Cutter’s Way

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When it’s remembered at all, 1981’s Cutter’s Way is often lumped in with All the President’s Men, The Parallax View and other 1970s conspiracy dramas, but it’s much more at home in the company of 1970s noirish murder thrillers, like Chinatown, or, most obviously, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye.

Apart from mis-categorisation its other big problem is its title. It was originally Cutter and Bone, after the two men at its centre, drunk, angry firecracker Alex Cutter (John Heard), who lost an eye, an arm and a leg in a war we assume to be Vietnam. And slinky, college-educated golden boy Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges), whose given and family names both hint at the carnal adventures he spends good chunks of the film having.

The problem with the original title, from the Newton Thornburg novel it was based on, was that it set audiences up to expect a comedy featuring two surgeons, which this isn’t. And so it got renamed, in the process pushing its star, Bridges, to the side, and his antsy wingman to the fore. To be clear: title aside, this film is about Bone, not Cutter.

Director Ivan Passer starts us off in noir territory, Bone in bed with a mystery blonde (it’s Nina von Pallandt, of The Long Goodbye). Bad sex has been had and the atmosphere is snide. Bone hits the dark and rainy road, in his old and battered car. After it breaks down in an alley, Bone half-witnesses a guy in another car dumping something. Maye. He can’t be sure. But next day the police arrest him. A body has been found head down in a bin in that alley and Bone is suspect number one. So far, so noir.

For the rest of the film, in a near-comatose manner, Bone, Cutter, Cutter’s wife Maureen (Lisa Eichhorn) and, for some time at least, the dead woman’s sister, Valerie (Ann Dusenberry) attempt to clear Bone’s name by fingering the real perp – who might be local big noise and steel magnate JJ Cord (Stephen Elliott).

Lisa Eichhorn and John Heard
Lisa Eichhorn and John Heard

Having established a noirish mood and plot, Passer then does something odd. He backpedals ferociously, turning Cutter’s Way into one of those West Coast drama about personal relations – Bone and Cutter, Bone and Maureen, Bone and Valerie. The lack of urgency is a problem – until things snap back to the noir template for the satisfying final third.

This is a pre-Star Wars movie set in a post-Star Wars world, and had it been made six or so years earlier would have had plenty of company. A 1970s movie released in 1981, where easy permissive sex is still the norm, it’s out of time.

This extends to the sun-kissed cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth, who the year earlier did Ken Russell’s Altered States and the year after Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

Bridges is at his youthful peak – languid, handsome, slim, frequently shirtless in a “hey ladies” fashion. Heard gives it both barrels as the almost permanently riled, eyepatch-wearing Cutter, only a notch away from going full Robert Newton as Long John Silver, me hearties. The gig was meant to go to Dustin Hoffman, apparently, and there is something of Hoffman’s method in Heard’s madness.

The women are fascinating, too. Dusenberry’s Valerie, what a strange creature, supposedly grieving for her dead sister – to the point where she joins the amateurs as they search for the perp – but not particularly upset. Eichhorn is the best thing in it (better, even, than the perennially good Bridges), as the warm, sexy, frequently booze-sozzled and sarcastic Maureen.

If you like you can scan the characters of Cutter and Bone as early arrivals at the culture war party – Cutter the reactionary enraged by liberal Bone’s sense of entitlement – but really it’s an exercise in cool detachment, done as a warning, not as a recommendation. You’ve let it all hang out, it appears to be saying. Now it’s time to tuck it all back in again.

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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