Thursday, September 8, 2016

Cutter's Way and the futility of "heroism" in a corrupt world

There are a few films that I have seen that left a lasting mark on my conscious long after the final images flickered away. One of those films is Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker, which ends with Rod Steiger’s emotionally dead-to-the-world Holocaust survivor letting out a silent scream of agony over the dead body of his assistant—who he had been treating with indifference and scorn, and yet who still took a bullet from a gang of thugs meant for him. I walked away, my mind literally in a daze trying to come to grips with the powerful statement that no man is an island, and even attempts to withdraw from the world and shun people has unforeseen consequences.

Another film that has a powerful effect on my psyche is Cutter’s Way, which was recently released on Blu-ray by Twilight Time. Back in the early 1980s, the film—first released as Cutter and Bone—initially received  poor reviews and was quickly shelved, before The Village Voice and other more enlightened publications gave it positive reviews, and it was re-released as Cutter’s Way, although it didn’t help its performance at the box office. I was in the Army at the time, and although post theatres ran obscure losers a year in advance of more popular films (especially overseas), I never saw the film. The film would still mean nothing to me, had I not happened to be channel-surfing one day many years ago, and I happened upon the last 15 minutes of what appeared to be a very intriguing political thriller I had not seen before. Its shock ending left me wanting to see what had led up to it, and I still remembered it when I saw the DVD of the film on the new release shelf at a now defunct Tower Records store. 

The film concerns Alex Cutter (played to perfection by John Heard), a badly scarred and crippled Vietnam War veteran, an obviously educated, well-read and quick-witted man, but one who cannot control his acerbic, sometimes cruel, tongue and thoughts, and his friend, Richard Bone (with Jeff Bridges perfectly cast as a former “golden boy” just getting by on what’s left of his good looks). Bone is a boat salesman and a part-time gigolo; after having a twist with a well-past-her-prime "customer,"  his car breaks down in an alley. During his futile efforts to start the car in the pouring rain he sees another car suddenly park next to some garbage cans behind him. A man who appears to be wearing sunglasses dumps something into one of the cans, and then suddenly drives off, nearly running Bone down.  Bone leaves his car and winds up in a bar where Cutter is holding court.

As a “well-intentioned liberal," Cutter nearly causes an ugly scene when he asks a black man what he should call him “these days.” Bone tells him that he would call him “sir.” Cutter says “That’s funny, because that’s not what you called them the night your car was stolen,” and taunts him about his apparent hypocrisy. Bone attempts to “explain” Cutter’s accusation by saying “It’s the war,” and walks away. Cutter calls after him “Richard Bone, doing what he does best, walking away.”

Bone’s only “home” of his own is a boat, but he sometimes “crashes” at Cutter’s house, where he finds Cutter’s continuously soused wife Maureen (Lisa Eichhorn), where she apparently lives on Cutter’s veterans disability pay. She cynically tells Bone that she is waiting for her “prince charming” on his “white charger.” She also taunts Bone about his "night job"; “Home early? Couldn’t find a matron for a taste in gutter squalor?” Bone observes that she could have married him instead of Cutter, but Maureen continues to taunt him: “It must be tough playing second-fiddle to a one-eyed cripple.”

So what we have here are three “losers” in the land of opportunity and plenty. Cutter may be the truer “victim” of circumstances, but his anger isn’t directed at policy or war, but at people he sees as having profited at his expense. Bone is a “victim” of his own idleness and expectations of easy pickings. “No one can say no to Rich” Maureen tells him at one point,” but the fact is that the opposite is more often the case now. Maureen’s problem is that she is married to one and attracted to the other, despite her denials; she apparently has so adjusted herself to fate that she feels no compulsion to escape from either one of them, although that doesn’t stop her from putting them in their “place,” since she apparently has nothing better to do with her life.

The next day Bone receives a visit from the police, who found his car in the alley; they want to know if he saw anything. It so happened that a 17-year-old cheerleader was discovered in one of those trash cans, with a crushed trachea, fractured skull, and semen in her mouth and on her face. Bone admits he saw another car and a man who appeared to put something in the trash can, but who he saw only in silhouette. Cutter finds out about the murder in a newspaper story, which described Bone as a “suspect.”

Later the three of them are watching a parade cynically honoring the town’s Spanish past, but Cutter notes “Look, our glorious past, the mission of, uh, Santa Barbara. Happy padres, happy Indians. The Blessings of the white man. Wiped out in less than 200 years by disease and forced labor. You can still get one to clean your kitchen, or you know, park your car. They died with Christ’s Blessing. Happy corpses each and every one.”  Bone observes, “You’re right Alex, I need something fun like this.” Cutter then offers commentary of sexual innuendo about some teenage baton-twirlers before yelling out to the cops on horseback “Arrest me! Lock me up!” and generally making a spectacle of himself.

Then someone announces the appearance of a float representing Cord Industries, in which Mrs. Cord is seen looking imperious in a Spanish-style noblewoman’s outfit. She is followed by her husband, JJ Cord, on a white horse, similarly dressed, and wearing large sunglasses. Cutter dryly observes that they represent “Background. Breeding. Genealogy.” Bone stares at Cord with increasing recognition, and suddenly cries out “It’s him! It’s him!” He is the man he saw in the alley. But when Cutter questions him, Bone thinks the better of it and denies it was Cord he saw.

