And so tonight — to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans — I ask for your support. […] The more support I can have from the American people, the sooner that pledge can be redeemed; for the more divided we are at home, the less likely the enemy is to negotiate at Paris.
Let us be united for peace. Let us also be united against defeat. Because let us understand: North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that.
— President Richard Nixon, November 3, 1969
“EVERYBODY WANTS what I got. Grade A. Prime stuff, raised special. ’Course we gotta keep ’em a little doped up. Uppers, downers, all the livestock gets their shots.” That’s Gene Hackman as meat magnate Mary Ann (yes, Mary Ann) in Michael Ritchie’s 1972 Prime Cut. The livestock he’s talking about are the girls he keeps doped up to sell as sex slaves, girls who’ve been raised in the orphanage he bankrolls for just this purpose; girls tended to like the steer at his Kansas City stockyards. “Cow flesh, girl flesh,” he says, “’s all the same to me.” Mary Ann, whose packing plant is also a cover for his business selling dope and girls, owes 500 G’s to the Chicago mob. The last guy sent to collect went back to Chi town as a string of hot dogs. The new collection agent, Lee Marvin’s Nick, doesn’t play that shit. “Nobody liked the hot dogs,” he tells Mary Ann. The first time we see him he’s sitting at the center of a long table, flanked by his cronies, chowing down on a heaping helping of innards. “You eat guts,” says Nick. “Yeah,” says Mary Ann, “I like ’em.” He’s a Midwest Saturn devouring his son, the emblem of a country that was devouring all its sons.
Released in June 1972, nearly three years after Nixon’s “silent majority” speech, and with America still mired in Vietnam, Prime Cut, which was released on Blu-ray on July 28, was reviewed largely as if it were a piece of rotting meat left out for audiences to smell. “It is as unsavory and unappetizing as a cheaper grade of packaged meat that is beginning to spoil,” sniffed the Boston Globe. In the New York Times, Vincent Canby, deciding the movie was beneath him, called it “sick making and essentially silly.”
The disgust mainly focused on the credit sequence. We’re touring Mary Ann’s meatpacking plant, following the journey of the cows as they are herded in, killed, butchered, and finally wrapped in cellophane. We catch a glimpse of a man’s bare buttocks in the midst of cows headed to the slaughter. Then, watching trimmed meat shanks progressing along a conveyor belt, we notice one of them is wearing a watch. The capper is a man’s dress shoe amid the discarded bits. It’s a neat, economical depiction of flesh reduced to packaged product, all set to a lulling bit of Muzak from composer Lalo Schifrin, a mockery of the kind that used to be piped into factories to placate the workers.
Canby assured his readers this was all done in “frightfully good taste.” What Canby missed is that Ritchie wants to point out the grotesquerie of slaughter undertaken in frightfully good taste. He doesn’t go in for shots of cattle suffering or being killed. By reducing mass slaughter to assembly line proficiency, Ritchie wickedly exposes the manner in which the continuing deaths of American soldiers in Vietnam was sold to the public, but in the guise of a mob-enforcer tale. Prime Cut is a brutalist satire of the America the silent majority was trying to hold on to.
For the silent majority to whom Nixon appealed on November 3, 1969, the real America was a bulwark against hippies, antiwar demonstrators, and black people who no longer knew their place. Cities were jungles populated by psycho killers, muggers, and junkies, just as they were portrayed in Dirty Harry and Death Wish. Any decent American who had to pass through for one reason or another was entering the home front war zone. “Chicago!” Mary Ann says when he learns that’s where Nick is working these days, his false, bright tone mimicking the country mouse who sure is impressed to know someone working in the big city. But the contempt is palpable. For the silent majority, Chicago was the place where, in ’68, those hippie draft dodgers ran amok until the cops pounded some fear into them. That a government commission then blamed the police for rioting was, for Nixon’s silent majority, a measure of just how unhinged America had become. Mary Ann speaks for all those Americans when he says,
Chicago’s crumbling, there’s nothing left there anymore but kids and old men. What hasn’t been burned down has been shot out, picked over … Who’s runnin’ it? Black boys, Puerto Ricans. They got their own way of doing things. You talk their spic talk? Whadda they got anybody wants? Rats and garbage. You know what Chicago is? Chicago’s a sick old sow grunting for fresh cream. What it deserves is slop. Someday they’re gonna boil that town down for fat. Here’s it’s different. This is the heartland.
Prime Cut is a sardonic report from the battle to define what America was and who it was for. It sums up not just the American separatism that had already reared its head — Nixon’s Southern strategy; the murders at Kent State; hardhats beating up protesters in lower Manhattan while stockbrokers cheered them on — but anticipates the yahoo rhetoric that was to come. In his 1980 campaign, Reagan was to revive the segregationist creed of “states’ rights.” In 2008, Sarah Palin would campaign on the notion of the “real America.” This is the history that’s both behind and in front of Mary Ann’s speech, and it’s as explicitly political as Robert Dillon’s script gets. It’s enough. Dillon puts the rhetoric of American separatism, of what amounts to a disbelief in democracy itself, right where it belongs — in the mouth of a thug.
