choice.” (thestacksreader.com)
About Author Newton Thornburg
Newton Kendall Thornburg was born in 1929 in Harvey, Illinois and grew up in Chicago Heights in a family he described as “fundamentalist Christian”. At Illinois Wesleyan College he began writing, and had a prize-winning story published in the Methodist progressive magazine Motive. More interested in art, he transferred to the University of Iowa, where he earned a degree in fine arts. He then enrolled in Iowa University’s graduate writers’ workshop, America’s premier creative-writing programme, but “got bored with it”. He married, and with his wife Karin moved to New York to try his luck in the art world, but grew disillusioned when galleries preferred his abstract paintings to the more realistic work he thought better. He returned to Illinois, sometimes living in his wife’s parents’ vacation cabin, working on his brother-in-law’s cattle ranch, or in his father’s business as a wholesaler to candy and variety stores. Thornburg then spent a decade as a copywriter, eventually settling in Santa Barbara, California, where he wrote fiction in his spare time. His first novel, “Gentleman Born” (1967) estab-lished some of Thornburg’s themes: corrupt fathers and authority figures, prodigal sons, and romantic conflicts within families or surrogate families. Next came a caper novel, “Knockover.” When a film option was sold he turned to writing full-time, and in 1973 Little Brown published his first hardback novel, “To Die in California,” in which a Midwestern cattle-farmer travels to Hollywood to investigate his son’s supposed suicide. When producer Hal Wallis bought the film rights for $100,000, Thornburg used the money to buy a ranch in Missouri’s Ozark mountains.
“Cutter and Bone” followed, set in Santa Barbara but with its finale in the Ozarks. The New York Times called it a “classy, big-league act”. Again, the film rights sold for $100,000, but it took five years to get made, with the Czech émigré Ivan Passer directing, and John Heard, originally cast as the gigolo Bone opposite Dustin Hoffman, taking the role of the crippled Vietnam veteran Cutter, with Jeff Bridges as Bone. It also got him a multi-book contract, but instead of another crime novel he wrote three very different books. “Black Angus” (1978) featured a rancher protagonist, a former advertising man with a crumbling marriage, a ne’er-do-well best friend and a business on the verge of collapse. “Valhalla” (1980), was a borderline sci-fi novel about race war in a future America. And though “Beautiful Kate” (1982) is told through brilliantly constructed multipleflashbacks, its central revelation of brother-sister incest didn’t make it easy to promote. The film rights were bought by the Australian actor Bryan Brown; the 2009 film, written and directed by his wife Rachel Ward, with Brown and Rachel Griffiths, was described by Total Film as “Tennessee Williams with kangaroos”. Thornburg’s last major novel was “Dreamland” (1983), dealing again with prodigals returning home and facing corrupt politics. Though successful, it didn’t earn him a new contract…”The Lion at the Door” (1990) perhaps reflecting this turmoil, was arguably his least interesting book. But his last two novels, “A Man’s Game” (1996, with a surprisingly happy ending) and “Eve’s Men” (1998) marked a return to form. (independent.co.uk)
About Director Ivan Passer
Born in Prague, Passer grew up under Nazi occupation. He was eight when his father was sent to a labour camp. As his mother had joined the resistance, Passer was brought up by his grandfather. He was in his teens when Czechoslovakia became a communist state. He was expelled from high school three months before graduation for being an “enemy of the people”. After spending a year travelling around Czechoslovakia, he was accepted at Famu, the celebrated national film and TV school in Prague, on the basis of a couple of scripts he had written on his travels. Forman and Passer, fellow students, got together to discuss how “in this godforsaken country” they could make good movies. “We took a piece of paper and we wrote down several points like ‘it should be a comedy’, because the Communist party and the censorship were more tolerant with comedies,” Passer recalled. Rather than shooting in a studio, they would film in the streets, “because they would not look over our shoulder that much”. They decided to use non-actors and natural light. Passer’s first film, using these precepts, was a 20-minute short, “A Boring Afternoon” (1964), “about all the things that happen when, ostensibly, nothing is happening”…After a couple of years trying to survive in New York, Passer was able to bring his gentle humour to bear on the world of the city’s junkies in his US debut “Born to Win,” though its blend of European and American sensibilities disoriented many critics at the time. The film followed JJ (played by George Segal), an ex-hairdresser needing $100 a day for his heroin habit, his buddy Billy (Jay Fletcher), who helps him get his supply, a kooky hanger-on (Karen Black) and a detective played by an emergent Robert De Niro…”Law and Disorder” (1974), his second US film, was an insightful and amusing satire on the decline of neighbourhood life in which Carroll O’Connor and Ernest Borgnine set about organizing a vigilante force to combat the rising tide of crime. However, the film suffered from the sudden shift of tone towards the end. “The audience was laughing all the time, suddenly this guy was killed and the audience was stunned,” Passer said. “I learned that you should never do that.”
Passer found it hard to get personal ventures off the ground, and had to do his best with mediocre material such as the slight comedy “Crime and Passion” (1976), in which a shady investment banker (Omar Sharif) convinces his lover/secretary (Black) to marry a tycoon to whom he is heavily in debt. “Silver Bears” (1978), about a scam involving an Iranian silver mine, remained unconvincing despite its elegant cast – Michael Caine, Martin Balsam, Louis Jourdan, Stéphane Audran and Cybill Shepherd…”Cutter’s Way,” a subversive, paranoid thriller that questions American values and myths, tells of an injured Vietnam vet, Alex Cutter (John Heard), seeking revenge on a local California bigwig, whom he suspects of having murdered a teenage girl…According to Passer, Cutter’s Way was “a damaging account of a nation that has lost its final illusions in the Vietnam war and of a society eaten away by corruption.” It took some years for “Cutter’s Way” to be appreciated. In the meantime, Passer continued to turn out quirky movies such as “Creator” (1985), a jumbled comedy-drama starring Peter O’Toole, and “Haunted Summer” (1988), a portrayal of the meeting between Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin and John Polidori in Italy in 1816. There was a return to form in another biographical drama, “Stalin” (1992) starring, Robert Duvall as the Soviet dictator. In 2004 Passer started to direct “Nomad: The Warrior,” an epic set in 18th-century Kazakhstan. Due to financial and weather problems on location, the film shut down halfway through. It was then bought by the producer brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein, who replaced Passer with Sergei Bodrov, and released it the following year. (theguardian.com) Passer passed away in January of 2020.