But Cutter, enamored with the idea of a rich bigwig getting his just desserts, won’t let Bone forget that he had been positively certain the killer was Cord. Another newspaper story reveals that Cord’s car was allegedly burned while he was checking out his yacht at the marina after midnight, and after the girl’s body was reported found. Cutter suspects it was burned to hide the evidence of the crime. Bone accuses Cutter of letting his imagination run loose. Cutter says “I haven’t even begun to let my imagination run loose on this one.” 

Invited to a luncheon by Cutter’s brother, Cutter spots Cord’s wife, and he begins describing in lurid detail what he thinks happened that night between Cord and the cheerleader; this talk obviously makes Mrs. Cutter uncomfortable, but one senses that she is so part of the upper crust that she also has little regard for the “little people.” Later on the pair meet-up with the dead girl’s sister, who is caught-up in Cutter’s blackmail plot, in which they will get money from Cord to keep them quiet, but then go to the police and use the money as “proof” of Cord’s supposed guilt. Bone says it’s a crazy scheme; even if Cord is guilty, they will all be nailed to the mast of a leaky boat before Cord “pays up.” Cutter won’t have any of Bone’s cowardice, saying that rich people’s asses are never on the line, just people like themselves. They get away even with murder. It’s time for them to pay.

Maureen naturally thinks this is all insanity, but there is nothing she can do or say that will change her husband’s feverish mind looking for revenge. Bone tells her that Cutter thinks the world is short of heroes. “He’s trying to fill the gap.” But Bone finally relents to Cutter’s scheme, but only as a way to keep him on a short leash. He will give a message to Cord at his company headquarters with a pay-up-else threat. Bone tells Cutter that he didn’t see Cord, but one his aids promised to pass on the message, and Bone was supposed to call back later. But apparently Cord had no response, particularly about blackmail money. At first Cutter releases his venom at the rich and powerful like Cord who can get away with anything, but his tirade is cut short when Bone admits he never delivered the letter. He isn’t “suicidal” like Cutter. Naturally, Cutter accuses Bone of being a coward. 

Later returning home without Cutter, Bone finds Maureen where they have a heart-to-heart and finally sleep together. Bone wakes up in the middle of the night and leaves the still sleeping Maureen. The next day he discovers that the house burned down that night, and Maureen is dead. Both he and Cutter realize she was not the intended target, but they were. She died because of their useless threats to Cord.

Bone reluctantly accompanies Cutter on a mission to confront Cord at some fancy party the Cords are having at their mansion. While sneaking around the house looking for Cord, Bone is accosted by security while Cutter gets away. Cord questions Bone about Cutter’s “problem” and if there is anything he can do to appease him. In the meantime, Cutter commandeers Cord’s white horse and rides past the crush of partygoers and tables, eventually crashing into the room where Cord and Bone are talking. While Cutter dies from a throat wound from the shattered glass, Cord arrogantly puts on his sunglasses, causing Bone to once again say unequivocally that he was the man he saw in the alley, that he was the murderer. “What if I were” Cord says mockingly. Cupping Cutter’s hand which is clutching a pistol, Bone points it at Cord and fires as the screen goes black.

Why does this film have special meaning for me? Cutter’s Way is said to be the last of the “New Hollywood” films, mostly a Seventies phenomenon, taking a more unfavorable look at a world with little hope of redemption, where cynicism, paranoia, conspiracy and violence were the over-riding rules of society. Films like Five Easy Pieces, Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, The Candidate, Nashville, Chinatown, The Conversation, All the President’s Men, Network, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Winter Kills are examples of such works. All were successful films at least critically; but Cutter’s Way was released at the start of Reagan’s “Morning in America” propaganda,  and even though the actions of his underlings—like Interior Secretary James Watt and his EPA felons—were living proof of the cynic’s accusations of what was really happening in the world, few wanted to hear about that anymore. And so the film and its philosophy of existence died a quick death.

But times have changed, and so has critical opinion of the film. It is now recognized as a film on par with Chinatown in its depiction of unrelenting, yet failing, attempts for truth to win out, with the power of evil always seeming beyond the reach of the law and receiving its due punishment (Do you want proof of that today? Do the names Hillary Clinton and Vladimir Putin ring a bell?). But for me it goes beyond that. While Chinatown focuses on the “big” picture of institutional corruption, Cutter’s Way focuses on the hopeless actions of one man fanatically devoted to the idea of righting at least one wrong in a world full of them, while his friend seeks to avoid confrontation, resigned to accept the world as it is, because he just doesn’t have the moral “stamina” for it. Most of us, it seems, are more like the Richard Bones of the world; few of us want to actually stake our lives to make a “stand” against all odds, like Alex Cutter. 

It has always been rare when a common, ordinary person has the “opportunity” to cut a rich and powerful person down; these days, this only happens to (mainly black) celebrities and athletes who are beholden to the public for their reputation and wealth, and who are susceptible to accusations of sexual and domestic abuse from even the “lowliest” female. Those who are not dependent on “celebrity” but are independently wealthy and have the money to buy “protection,” or are protected by a culture of denial (like the Clintons), continue to be out-of-reach. 

Most of us are confronted with much more mundane questions of moral and ethical wrong and right. Should we, like Cutter, confront situations where too-obvious favoritism wins out over merit, or that being part of the problem rather than the solution is of less import than competency? Or are we all better off to be like Bone (until the very end), not wanting to “rock the boat” in order to keep ourselves safe from personal harm, either at home or work?

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