The most memorable scene in Michael Ritchie's Prime Cut is the opening sequence, which shows us the grimy workings of a Kansas City slaughterhouse. We watch cows and pigs being chopped up and turned into all sorts of different meats, which is the sort of imagery that turns people into vegetarians. The footage is stomach-churning enough to begin with, but then it gets nastier: a human being is thrown into the mix, ground up into bits and turned into hot dogs. Meanwhile, a ironically sentimental Lalo Schifrin cue plays in the background, adding yet another weirdly nauseating element to the mix. Gross? Sure, but also one hell of a way to open a movie.
The human hot dogs are packaged and sent to Chicago. It turns out the ill-fated victim was a mob enforcer sent to collect money from the slaughterhouse owner: a ruthless pimp named Mary Ann (Gene Hackman, The French Connection). It seems that Mary Ann owes the mob $500,000, but he has no interest in paying. So, legendary enforcer Nick Devlin (Lee Marvin, The Big Red One) is sent to Kansas City to sort things out. He'll try to convince Mary Ann to hand over the money willingly, of course, but he knows that bloodshed will likely be necessary.
There's a sly metaphor to be found in Mary Ann's dual professions: he treats the human beings he sells with as much dignity as he treats the cows he slaughters. Unfortunately, the film worries that we won't get the point, so the screenplay has several characters patiently explain this to us on numerous occasions. “Cow flesh, girl flesh – it's all the same to me!” Mary Ann chuckles. To further drive the point home, Mary Ann hosts an all-you-can-eat buffet/sex slave sale in his barn, putting naked, drugged-up virgins on display while a roomful of meat-eating slobs leer at them and make bids. It's here that Nick confronts Mary Ann for the first time, and where he hears a whispered plea from a barely-conscious girl (Sissy Spacek, Carrie): “Help me.”
Nick is a professional killer, but he feels sorry for the girl and takes her as a “down payment.” He takes her to his hotel, buys her clothes and vows to watch out for her until the whole situations is resolved. She reveals that her name is “Poppy,” and that's just about all the character development she gets. The film sternly preaches against the notion of regarding women as meat, but it certainly doesn't have a problem with regarding them as personality-free eye candy. For the remainder of the film, Spacek's role is to look pretty, coo over the hero and get naked every so often. It's an unflattering big-screen debut, but it wouldn't take long for filmmakers to figure out that Spacek was a real actress.
The film's first act has a number of promising moments, but the lurid setup quickly gives way to a series of dull, cynical speeches about America (again, usually containing a handful of clumsy meat metaphors) and a host of bland action scenes. Marvin and Hackman are fine actors – and their scenes together are undeniably engaging – but both characters are short-changed by the script. Marvin doesn't get to do anything other than look serious, and Hackman isn't given quite enough scenes (though he certainly brings a violent energy to all of them). Too much of the film's second half is dull shootouts, but given the hammy nature of the dialogue, maybe that's for the best. A scene at a county fair perhaps represents the film's low point, with hundreds of local citizens presented as dumb hicks who don't even notice when a gunfight is happening in their vicinity.
A couple of supporting characters make strong first impressions and quickly prove disappointments. Mary Ann's dumb brother Weenie (Gregory Walcott, Ed Wood) is an imposingly nasty figure during the opening montage, but he quickly begins to feel like a stereotypical cartoon (particularly after the third or fourth scene of Weenie stuffing some sort of meat product into his mouth). Then there's Clarabelle (Angel Tompkins, The Teacher), Nick's ex-girlfriend and Mary Ann's current wife. There's a lot of build-up to Clarabelle's entrance – she's described as the sort of woman no man can resist – but the film presents her as more of a fantasy woman than a real character.
Ritchie was a capable director (he also helmed The Bad News Bears and The Candidate), and there are moments when his talent shines through. He serves up one terrific action scene involving a combine harvester, and there are stray moments when the film taps into the sort of crazed satirical savagery it seems to be aiming for. However, it's difficult to regard Prime Cut as anything other than a disappointment. Despite some promising moments, it swings to the “exploitative junk” side of the pendulum a bit too often and doesn't give its terrific trio of lead actors nearly enough of interest to do. It wants to be a high-quality steak, but too often it's just pink slime.
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 88 minutes
Release Year: 1972