(Michael Ritchie, 1972)
Each of the films Michael Ritchie directed in the golden period right at the start of his strange directorial career expresses a degree of his satiric impulse. From the clear-eyed view of a competitive athlete in the superb Downhill Racer through the more explicitly satirical political subjects of The Candidate and Smile, irony and satire were part of Ritchie's default mode. Even Prime Cut, which is, on the surface, very much a pulpy crime thriller, has a broadly satirical, offbeat streak running through it.
The story follows Chicago Mob Enforcer Nick Devlin, under-played with macho cool by Lee Marvin, on a mission to retrieve a debt from Kansas City racketeer Mary Ann, a loquacious, charming Gene Hackman. Violence ensues.
In other hands that could be a generic piece of pulp, but Ritchie and screenwriter Robert Dillon twist everything just a few degrees off, which gives the material an unusual energy. The shift from the grimy urban desolation of 70s Chicago to the vast skies and yellow, sunlit fields of Kansas is vividly captured by Gene Polito's crisp cinematography, and Ritchie's great feel for place and atmosphere is evident in the portrayals of both locations. His early work all has a marvellously unforced, verite feel to it, and that sense in the context of a mob thriller gives the material a really distinctive charge. The rural setting for the violent confrontation at the heart of the narrative is put to good use in a series of odd set-pieces that flirt with satire themselves; from the scene where Marvin and Sissy Spacek are pursued across a cornfield by an enormous combine harvester to the gun-battle amidst sunflowers to the enormous destruction of a greenhouse, Ritchie makes his location work for him. Aside from the gentle satire of genre conventions, the film also suggests that crime and big business are much the same and makes a few vague points about people being treated like cattle (the opening credits capture a man being turned, literally, into sausage, and Hackman displays the young girls he trades in from his ranch in the stables). The characterisation is interesting too, from Marvin's quiet gallantry to Hackman's nervous chatter, and Dillon and Ritchie throw in some odd scenes which are not necessary to the narrative but do effect the mood and characterisation - notably a lengthy scene where Hackman and his brother roughhouse and wrestle, while mob bookmakers work away in the background but also some of the fairytale material between Marvin and Spacek. Indeed, the film plays like an action thriller spliced into a pop art fairytale, which may be the reason it is o little seen today.
None of that prevents the genre material from working, however, and Prime Cut contains a thrilling Final act, filled with chases, gunfights and the odd punch in the jaw.
All that and a great Lalo Schifrin score.