Cutter’s Way (1981) Retrospective


One rainy night in Santa Barbara, California, Richard Bone’s (Bridges) car breaks down in an alleyway. He spots a large, mysterious car in the distance. A man dumps something into a garbage can. At first, Bone thinks nothing of it and proceeds to meet his friend, Vietnam veteran Alex Cutter (Heard). The next day, a young girl is found brutally murdered in the same alleyway where Bone abandoned his car. He becomes a suspect. When Bone spots the man he thinks is the murderer in the Santa Barbara “Founder’s Day Parade” later that day – local tycoon J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott) – Cutter begins to take an interest in the mystery that unfolds. His interest soon becomes a conspiracy theory that develops into a troublesome investigation with his skeptical friend and the dead girl’s sister (Ann Dusenberry) along for the ride. After attempting to blackmail Cord, Cutter’s house mysteriously burns down with his wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn) inside.


Convinced that Cord had been trying to silence Bone, Cutter begins researching Cord and discovers that he was responsible for the deaths of at least two others. He steals an invitation to a party at Cord’s house where he plans to kill him. When Bone realizes what Cutter’s plans are, he attempts to leave the party but goes after Cutter to convince him not to kill Cord. After being chased by security, Bone winds up in Cord’s office. After a brief conversation in which Cord assumes that Cutter’s war experience has made him paranoid, Cutter suddenly crashes through the window. As he is dying, Bone confirms that Cord was the killer. When Cord expresses indifference, Bone grabs Cutter’s gun and shoots him.


Cutter and Bone’s arduous journey mirrors the film’s own struggle to be made. A friend of screenwriter Jeffrey Alan Fiskin told him about a man by the name of Paul Gurian who made money producing films and that he should send him a script. Fiskin did not hear anything from Gurian for awhile. Then, out of the blue, the producer called him. He told him that he had bought the book Cutter and Bone, that he would be out in Los Angeles in three days to visit him, and to buy a copy of the book. Fiskin was so broke that he stole a copy of the book (which he eventually returned) and read it. “The set-up’s great, the characters are fine. But the last half of the book is an instant replay of Easy Rider (1969). You cannot make a film out of this,” Fiskin said in an interview. Gurian agreed with the screenwriter’s assessment and hired him to adapt the book.


Gurian got the studio, EMI, interested in financially backing the film with Robert Mulligan to direct and Dustin Hoffman to play Alex Cutter. However, a scheduling conflict forced Hoffman to leave the project. This prompted Mulligan to leave as well. To make matters worse, EMI pulled their money once Mulligan and Hoffman were gone. Gurian took the film to United Artists where the studio’s vice president, David Field, became interested in backing it. U.A. would never have looked at Cutter and Bone had then president Dan Rissner not suffered a serious heart attack thus giving Field the ability to greenlight projects. It was a hard sell because no one at U.A., except for fellow executive, Claire Townsend, wanted to make the movie.

Gurian gave Fiskin a list of directors and Ivan Passer’s name was the only one the screenwriter didn’t recognize. Passer, a Czech émigré, got his start as Milos Forman’s screenwriter on Loves of a Blonde (1965) and The Fireman’s Ball (1968) before fleeing the country in 1968 when the Russians invaded. Fiskin and a couple of United Artists executives screened Passer’s Intimate Lightning (1966) and agreed that he was the man to direct Cutter and Bone. The director was already involved with another project but after reading Fiskin’s screenplay he wanted to do it.


Despite Field’s support for the film, it seemed like United Artists did everything in their power to prevent Cutter and Bone from being made. The initial budget was supposed to be $3.3 million but then Field found out that U.A. would only make the movie if the filmmakers were able to reduce the price tag to under three million dollars. Passer and company played along. Then, U.A. said that the film needed a big name star for it to succeed at the box office. The studio liked Jeff Bridges’ work in the dailies for Michael Cimino’s opus Heaven’s Gate (1980) and said that they would only make Cutter and Bone if the filmmakers got the actor to be in their movie.