Most of the time, Prime Cut operates in an oblique, foxy manner. At times it suggests what might have happened if the great comic writer-director Preston Sturges, with his amused affection for small-town America, and H. L. Mencken, with his contempt for what he called the booboisie, had collaborated on a gangster picture. Like Sturges, Michael Ritchie was convinced that there was nothing so strange, so weirdly singular, as the ordinary American. The Little League coaches and used-car salesmen and corrupt small-town pols and stage mothers and beauty pageant hopefuls who populate his best work (The Bad News Bears, Smile, The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom) are hardhearted versions of the eccentrics of whom Sturges was so fond. But Ritchie, working when Vietnam was winding down and Watergate was gearing up, couldn’t be as sanguine, or as forgiving, as his predecessor.
Yet Prime Cut isn’t steeped in the self-loathing that marred some other American movies of the era. Outrage wasn’t Ritchie’s bag. This sly little genre picture takes its cue from Lee Marvin’s decision to play a mob soldier as deadpan put-on artist. At one point, Nick bums a lift from a teenager cruising in a pickup and thanks him by pressing a few dollars on him, saying, “Thanks for the lift kid. Buy your club a case of beer.” Marvin lets you hear exactly what’s beneath that flip benevolence: the disbelief of a sharpster who finds himself in Squaresville. Marvin is smack in the movie tradition of the wised-up American. And yet, this fish out of water is in much more danger in the heartland than any Kansan would be on Nick’s Chicago turf.
As such, the movie is chock-full of American iconography turned bad. There are farms worked by strapping blue-eyed blondes in overalls, amber waves of grain, white clapboard houses in the beautiful countryside. And every one of these bits of Americana is intruded on by violence or bloodlust or leering fantasy. The farm boys are the hired muscle protecting a dope and sex slave business. The amber waves of grain are populated by killers or by wheat threshers trying to mow down a runaway girl and her protector. That picture-perfect white house is a brothel in training for girls who’ll be shot full of dope and sold to the highest bidder. In this movie, it’s not just America’s sons being devoured, but its daughters, too.
Mary Ann’s auction takes place in an open-air barn featuring hay-filled pens of naked girls, all of them doped to the gills. The customers are middle-aged men in their Sears sports coats, filling themselves with free barbecue and booze. They mill around ogling the merchandise. This is a slave market as livestock exhibition. The scene epitomizes how a movie with almost no blood and only occasional fights or gunplay feels so bruising, and why critics were so disgusted by it. Ritchie is working in that dangerous place where a viewer can either be repulsed or see the grim, mordant humor. His satire teeters on the edge of being heavy-handed. What keeps it from falling over? Perhaps that Ritchie’s satire is more wicked than vitriolic, and perhaps that he refuses to give in to contempt.
Ritchie distrusts the bucolic heartland, but he can’t bring himself to reject it. There’s a long sequence at a country fair (Mary Ann has arranged to meet Nick there to settle their business) in which Ritchie and cinematographer Gene Polito simply take in the sights and the people. What we see might constitute a short list of clichéd Americana: a marching band, cows and pigs being groomed for judging, hawkers selling souvenirs, the sound of a carousel, a hog-tying competition, stacks of preserves for sale, a pie-eating contest, kids pitching rings around bottle necks or tossing baseballs to win a stuffed animal or just laughing happily on rides. It looks like a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and it isn’t presented as a lie. Essentially, it’s a documentary sequence. The people we see are real, some of the faces are young, some are grizzled, and they’ve been filmed having a day out at a real fair, which may be why nothing looks hackneyed. This isn’t a rotten or corrupt America, and it isn’t a clichéd one. It’s an America that, in the midst of Vietnam and the Nixon years, still exists — and not as relic. This way of life doesn’t look as if it’s going anywhere soon. And yet, Ritchie seems to sense that this life cannot encompass the questions that are being imposed on it. There’s no mournfulness or regret here, but there’s no condescension either.
The director’s ambivalence is why it’s fitting that we see so much of the movie through Nick’s eyes. Was there ever a movie tough guy as contained as Lee Marvin? Long and slim, though with a cruel, meaty mouth, Marvin submerged all the threat within himself. He chose implied menace over bluster, hid the snarl of his voice inside a purr, refined threat into something approaching elegance. In Prime Cut he acts as if he’s privy to a joke no one else is in on. That’s what makes him a perfect choice for a movie that submerges its satire in action-movie mechanics. It may also have been what guaranteed that the audiences in tune with the movie’s satirical vision would stay away, while the ones targeted by it might be drawn in.
By the time the new Hollywood of Peckinpah and Coppola and Dennis Hopper and Bob Rafelson and others started to arrive in the late ’60s and early ’70s, action movies, genre movies in general, were drawing a mainstream audience who were aesthetically, and maybe politically, conservative. A cop movie or a gangster picture or a heist picture probably wasn’t going to chop up the time frame, or leave the plot shrouded in ambiguity, or dwell on its own ambivalence or alienation. Audiences put off by the new way of making movies could go to a genre picture knowing what they were going to get.
