Director: Ivan Passer
Screenplay: Jeffrey Alan Fiskin
Based on a Novel by: Newton Thornburg
Starring: Jeff Bridges, John Heard, Lisa Eichhorn, Stephen Elliott, Arthur Rosenberg, Nina Van Pallandt
Country: USA
Running Time: 109 min
Year: 1981

Ivan Passer was a writer-director who rose from the Czech New Wave. Collaborating with his school friend Miloš Forman, Passer co-wrote Forman’s lauded classics A Blonde in Love and The Firemen’s Ball, as well as directing his own masterpiece, Intimate Lighting in 1965.

Like Forman, Passer emigrated from Czechoslovakia following the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1969 and headed for the USA. In Hollywood, Passer never quite reached the heights of his compatriot, who went on to direct the critically adored and hugely popular One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but he did direct a couple of respected under-the-radar titles. The most notable of these is probably Cutter’s Way.

The relatively inexperienced but ambitious producer Paul Gurian first developed the project after being impressed by Newton Thornburg’s book, entitled ‘Cutter and Bone’. He worked with writer Jeffrey Alan Fiskin to develop a script from the novel and, after being impressed by Passer’s Intimate Lighting, approached the director to work on the film.

The film’s release, however, was a bit bungled, with United Artists, who were panicking after the financial disaster of Heaven’s Gate, putting a minimal amount of money into marketing. When Cutter and Bone (as it was initially called) picked up a couple of bad reviews by notable New York critics during its initial run in the city, the film was promptly pulled from theatres.

More positive reviews began to come in following this but it was too late, now that nobody could actually see the film. UA rectified this by passing the film on to their UA Classics subdivision, who rereleased the now retitled Cutter’s Way in theatres around the country. In this second, much larger release, the film fared better, making its money back and picking up a couple of state film festival awards, though it was hardly a blockbuster.

Over the years Cutter’s Way’s reputation has only grown and it is now regarded as somewhat of a neglected 80s classic. It’s long been on my watchlist and, thankfully, Fun City Editions (courtesy of UK distributors Radiance Films) have answered my call and are releasing the film on Blu-ray in the US and UK. I eagerly got hold of a copy and my thoughts follow.

Cutter’s Way opens with Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) driving home one stormy night and breaking down along the way. Whilst he tries to get the car started in the pouring rain, he sees a man dump something in a dustbin and race off into the night, almost knocking him over in the process.

The next day, the body of a young girl is found in that bin and Bone is approached as a suspect. He’s swiftly cleared and isn’t much help as a witness either, as he couldn’t make out the culprit’s face due to the rain and darkness.

However, when out watching a local parade, Bone thinks he sees the man from that fateful night. The person he fingers is a rich and powerful oil man named J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott).

Soon after the initial excitement of seemingly recognising the man though, Bone changes his tune, claiming it probably isn’t him and refusing to contact the police about it. Bone’s good friend Alex Cutter (John Heard), who lost a leg, arm and eye in Vietnam, is furious about this and doggedly nags him to reconsider.

Cutter enlists the help of the dead girl’s sister, Valerie (Ann Dusenberry) and tries to talk Bone into helping them blackmail Cord into admitting his guilt, so that they can hand him over to the police with proof that he did it.

On paper, this sounds like a gripping film noir or murder mystery and is often marketed as such. However, the central question of who killed the girl becomes rather perfunctory, as the film moves on, leading to somewhat of an anti-thriller.

Instead, the film focuses on the troubles and relationships between its central three characters, Bone, Cutter and Mo (Lisa Eichhorn). The trio form an unusual love triangle at the core of the story, with the two men being very close to one another, despite some bitterness between them, and both being in love with Mo.

The three of them are all damaged individuals too. Cutter and Mo are both alcoholics and the former is particularly destructive, antagonising everyone he meets whilst abusing his disability to help avoid serious repercussions. Bone seems more balanced and stable but he’s a coward who walks away from any responsibilities that come his way. Mo sees this and it’s one of the reasons she doesn’t leave Cutter for the more handsome, less aggressive alternative.

With this focus on character and avoidance of simple thrills, perhaps Cutter’s Way would have been better remembered and a bigger success if it had come out 5 years earlier, as it very much has a 70s, New Hollywood sensibility.

It’s a style that very much plays to my tastes though and I was greatly impressed with the film. Such an intimate and dialogue-heavy drama lives and dies by its cast and the lead actors here are exceptional. John Heard is a revelation. I’ve only ever seen him as the perennial dad or businessman from his role in the Home Alone films and other 80s and 90s mainstream titles, but he’s astonishingly good here. His character can be a complete &#sehole, but Heard gives him a rogue-like charm and deep-seated sadness that make him just about sympathetic.

The producers originally wanted Richard Dreyfuss for the lead. Passer wasn’t keen though. He was talked into going to see Dreyfuss on stage in New York but, in that same show, Passer saw Heard and was blown away, so said he wanted him in the role instead. The producers weren’t so sure as the film had no star cache but when Bridges came on board (who they thought would be huge once Heaven’s Gate was released) they relented.

Eichhorn is superb too, playing her character incredibly subtly but with great depth and nuance. Mo is perhaps the most tragic character and this is largely down to Eichhorn’s quietly heartbreaking performance.

Bridges gets the less interesting, relatively ‘straight-guy’ role but imbues Bone with, once again, a sad, lost quality. The original book fleshes out the character more than the film, giving him a full backstory. Passer decided to give him a much more elusive air that fits the film’s tone and Bridges tells enough through his countenance and mannerisms to negate the need for any flashbacks or expository dialogue.