Fiskin figured that they would never get the talented actor and that his salary would be too much or that his schedule would conflict or he would not like the screenplay. As it turned out, Bridges wanted to do it. Passer cast actor John Heard after seeing him in a Shakespeare in the Park production of Othello. United Artists wanted Richard Dreyfuss to play the role of Cutter but Passer insisted on Heard and the studio relented. Finally, Passer cast Lisa Eichhorn as Mo after she dazzled everyone at an audition with Bridges.



Interview with Director Ivan Passer

When you made films with Milos Forman in Czechoslovakia Passer was co-writer and assistant director for “Loves of a Blonde” and “The Firemen’s Ball” , you had severe restrictions. But I would guess Hollywood deal-making is almost as pernicious.

Ivan Passer: It’s really like walking in a mine field. You can get blown off any moment. Especially because the mortality of film corporation executives is so tremendous — every three years they’re either gone, or they change chairs. The people who had put their necks out for “Cutter” were gone when it was released in New York at three theaters with a total advertising budget of $63,000. That’s a form of censorship — of assassination.

You’ve pointed out that UA gave a party for “Thief’s” premiere that same week, and the party alone cost $75,000.

Ivan Passer: “Cutter” was not your average commercial sure thing. One reason I wanted to do this story was that I was getting sick to my stomach of what I called the cripple mania. Jon Voight in “Coming Home,” and various TV shows, the good guys got wounded and they were even better after that. I felt there was an absolute distortion of what actually goes on when somebody gets maimed internally or physically. It doesn’t usually make them better people. Most of the time, from what I have seen, it makes them dangerous.

How did you go about casting the picture?

Ivan Passer: Casting the picture is the most frightening part of the movie-making because if you go wrong there, forget it. We were discussing many different actors and one day in New York I went to see Shakespeare in the Park — “Othello.” Suddenly this guy came onstage — John Heard playing Cassius — and something about his presence made the whole audience quiet down. You can feel the spark. I knew instantly that John was the actor for the part of Cutter.


Wasn’t there a bit of a mishap on the way to casting Bridges?

Ivan Passer: It may be because of a dog this movie got made. UA was hesitating, but at one point they said, okay, the script is fine, everything is fine — if you get Jeff Bridges to play Bone you have a green light. So somebody arranged a meeting with Bridges, myself and Paul Gurian, the producer of the film. We drove out to Malibu, where Jeff lives in this nice run-down sort of ranch. We rang the bell, and Jeff came out barefooted in jeans and opens this wooden gate which looks like it’s going to fall down any minute. There were two dogs standing behind him — one sort of normal-looking German shepherd and one mean-looking cross between a shepherd and a coyote. He had his ears pointed backward and he was looking sideways at us and, I knew, not liking us at all. We said hello. Obviously at that moment you don’t say too much — you can blow the project right there. So Paul leans forward to kiss this dog. And suddenly it jumps. It looked like it bit off his left cheek. Suddenly there’s this guy standing there with a frightened expression, bleeding profusely. Jeff said, “Oh my God” and ran for his car and we put Paul in. Luckily there was a plastic surgeon who was building his house nearby. They worked on him for about two hours. We never discussed the film, but obviously smiling Jeff had no choice.

There’s been some talk of an Academy Award for Heard. How thoroughly did he immerse himself in that part?

Ivan Passer: He was walking around with a cane for three weeks before the picture, and he stayed into it throughout shooting. But also, somehow the character was very close to something real in John. Not that John is Cutter but some of John is Cutter. It’s a gift to be somebody else and be yourself at the same time. I think that’s something one cannot learn.


How would you say that most spectators respond to Cutter’s character, as played by John Heard? Are they repelled, sympathetic?

Ivan Passer: Usually a combination of the two. I hope that, in the end, they’re completely on his side — that’s what I want. I don’t mind if they don’t like him at the beginning, which I think is the most common reaction.

Why did you decide to eliminate Mo and Cutter’s kid from the novel?

Ivan Passer: I think that was for purely practical reasons. It’s much easier to make a movie if you don’t have a small child, And we thought when the house burns down, with a child it would really be too much of a downer.

