cutter's way poster

Based on the novel “Cutter and Bone” by Newton Thornburg, Cutter’s Way was released in 1981, and starred Jeff Bridges and John Heard as old friends Richard Bone and Alex Cutter. Bone is nominally employed as a boat salesman, but seems to gain most of his income sleeping with lonely rich women, or as Cutter’s wife Mo (Lisa Eichorn) puts it “matrons with a taste for gutter squalor”. Cutter is a wounded Vietnam vet who lost two limbs and an eye in the war, and spends most of his time drunk. His marriage to Mo is turbulent to say the least, and Bone is still pining for Mo since she chose Cutter over him many years before.

One night Bone’s car breaks down in an alleyway, just yards from where a body has been dumped. Bone being questioned as a witness and suspect puts him in contact with the victim’s sister Valerie (Ann Dusenbury), and when Bone realises the killer is powerful local businessman JJ Cord, Cutter’s mind is set racing. Before long he has talked Valerie and a sceptical Bone into blackmailing Cord with the scant information they have, with a view to also turning Cord in to the police.

Although released in the early 80s, the film really deserves to be regarded as one the last great films of the 70s, possessing as it does all the credentials of what is still probably the greatest era for American filmmaking; great scripting, acting and direction. Unfortunately, it lacks one other factor which also allowed filmmakers to flourish in the 70’s; an absence of studio meddling and incompetence. When the two executives who oversaw production left studio United Artists, UA felt there was no point promoting the film, as they would get no credit for any success as the film’s two producers had jumped ship to 20th Century Fox. On the film’s initial release, UA made little attempt at promotion, and after the initial poor reviews UA decided to bury the film, until a sudden wave of positive reviews flowed in from most of the respected East Coast papers. The studio quickly changed the name from the original “Cutter and Bone” and hastily rereleased it. It went on to win several awards on the festival circuit, and gained more enthusiastic reviews.

The performances are universally superb. The tragic, often desperate interactions between Mo, Bone and Cutter provide the film’s emotional backbone, even bringing some occasional levity into the proceedings as the increasingly intense Cutter drags Bone and Valerie deeper into his dangerous plan, and pushed Mo and Bone closer together. As the attractive but pathetic Bone, Bridges delivers the kind of morally ambiguous performance that has defined his career. Bridges is the headliner, but make no mistake, this is Heard’s film. Channelling Richard III and Long John Silver, Heard owns every scene he is in, going from a damaged drunk seemingly out for an easy buck, to gradually reveal, through his increasing mania, a man out for the purest form of justice. In a just world, Heard’s work would have won him an Academy Award and made him as big a star of the era as Dustin Hoffman or Gene Hackman.

As it is, UA’s nervousness and caution consigned Cutter’s Way to the status of forgotten classic, but one that warrants revisiting.

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