I found Cutter’s Way quite elusive in general, whilst watching it. However, as it went on and after I thought back on the film after it finished, I began to better appreciate what it was trying to say. In my mind (and a number of the contributors to the mountain of special features on this disc) the film is about post-Vietnam America. As Bertrand Tavernier eloquently puts it, the film symbolises “an America that doesn’t know how to deal with what it has just experienced”. It also hints at what was to come, with the ‘free-love’ idealism of the 60s long gone and all-powerful corporations and the mega-wealthy ruling with total impunity.

As mentioned, Cutter provokes everyone, knowing he can get away with it due to his disability but maybe secretly hoping someone will hurt him. He’s the central force that seems to be bringing everyone down. This, again, symbolises this post-Vietnam guilt. Through his witticisms, you also get the sense Cutter used to be highly intelligent, which could maybe represent a greater, prouder America that existed in the past.

It’s a film that can be read in various ways but, any way you look at it, it paints quite a bleak picture. That said, the banter between the lead actors is enjoyably sharp, leading to a dark, cynical humour that permeates the film, keeping it from being relentlessly downbeat.

Also helping win over the audience are the visuals. The film looks gorgeous, with the great Jordan Cronenweth (Blade Runner) behind the camera, making the most of the hazy light of the largely Santa Barbara-based locations. Reportedly, Passer asked Cronenweth to avoid using blue in the film, leading to a generally bright, sunburnt noir, eschewing the typically shadowy look of the genre.

The music is unusual too, with the underrated composer Jack Nitzsche utilising some atypical instrumentation (including a glass harmonica, musical saw and zither). This creates a mournful, unsettling atmosphere that perfectly complements the film.

Overall, Cutter’s Way is an entrancing anti-mystery that cares more about its flawed characters than figuring out ‘whodunnit’. The film’s intentions aren’t always clear but figuring it out provides the audience with its own mystery to solve. With superb central performances, exquisite, atmospheric cinematography and a wonderfully unique score, it’s an intoxicating investigation, no matter what the solution.

Film:

Cutter’s Way is out on 6th February on Blu-Ray, released by the US label Fun City Editions via Radiance Films in the UK. The transfer looks gorgeous. The grain and colours look pleasingly natural and the picture is wonderfully detailed.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

– New 2K restoration from its 35mm interpositive
– “Mo’s Way,” a newly filmed video interview with star Lisa Eichhorn
– “From Cutter and Bone to Cutter’s Way,” a newly filmed video interview with UA Classics exec Ira Deutchman
– Archival video interview with director Ivan Passer
– Archival video interview with writer Jeffrey Alan Fiskin
– Archival video interview with producer Paul Gurian
– Archival video featurette on composer Jack Nitzsche
– Archival audio introduction by star Jeff Bridges
– Archival video introduction by director Bertrand Tavernier
– Theatrical trailers
– Isolated music track
– Newly recorded audio commentary by novelist Matthew Specktor
– Archival audio commentary by film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman
– Archival audio commentary by assistant director Larry Franco and unit production manager Barrie Osborne
– Booklet with new essay by DJ and writer Margaret Barton-Fumo and an archival essay by Cult Movies author Danny Peary
– Slipcover and booklet limited to 2000 copies

Matthew Specktor’s commentary isn’t particularly dense, with a slow pace and regular pauses. However, he picks each scene apart quite effectively, to show his love of the film and help you better appreciate how it works. He does have a tendency to often just sit back and watch though and, particularly in the second half, he occasionally just describes what’s happening in scenes.

Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman’s track is much more effective, in my opinion. Having two commentators means any gaps are filled and the pair have a lot to say about the film, analysing its possible meanings and providing plenty of production history about the project.

Assistant director Larry Franco and unit production manager Barrie Osborne’s commentary provides a first-hand perspective, with the pair discussing their experiences of making the film. It sounds like there were a few clashes on set, so there are plenty of stories to tell.

In his 26-minute introduction, Bertrand Tavernier calls Cutter’s Way one of the greatest American films of the 80s. He tells of how the film and director didn’t get the credit they deserved until many years later. It’s a passionate and convincing piece.

Jeff Bridges’ introduction is only short at around 5 minutes, but he has a couple of fun anecdotes to tell and speaks highly of the film and those involved.

In his interview, writer Jeffrey Alan Fiskin tells some amusing stories about his time working on the film. It’s an enjoyable piece.

‘From Cutter and Bone to Cutter’s Way’ tells the story of how the film was re-released with its new title, as well as talking about how UA Classics came about and changed the way studios treated under-the-radar and niche releases.

In his interview, Passer gives some fascinating insight into his background, what drew him to the project and how the process went. He tells some amusing tales of the production too.

Lisa Eichhorn begins her interview by talking about how she got into acting and how she got the part in Cutter’s Way. She then goes into discussing her character and how she approached the performance. It’s a fairly lengthy and engaging piece.

Paul Gurian opens explaining that he saw his father in the character of Cutter. He then tells numerous stories about the production, often surrounding his brazen behaviour in getting the film made the way he wanted. He doesn’t mince his words and does not speak highly of Passer, most notably.

The featurette on Jack Nitzsche sees the film’s music editor talk about working with the composer. He speaks fondly of the experience.

The booklet contains a wonderful essay on the film by Danny Peary, as well as an interesting piece by Margaret Barton-Fumo on the film’s score.

So, it’s an impressively comprehensive release for an exceptional film. Though it’s only January, it looks like we have a contender for single title release of the year already. I can’t wait to see what else Fun City Editions and Radiance have up their sleeves, as they’ve been knocking it out of the park every time so far.

Disc/package:

Cutter's Way - Fun City Editions
Film
Disc/package
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About The Author

Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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