Were there other substantial changes from the book?

Ivan Passer: Well, there are some in the plot. But we tried very hard to keep the spirit of the original, which was very important. I was very happy to hear that Newton Thornburg likes the movie.

Jeff Bridges described your directorial style to me as “a gentle presence.” And despite all the emotional warfare the characters go through, he felt there was “a great evenness” to the finished product. I think a good part of that comes from your camera placement — it’s relatively conservative.

Ivan Passer: The critics say, and I sort of accept it, that I am a fan of the “invisible” camera — not trying to show what you can do. That was the advantage of being four years in film school. You get rid of it there. Godard said once that the movement of the camera is an ethical problem. I think that’s true in the sense that you can be responsible or irresponsible in the way you move the camera with regard to the subject you are trying to tell about. You can be arrogant — or honest.

That scene in the morgue in the last reel — where you watch Cutter’s face and not what he’s looking at — is remarkably taut.

Ivan Passer: Immediately after is the cut where he comes out, and the way he takes it, when he says, “Tragedy I take straight. It’s the daily grind that gets me.” And I hope you like him for that. That suddenly you see the guy. . . . I do daydream sometimes about getting a script in my hands and raping it, which means use all the tricks I know as a director regardless of what it has to say. But I think that’s the discipline a director should have. Not to use your tricks any more effectively than the story needs. It always amazes me when I see John Ford’s work, or William Wyler’s work, or that of Kurosawa — or Ozu, the amazing Japanese director who moves me the most because he’s so economical in the way he moves you. They used only what was necessary.

Could you explain why Cutter and Bone was withdrawn last spring, and why it’s being rereleased now?

Ivan Passer: You know, statisticians say that there about eight things that have to happen at the same time in order to have a car accident. And all those eight things happened with my movie. It was jinxed because of Heaven’s Gate. People got fired, and the new people had no relationship with the movie. The ones who stayed there were afraid to have a relationship with the movie. So it was a hysterical atmosphere. We got a bad review in the New York Times — Vincent Canby panned it. And then, it’s not your traditional genre movie. So all those things together added up to what happened. They didn’t believe in it, they said, “We’re not going to throw good money after bad,” and they were ready to kill it.

I know that Veronica Geng wrote a rave review of the film and was distressed to find that the film was no longer on anywhere when the review came out. And Seth Cagin had already reviewed the film very favorably.

Ivan Passer: And the business after the first review picked up, doubled — that night. The theater manager called United Artists and said, “Please, I want to keep the movie, give me $800 for advertising.” but they said no. Can you imagine? So then it became a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy; they said, “it’s not going to do anything,” and they wanted to prove they were right. But then the critics rescued it — it was Soho News and the Village Voice. Those two reviews came out the same day. I thought it was over. I mean, I don’t get upset about things I cannot influence, so I thought, “Too bad.” But then Time came out, and Newsweek, and New York, and Soho News ran that second review, and it began to snowball. Then they sent it to the Houston Film Festival, where it won first prize. I thought François Truffaut’s The Last Metro would win it. And we got very good reviews there; the audience wrote cards that were 90 percent excellent. Then they showed it in Seattle where it got five stars, saying it was the best movie of the year, and other reviews said it was the best-looking film of the year. I’m amazed, really.


Why has it been retitled?

Ivan Passer: I don’t know, I hope they know what they are doing, because so far U.A. Classics has been doing a terrific job with this film, and it was their idea. It was United Artists who renamed my first American picture, Born to Win, which was originally called Scraping Bottom. It didn’t do any good, the renaming. You know, The Great Santini was renamed Aces. It’s sort of never worked before. Their reason was and they might be right because it was released as a murder mystery, which it isn’t, of course. And some critics said that Cutter and Bone sounded like it was about two surgeons. And they changed the whole campaign. They feel that people really shouldn’t go to see a murder mystery if it is not a murder mystery they should know what they’re going to see. And they think the new name, Cutter’s Way, reflects better what the film is about. We’ll see.

