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Prime Cut Review: Michael Ritchie Serves the Beef

Written by: John Matsuya                Art by: Ben Matsuya

If John Wayne is a well done rib eye, than Lee Marvin is a bloody rare flank cut.  Michael Ritchie’s 1972 "Prime Cut" marinates in the Mid-West’s meatpacking industry as a backdrop for carnivorous slaughter and carnage.  Lee Marvin’s Chicago gangster is a fish (errr... beef?) out of water in BBQ country facing Gene Hackman’s cutthroat Kansas City gangster.  Prime Cut" is Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" crossed with an Americana Fable. The result is Grade A USDA Prime. 

Spoilers For Prime Cut

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Medium Rare Prime Cut (1972) Reviewed

Over muzak and moos, "Prime Cut" opens with the life cycle of a dinner; cows are led through the assembly line of a slaughter house. It’s an opening credit sequence worthy of Kubrick. The dulcet tones of consumerism glaze over the “sausage being made” immediately signaling a tart, dark sense of humor that pervades the entire film. But not all is right in this meat house - one of the ill-fated slabs is not bovine: it's human. This is a world where we eat each other to survive and where blood runs red. What Michael Ritchie does so satisfyingly with "Prime Cut" is to really sink his teeth into his meat motif.

The corpse is made into sausage and sent back to Chicago as a message: the Kansas City Mob is rebelling against their capos.  The Chicago mob sends their most hardened assassin Nick Devlin (Lee Marvin) to take care of their defector: Mary Ann. This world-weary Lee Marvin is at his best - a tough exterior with a tender core; a killer not beyond redemption.

It’s funny to see a be-suited Lee Marvin looking so out of place in this alien territory called the American Heartland.  He’s simultaneously bewildered by these “foreign” country elements and also the red-blooded instrument of vengeance and justice.  Nothing is what’s to be expected. We’re introduced to Mary-Ann - not a woman, but a swarthy Gene Hackman - devouring a plate full of meat. Nick can only greet him with one line: "You eat guts." Barbecue is not the only flesh he peddles in; his real market is not in cattle, it's in human trafficking. Lee Marvin might be a “bad guy”, but Mary-Ann and his gang are clearly worse. This villain is clear: Flesh is consumption, sustenance, and for sale. 

Michael Ritchie's early filmography (before he goes all in on comedy) is one that continually turns its lens to the darker elements bubbling just underneath American life, be it a beauty pageant, ("Smile"), the race for the Presidency ("The Candidate"), small town America ("Diggstown") and even baseball ("Bad News Bears"). No tradition is spared closer inspection as he deconstructs the icons of America.

"Prime Cut" happens to be the first role for actress Sissy Spacek, who plays Poppy, one of the girls being auctioned by Mary Ann.  Devlin rescues her from Mary Ann’s cattle pen and the relationship between Devlin and Poppy grows into a paternal one.  The gingham pattens and homespun smiles of the mid-west belies the depravity of the Kansas City gang. Make no mistake though - "Prime Cut" is firstly a fable that moves along at a brisk gallop.  When ambushed at the country fair, Devlin faces down a combine harvester in a suspenseful scene that could have taken its points from "North By Northwest".  A shoot out in a field of sunflowers seems more reminiscent of a Kurosawa film. In one of Michael Ritchie’s earliest outings - he takes notes from the best.  

It might be the simplicity of the tale, the totality of Michael Ritchie’s motif and direction, or the sheer cool of Lee Marvin (the man is a force of nature; as he steams towards his final confrontation with Mary Ann, a thunderstorm seems to crackle Devlin’s displeasure), but "Prime Cut" is an underrated, filling, film that represents the best of American cinema in the 70’s. It's pulpy country noir at its finest, and while it might not be the deepest film, "Prime Cut" brings the beef. 

John MatsuyaComment