The poster for Prime Cut promised business as usual. It featured a picture of Marvin, his face contorted in rage, brandishing a machine gun and, next to it, a picture of Hackman wielding a meat cleaver. The tag line: “Lee Marvin & Gene Hackman. Together They’re Murder,” a routine slogan to describe a routine tough-guy outing. The only link the movie had to the youth market was Poppy, the girl Nick rescues from Mary Ann’s flesh market, played, in her first speaking part, by Sissy Spacek, at her most meltingly beautiful.
It’s an odd role for Spacek. Poppy isn’t used, as many young women were in the movies and TV shows of the time, to present a cautionary tale about hippies or teen runaways or drug casualties. Ritchie and Dillon understand that the moralistic tales about wayward girls have always provided as much titillation as tsk-tsk. It was a short hop from Lolita to the comic-pornographic fantasies of Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s Candy (Candide retold as the story of a sexy American teen) to the free-love-practicing hippie girls who became a staple of middle-class male sexual fantasies. “American men […] dwelt obsessively on a single image of despoiled innocence,” wrote Geoffrey O’Brien in Dream Time. Playboy models started wearing body paint and headbands or flashing peace signs. Every moviegoer knew that at some point, the groovy young nubiles who appeared onscreen would be ogled by Rotary Club types. Which is exactly what happens here, but in a way that upends the cliché.
Nick has bundled Poppy out of Mary Ann’s auction after hearing her desperate, whispered “help me.” It’s less an impulse than a code of ethics. According to Marvin’s biographer, Dwayne Epstein, Marvin refused to play a scene in Dillon’s script in which Nick slept with Poppy. Marvin was right. He’s not playing Nick as a white knight. He is, after all, there to collect a debt for the mob. Marvin makes Nick’s decision to act as Poppy’s protector seem not just a matter of ethics but a matter of taste. Unlike Mary Ann, Nick doesn’t eat guts. When Poppy wakes up in Nick’s hotel suite (he’s spent the night sitting up in a chair watching over her in her sleep), her impossibly big eyes takes in the standard Hilton good taste — the wood paneling and oil paintings of flowers — and she announces, “I never saw anything so pretty.” After ordering her clothes from the ladies’ shop in the lobby, Nick takes her to dinner in the hotel, which sets up a remarkable, screwed-up scene that takes aim at middle-aged men’s sexual fantasies of hip young girls, and very nearly falls into those fantasies.
Poppy enters the dining room in a long, green halter-top dress, so diaphanous you can see her breasts. The place is like an exhibit from the Museum of Natural History, a stiff version of American formal dining that no longer exists. It’s airless, lifeless. There’s a quartet that seems to have been there since the Hoover administration playing “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair.” A line of waiters and waitresses stand at attention, ready to attend to the largely empty room. The average age of the diners is deceased.
There’s some lovely byplay in which Nick, without saying a word or calling undue attention to Poppy’s embarrassment, clues her in to the correct spoon for her consommé. Just as Poppy seems to be getting over her awkwardness, able to ignore the stares and clucks of disapproval when she entered the room, Nick notices her looking self-consciously over his shoulder. He turns his head to see a fat middle-aged man who has turned in his chair to stare openly at her. In a moment that sums up the quiet menace Marvin was capable of, Nick simply stares at the man. Just stares. And, alarmed, the rotund voyeur turns hastily back to his meal.
The moment verges on hypocrisy. Ritchie has included a clumsy close-up of Spacek’s breasts, as if we needed to be reminded what the diners are staring at. And there’s no doubt the dress has been chosen to get some skin into the movie. But it’s not clumsy enough to bollix the larger point of the scene. Despite the movie’s momentary betrayal of Spacek, you can’t shake the contrast between her freshness and the desiccated flesh surrounding her, people dried up not so much by age as by the stultifying propriety that has mummified the room and mummified them. The scene is uncomfortable both because Ritchie temporarily loses control and because you can’t blame anyone for desiring the fresh, lovely, young Sissy Spacek. But you see that man appraising her, his scumminess undisguised by his middle-class respectability, and you hear in your head Mary Ann’s description of Chicago: a sick old sow grunting for fresh cream.
Prime Cut gives us an America rapacious for flesh. Cow flesh, girl flesh, it’s all the same. And unmentioned, unacknowledged, not even talked about on the radio, which seems to be broadcasting only the weather report, is the young male flesh being made fodder for Vietnam. When Nick and Poppy, chased into a wheat field by Mary Ann’s gunmen, are trying to keep out of the path of an oncoming wheat thresher that is trying to kill them, they’re on the verge of being just two more carcasses waiting to be ground up. There are eerily beautiful shots of Marvin’s silver-haired head peeking tentatively above the tips of the surrounding wheat, a phantom in the midst of killing fields, the last man in America whose appetite is under control. Fittingly, along with the obligatory tough-guy shot of whiskey and a sip of coffee to stay awake, the only things Marvin consumes in the whole movie are a cup of vichyssoise and a glass of milk.
Charles Taylor’s writing on movies, books, music, and politics has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Yale Review, The Nation, Dissent, and other publications.