I’m very curious about the ending of the film, which I find very powerful. While working on the film, did you find it easy or difficult to imagine what would happen to Richard Bone, the Jeff Bridges character, immediately after the end?

Ivan Passer: I think he gets away with it, because there are going to be fingerprints on the gun — the fingerprints of Cutter, because he’s still holding the gun when Bone pulls the trigger. There are no witnesses, and the fingerprints are definitely Cutter’s.

I imagined something more apocalyptic. I thought about the ending of Born to Win about how much you identify there with someone that society would call a loser. The whole movement of the film was toward Bone’s picking up that gun, and making that kind of commitment, and to end it that was very exciting. But it raised the question for me, is there any possible way he can get away with this?

Ivan Passer: Actually, I shot what happens after that. He walks out of this huge mansion, and it’s just before sunset; and he goes faster and faster and finally begins to run through the trees. And there’s a scene on his sailboat, which he lives on. he’s sailing out of the harbor, and he hears a laugh that sounds like Cutter’s laugh. He stops and looks at where it came from, and he sees there are a few sailors on a small cutter. And one of them looks like Cutter; he’s drinking a beer. And he laughs again. At that moment, Bone almost hits the coast and the Coast Guard; he almost brushes against this huge boat. But he avoids the accident, and soon gets on the open sea, and sails away. They very much wanted this ending, but it took away something. You know, this film is about pulling a trigger — what it takes — and we felt, the writer, producer, and I, that this would be just a tag that would dissipate the emotional impact of that last shot, and so we pleaded with them, and they finally agreed.

I’m glad they did. Is this a project that you initiated?

Ivan Passer: No. The producer, Paul Gurian, bought the book written by Newton Thornburg, which is called Cutter and Bone. You know, we were thinking of changing the title in the process of making the film, but we were told that in the contract with the writer of the book there was a proviso that the film had to have the same title. And when Paul Gurian came to me, it was after Bob Mulligan had been working on it for awhile. He worked with the writer on the script, partly. Then it changed companies from EMI and it landed at United Artists when I came to it. And you know, the way to get me interested in anything is to tell me it’s impossible to make. So that’s what I was told.

Why was it felt to be impossible? Was it the nature of the characters?

Ivan Passer: Yes, and it was a screenplay which sort of everybody read, and most people liked, and they were afraid of it. The companies, the majors, were afraid of it. They felt that it’s a downer  that the main character is going to be not very likable. And they also were suspicious about the genre, because they kept saying that the murder mystery plot isn’t very strong — which they were right about! They really wanted a murder mystery. Finally they said yes. Then they regretted it, I’m sure. And now they are glad.

Would you say it’s substantially the film you wanted to make?

Ivan Passer: Oh, yes.

Interview with Screenwriter Jeffrey Alan Fiskin

What attracted you personally the most to CUTTER’S WAY?

Jeffrey Alan Fiskin: It was the relationship of the three lead characters. The moment Mo (Lisa Eichhorn) dies is so tragic, and nobody is going to recover from it. The way Cutter has to focus even more now. That’s what it was always about. Paul Gurian had never produced a film before and a mutual friend said to him ”You should talk to Fiskin, he’s a good writer. ” He called me and asked me if I could read the book. I said ”Sure. ” At the time, I was absolutely flat broke, so going to the store and buying a book was absolutely not a possibility. So I went to the store and I pinched it. I did take it back when was done. Somebody somewhere bought that copy and on page 152 there’s a coffee ring, and I apologize for that! I called Paul, and I wanted the job but I told him ”We have a problem here. Everything that it builds towards is perfect until the last third, when it turns into a bad version of EASY RIDER (1969). It’s the same thing, a sheriff with a gun in the back of a pick-up, blah, blah, blah. You can’t have that. ” He said ”You’re right. You’re my screenwriter. ” I said ”You know, just because a mutual friend put us together, my name does nothing for you, you know. ” Paul said ”What did I say? You’re my screenwriter. ” This is the passionate insanity that makes Paul wonderful, but on more than one occasion it did rub some folks the wrong way. Still, he’s a genius. He somehow got UA to make the film. It was David Field who took a flyer on us and said ”OK.” I remember seeing David years later. I was having lunch somewhere with my Mom. I asked him to come over and I told my Mom ”This is the guy who put his ass on the line to get the film made. ” And David looked at her and said ”I will never make that mistake again!” I remember David always wanted to know how the script was going and I never knew. I like to just start writing and let the characters take me wherever they will. Sometimes that approach works, and sometimes not so much, but that’s the way I like to do it.

