Have you ever seen that film where Jeff Bridges plays a charming, easygoing layabout who teams up with a crazy Vietnam war veteran to solve a crime involving a powerful Southern California businessman? Or how about the one where Bridges plays a reluctant knight errant to an unstable man who has lost everything and happens to be prone to Quixotic delusions of grandeur that could get them in trouble? And what if I told you they’re both the same film, which predates both the movies you probably have in mind?
Cutter’s Way is a 1981 neo-noir directed by Ivan Passer. It won screenwriter Jeffrey Alan Fiskin an Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture Screenplay from the Mystery Writers of America for his adaptation of Newton Thornburg’s novel Cutter and Bone. It is the story of Richard Bone (Bridges), who finds himself witnessing a crime that might implicate rich and powerful Santa Barbara businessman J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott), and his friend Alex Cutter (John Heard), a jaded, self-destructive man who lost an eye, an arm, and a leg in Vietnam, who soon becomes obsessed with dispensing justice in spite of Bone’s reluctance. Also caught up in this caper are Cutter’s wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn), the murder victim’s sister Valerie (Ann Dusenberry), and George (Arthur Rosenberg), a mutual childhood friend who also happens to be close to Cord.
Passer had previously been known as part of the Czechoslovak New Wave, co-writing Loves of a Blonde (1965) and The Fireman’s Ball (1967) — both directed by Miloš Forman, who he had known since boarding school — and then directing his own feature, Intimate Lighting. Both filmmakers eventually left Czechoslovakia following the Warsaw Pact invasion, and they even made their English-language directing debuts in the same year (1971), Forman with Taking Off and Passer with Born to Win. Forman would later go on to win Best Director Oscars for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus. After Born to Win, a proto-Safdies film set in NYC that follows a junkie played by George Segal and features a notable early film appearance by Robert De Niro, Passer made several other films, but without ever quite reaching the same heights as his directing compatriot.
I keep revisiting Cutter’s Way ever since I was first drawn to it in the Criterion Channel’s lineup of neo-noir films back in 2021. It ended up being one of my favorite film discoveries during the pandemic. I even recently bought the limited-edition Blu-ray from a new boutique label called Fun City Editions, which comes loaded with special features. This is a film richly packed with emotional layers. Beyond the murder mystery, there’s also a great character study of broken people. The appropriately named Bone, when he’s not bedding bored, rich housewives (we see one of them played in the opening by Nina van Pallandt, who had been the femme fatale in an earlier SoCal neo-noir film, 1973’s The Long Goodbye), is an aimless character marked by a sense of emotional impotence, with a tendency to walk out when things start to get too serious to avoid trouble. You can see him wracked both by the guilt of never having to endure the suffering his friend did during the war and his unrequited love for his friend’s wife.
Cutter, embittered by his experiences in Vietnam, rages against the world that has made him a broken shell of a man, and he sees solving this crime as a way to get back at the Establishment and make himself whole again. Heard, who most audiences know as Kevin’s dad from Home Alone, gives a larger-than-life performance as the titular character, playing him like a vulgar modern-day mix of Captain Ahab and Don Quixote. But the true heart and soul of this film is Cutter’s wife Mo, who Eichorn plays with tender vulnerability and vicious grace. Just as embittered by life as her husband, Mo is not afraid to call bullshit and bitterly put down her crass husband and their mutual friend even as she wallows around the house on the sauce. Yet Eichorn still imbues her fragile character with a sense of innocence, hoping for a better future where all three of them can finally get their lives together. Her final moments in the story are heartbreaking, with an added layer of ambiguity. Speaking of ambiguity, while we never know if J.J. Cord committed the crime he’s being accused of, the film goes out of its way to show that he is at least guilty of something, hence his chillingly ambiguous final line before the film’s logically abrupt ending: “What if it were?”
Beyond the performances, there are two elements worth singling out, the cinematography and the music. Cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth would later go on to shoot Blade Runner and Stop Making Sense. His son Jeff would go on to be David Fincher’s go-to cinematographer, and you can tell how much he looks to his dad’s work for inspiration. In a way, the elder Cronenweth’s work with shadows in this film feels like a test run for his work on Blade Runner, though he mostly works with a muted, misty color scheme that perfectly blends into the lush Santa Barbara setting.
The music is done by Jack Nitzche, a Phil Spector protégé who had previously worked on the scores for The Exorcist and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. A few years later, he would score Starman, another Bridges vehicle and the rare John Carpenter film that wasn’t scored by the director himself. The music is primarily driven by the zither, which had also been used to great festive effect in The Third Man. Here, the score is much more eerie, discordant, ethereal, and hallucinatory: haunting one moment, delicate or even triumphant the next. The opening credits perfectly encapsulate these two elements at play, showing a parade in black-and-white slow motion that gradually transitions into color as the unnerving, melancholic music plays in the background and the melody comes into focus.
Cutter’s Way would make a great double feature with another 1981 film, Brian De Palma’s Blow Out. Both are thrillers about broken, disaffected people who witness a terrible death and try to redeem themselves by searching for the truth even at the mercy of forces more powerful than they can imagine and the cost of someone else’s life. All the paranoia and cynical disillusionment that pervades both films is also a trenchant commentary on the state of America in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate. Both films were also unsuccessful at the box office, especially Cutter’s Way, which was released by United Artists under the original title of Cutter and Bone in the wake of the disastrous failure of Heaven’s Gate the year before, which had brought about the end of the New Hollywood era and United Artists’ acquisition by MGM. After languishing from an unsuccessful initial run in New York, it took a title change, several favorable reviews, and a run in the film festival circuit for it to earn a quick critical reappraisal.
Cutter’s Way is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, Tubi, and Pluto TV.