Michael Ritchie’s masterpiece “Prime Cut” is a Grade-A piece of cinema with no fillers due to an 86-minute running time. The film thrives on the basics of tough-guy movies with a great hero, a charismatic villain and enough shootouts for a surreal sense of everything an action picture should be.
The film starts out with footage of a slaughterhouse, and we suddenly realize that a human corpse is among the cows. That corpse is grinded up and turned into hot dog meat, then sent to Chicago to send a message. This seven-minute setup exposes the pace that Ritchie is setting for the film. He is confident in “Prime Cut,” and allows the movie to take the time it needs to let the audience know who they are dealing with. You are instantly aware that this movie is exactly the type of action film you were looking for.
An interesting side note is that the actor playing the Chicago mob boss in an early scene is not really an actor, but officer Eddie Egan. Egan was the inspiration for the Popeye Doyle character in “The French Connection.”
The premise may be simple, but it provides all the information needed for a solid action picture. Nick Devlin (Lee Marvin) is a Chicago mob enforcer that is sent to Kansas to settle a debt with Mary Ann (Gene Hackman), who has been grinding up men into hotdogs. Not only that, but he also runs a prostitution ring that treats woman more like livestock then people. As opposed to just using scripted dialogue, Ritchie just shoots a few establishing shots that allow us to view this atrocity and set up the villain, which is perfect.
One more element to the movie is that Devlin takes pity and eventually falls for one of the drugged-up prostitutes, Poppy (Sissy Spacek, in her bare-all debut). Initially, Poppy is taken for security purposes, but a romance of mutual respect develops.
Marvin had a screen quality that was amazing and allowed him to say so much with just a stare. You completely understand why he is the perfect man for this job, and he is just thrilling to watch. That is seen when Devlin takes Poppy out to eat, and she is wearing a see-through dress. The man at the next table is starring at her â€“ Marvin turns around and looks at him briefly, and the man never turns around again.
The same can be said for Hackman, who makes a very charismatic villain, and his performance is great to the point where you almost empathize with him. He commands every scene that he is in, and utilizes the scene to work in his favor. Hackman is clearly better with dialogue than Marvin, and uses facial expressions to guide him, allowing the audience to understand what he is really saying. But maybe the best thrill is watching these two screen legends share the screen together.
They also share something else, which is Clarabelle (the luscious Angel Tompkins), and she is basically a woman who seems to have slept with every local mobster.
Each scene in the picture has amazing cinematography, and is crucial to the storytelling. If the hero and villain are attending the same event, you can be sure that action is coming in a few short minutes. You are either getting character development or action, an aspect that modern films can learn something from.
“Prime Cut” is a movie trimmed of all the fat, and delivering exactly what the title states. This is grimy, gritty, in-your-face and bloody cinema from 1972, which is as thrilling to watch today as it was almost 40 years ago.
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