I always think there are two types of viewers of the film – those that need to know what exactly happened to Mo, and those who appreciate the ambiguity.

Jeffrey Alan Fiskin: Well, it can’t be anything good. The details don’t matter so much. I feel that way about most of the characters. Some people have asked why Ann Dusenberry’s character didn’t appear much, and the reason was that she was a new actress with very good instincts but not a lot of control yet. Some of her scenes just didn’t work. So they were cut. One of the things that Ivan liked about our film was that we could do that, because some characters are there and then they are not. Like life.

What was it like making the film?

Jeffrey Alan Fiskin: It was just absolutely magical. Jeff Bridges is a sweet, kind man and a superb actor. Caring and never pushy. He’s always ”If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know, but otherwise I’m gonna go to bed. ” John Heard was a little too much in character for some people on set, but he was perfect. Ivan Passer was glorious. I remember the first shot we did, which was John walking down a pier. It didn’t actually make the movie. Passer would explain each shot to me as he went. He said ”Look, the first set-up for a shot, you don’t worry about it. It’s gotta be something you throw away because nobody’s ready. ” And John comes storming down this pier singing The Sailor’s Hornpipe as he goes. In that instant, I realized ”He owns this movie. He’s got it, and we at least have something of interest. ” And we did. Even though what I had always longed for, to be reviewed by Pauline Kael, was a case of ”Be careful what you wish for”, because she hated the movie. ” But I was happy anyway. ”Alex Cutter is a one-eyed, one-armed, one-legged, walking literary conceit. ” Yeah, I can live with that!”

Did you have any interaction with Robert Mulligan or Dustin Hoffman when they were attached to the movie?

Jeffrey Alan Fiskin: Robert Mulligan and I met on it and we actually worked on something else that didn’t get made later on because we liked each other. My memory of it is that Dustin would get engaged in a lot of different films and didn’t necessarily follow up on any of them. It began to look like that was going to happen.


How did you feel about the idea of Ivan Passer directing the film?

Jeffrey Alan Fiskin: We finally get the film going forward at United Artists, and Paul says to me ”I want you to see a film by Ivan Passer. ” I said ”A woman director?” He said ”No! Not Yvonne. Eevahn as in Ivan. ” I had never heard of him or seen his film INTIMATE LIGHTNING (1965). He showed me the film in a small screening room and I said ”Holy crap! He was right there with Ozu and all the greats. How did I miss this guy?” Paul said ”He wants to do it. ” I said ”And you convinced United Artists to let him?” And he had. He actually pulled it off. Paul is a great storyteller. He has the patience of a saint, and passion and intelligence that not every producer has. And he never stopped pushing. He would pay attention to everything. But he’s also a genuine madman. Passer would never block anyone from the set but he blocked Paul! On the first day, Passer called the entire crew together and said ”If you have an idea about anything, I don’t care what it is, you come and tell me. It takes all of us to make this film. I mean, Craft Services. If we don’t have the right coffee in the cup, that sucks, and that’s a bad start to the day. So, let’s all be together. ” Passer was just easy.

Did you spend much time on the set?

Jeffrey Alan Fiskin: On every film except Revenge (1990), I have been there virtually 24×7. Passer loves actors, but not so much their intelligence as their instincts. He would have me rewriting every scene through the middle of the night, and he would tell everybody that that was what I was doing. He’d tell the actors ”You’ll get the new pages when you show up. ” So nobody could work on the scene at night. It wasn’t until maybe the fifth or sixth day that I realized he wasn’t using any of the changes I had been writing. He said ”No, the script’s perfect. Why would I write anything else? I just don’t want the actors working on it overnight. ” We would hand out the exact same pages the next day but they hadn’t been memorizing them because they didn’t know if the lines were going to be there. It worked perfectly.

