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TWO SERVINGS OF 'PRIME CUT' W/ LEE MARVIN & GENE HACKMAN

year: 1972 Director: Michael Ritchie
1970's crime flicks don't get this strange, although PRIME CUT is also pretty basic and simple, and it takes an eclectic powerhouse actor like Gene Hackman to pull off playing a flawed, perverted character actually named Mary Ann (the boy called Sue had no problems comparably), a Kansas City gangster turned cattle rancher dealing in young prostitutes, initially giving in quickly to leading man Lee Marvin as Chicago mob enforcer Nick Devlin who, with a group of hired (albeit friendly) thugs, travels from big city Chicago to rural Middle America where it's not easy to hide from the bullets: especially once they start flying. And that occurs during the third act, a wonderfully prolonged death hunt within a wheat field (a nod, perhaps, to Alfred Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST), extremely suspenseful despite such a wide open space.

After Marvin's Nick frees one of the more vulnerable girls from a literal barn auction of young, heroin-addled female flesh, there's sweet but ponderous and even overly-sentimental downtime with Sissy Spacek's sweet-natured Poppy, who ultimately contrasts from Angel Tompkins as rich bitch Clarabelle, a sort of THIRD MAN character more spoken of/anticipated than actually seen in this Neo Noir meets gritty exploitation helmed by Michael Ritchie, who would go on to direct mostly comedies (though classic ones including THE BAD NEWS BEARS and FLETCH), keeping the pace at such a cool, even keel while every second matters. For this isn't just another nickel-plated Lee Marvin vehicle. It truly belongs to the rural location serving as a purgatory that makes Marvin's usual tough guy out of place and more interesting and desperate than ever. Meanwhile, Gregory Walcott, as Hackman's brother/partner-in-crime, catapults the movie in one of the best opening credit sequences ever, and in his own way, within this gritty, hopeless setting, seems more genuine than any actor on board.

title: PRIME CUT
year: 1972
cast: Lee Marvin, Gene Hackman
rating: ****1/2

“Chicago is a sick old sow grunting for fresh cream... Someday they’re gonna boil that town down for fat.” This is what Gene Hackman’s Mary Ann (what a name for a thug) tells Lee Marvin’s Nick Devlin, a mob enforcer sent from the Windy City to Kansas to collect a half a million-dollar debt. The opening credit sequence, as a very special batch of hot dogs are created inside a beef factory, could make you never want to go to a ballgame again. And for a reason: Turns out there’s been three different thugs sent to Kansas after Mary Ann and his strong-arm partner. All turn up missing and/or… lunch. Here’s a gritty and bizarre crime flick with a simple premise: one guys owes money and another’s gonna collect. Ex Illinois criminal Hackman owns a plush beef factory and estate, a front for an underage prostitute slave ring. Marvin winds up saving a teenager, Poppy, played by a lovely and vulnerable Sissy Spacek (while poor Janit Baldwin stays put).

Much like TAXI DRIVER a few years later, our antihero wants to protect the ingénue from the bad element with no ulterior motive. But his main job is to first collect from, and then escape from, a lethal Hackman: who’s got the home court advantage. A visual masterpiece that doesn’t need a lot of action to gain momentum or intensity. Rural Heartland Kansas, with the slop and slime and surreptitious criminal underbelly, is seedier than an urban alleyway. And one pivotal scene, when Marvin and Spacek escape from the local Fair into a field of wheat (perhaps a nod to NORTH BY NORTHWEST), proves director Michael Ritchie, most known for making comedies, had a real edge.
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