CUTTER’S WAY can be interpreted as a sad farewell to the counterculture idealism of the 60s and 70s. Were you very much a part of that movement?

Jeffrey Alan Fiskin: As my daughter says ”Dad, you went straight from beatnik to hippie. ” At least in my mind I was part of the movement, but I am not sure I was enough for other people! When three kids, Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, were killed in the South doing voter registration, we all thought the same things but my friend Bob, who still plays music with me and my friends every Thursday, got on a bus and went down there and started registering people. In my mind, he was really part of the counterculture. I was an onlooker. I was a conscientious objector and I marched against the War. I never did many drugs. They just weren’t my thing. On the other hand, I’ve got pictures of myself with more hair than you can imagine, wearing bell bottoms and velvet shirts. I was a confused person with maybe a decent heart.



Cutter’s Way (1981) Jack Nitzsche

Jack Nitzsche was a unique, personal voice in the films of ’70s and ’80s. Visionary, excellent producer, pioneer of electronics… His not-too-prolific but brilliant soundtrack career still stands as one of the coolest. For Cutter’s Way, Nitzsche created a sound structure with unusual instruments (glass harmonica, zither, electric strings) to show the world of cynicism, crime and political privilege, as well as the atmosphere of nostalgia that abounds in the film. Because the film is set on the Mexican border, Nitzsche also adapted and recorded several cues in mariachi style; Mexican flavor can, in fact, be heard throughout the score.


Unfortunately, United Artists did not like the ambiguity in what was then titled Cutter and Bone. When U.A. executives, David Field and Claire Townsend, the film’s biggest supporters, left for 20th Century Fox, the studio felt that they would get no credit if the film succeeded and no responsibility if it failed. So, there was no interest in it. Cutter and Bone became a victim of internal politics. U.A. senior domestic sales and marketing vice president Jerry Esbin saw the film and decided that it did not have any commercial possibilities. Passer remembers that U.A. “didn’t do any research. I was supposed to have two previews with a paying audience. It was in my contract.” The filmmaker did not see his film with a paying audience until the Houston Film Festival many weeks later.

If Passer felt that United Artists was not behind Cutter and Bone (they spent a meager $63,000 on promotion) it did not help that when it premiered in New York City in late March of 1981 all three daily papers and the three major network critics gave it bad reviews. Perhaps the most damning one came from Vincent Canby in the New York Times which was the nail in the coffin for Cutter and Bone in the minds of U.A. executives. The studio was so freaked out by the negative reviews that they planned to pull the film after only a week. Little did they know that the next week Richard Schickel in Time, David Ansen in Newsweek, and New York City’s weekly newspapers would write glowing reviews urging everyone to see the film.


The positive reviews prompted United Artists to give Cutter and Bone to their “art” division, United Artists Classics, where they changed the film’s title to Cutter’s Way (thinking that the original title would be mistaken by audiences for a comedy about surgeons) and entered it into a number of film festivals. At Houston’s Third International Film Festival it won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor (John Heard). A week later it was given the prestigious closing feature slot at the Seattle Film Festival. With a new ad campaign in place, Cutter’s Way re-opened in the summer of 1981 in Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston, and New York City. Word of mouth helped the film turn a profit.

Directed-Ivan Passer
Produced-Paul R. Gurian
Screenplay-Jeffrey Alan Fiskin

Based on     
Cutter and Bone-Newton Thornburg

Jeff Bridges
John Heard
Lisa Eichhorn
Ann Dusenberry


2 thoughts on “Cutter’s Way (1981) Retrospective

  1. Fantastic oral history of the top American movie ever made. What unbelievable detail unearthed – the comments absolutely complement the movie.
    This does homage to the book, which also is a contemporary classic, Easy Rider influence or not.

    Liked by 1 person

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