Prime Cut (1972) Retrospective

A slaughterhouse process follows the unloading of cattle to the making of sausages. A wristwatch and a shoe appear on a conveyor line, making it clear that a human cadaver is processed among the cattle. A woman operating the sausage machine is interrupted by “Weenie”, who has timed the machine using his watch. He wraps up a string of sausages, then marks the package with an address in Chicago.

Weenie is the brother of “Mary Ann”, the crooked operator of the slaughterhouse in Kansas City, Kansas. The particular sausages that Weenie was wrapping were made from the remains of an enforcer from the Chicago Irish Mob sent to Kansas City to collect $500,000 from Mary Ann.

After the head of the Irish Mob in Chicago receives the package, he contacts Nick Devlin, an enforcer with whom he has worked previously, to go to Kansas City to collect the debt. He tells Devlin about the sausages and that another enforcer sent to Kansas City was found floating in the Missouri River.

Devlin agrees to the fee of $50,000 and asks for some additional muscle. He gets a driver and three other younger members of the Irish Mob as help, including the young O’Brien, who makes Devlin meet his mother as he leaves Chicago.

It is later revealed that Devlin and Mary Ann have a shared history involving Mary Ann’s wife Clarabelle, who previously had an affair with Devlin. In Kansas City at a flophouse, Devlin finds Weenie in an upstairs room. He beats him up and tells him to inform Mary Ann that he is in town to collect the debt.

The next day, Devlin and his men drive to the prairie and find Mary Ann in a barn, where he is entertaining guests at a white slave (prostitute) auction. Devlin demands the money from Mary Ann, who tells him to come to the county fair the next day to get it. Mary Ann tells him Chicago is “an old sow, begging for cream” that should be melted down.

As they are standing by a cattle pen with naked young women offered for auction, one of them, Poppy, begs Devlin for help. Devlin takes her with him “on account.” Back at the hotel, she tells Devlin her history of growing up at an orphanage in Missouri with her close friend, Violet, before they were brought to the slave auction.

At the county fair, in the midst of a livestock judging competition, Mary Ann gives Devlin a box that supposedly contains the money. When Devlin cracks the box open, he finds it contains only beef hearts. Devlin is able to escape with Poppy after Violet distracts Weenie, who claimed her after the auction.

Mary Ann’s men chase Devlin, his men and Poppy through the fair. O’Brien is killed underneath a viewing stand. Devlin and Poppy run into a nearby wheat field, where they escape detection. When they try to leave the field, they are chased by a combine harvester operator. Poppy falls and they are nearly sliced up by the machine’s blades.

Devlin and Poppy are saved by the arrival of Devlin’s men in their car, which they abandon and let ram into the front of the combine. Devlin’s driver shoots the combine operator. The entire car is demolished by the threshing apparatus and turned into bales of hay and metal.

They hitch a ride back into Kansas City on a truck. Devlin jumps off near the river and sends the rest of them with Poppy back into town. He enters a houseboat, the luxurious accommodation of Clarabelle, purchased for her by Mary Ann; she is there alone. He gets information on the whereabouts of Mary Ann. Clarabelle attempts to seduce him, but he rebuffs her. Clarabelle tells him she would be perfectly happy being a widow and joining Devlin again. He responds by setting the houseboat adrift on the river, with an angry Clarabelle aboard.

When he returns to the hotel, Devlin finds an ambulance, with one of his men being hauled away. He learns that Mary Ann’s men ambushed them and took Poppy. When he returns to Weenie’s hotel to look for him, he finds that Violet has been gang-raped, apparently as a warning of what will happen to Poppy.

He and his two remaining men drive out to Mary Ann’s farm to finally take care of business. On the way, Devlin takes out a Smith & Wesson M76 submachine gun from a case.

Devlin stops the car on the edge of a field of sunflowers near Mary Ann’s farm. They approach the farm through the field and engage in a long gun battle with Mary Ann’s men, a seemingness infinite number of identical men wearing bib overalls. Both of Devlin’s men are hit. He tells them to stay behind while he advances with the submachine gun. Unable to get past Mary Ann’s men, he stops a truck hauling livestock, commandeers it and uses it to ram the gate and smash into the greenhouse on the farm, demolishing it.

Devlin kills several of Mary Ann’s men, then advances into the barn where Mary Ann and his brother are holding Poppy. From behind an apparently bulletproof bale of hay, he hits Mary Ann, who falls seriously injured down into a pig pen. Enraged at seeing his brother shot, Weenie runs toward Devlin, who kills him. As he dies, Weenie tries to stab Devlin with a sausage.

Devlin carries Poppy out of the barn. They pass the mortally wounded Mary Ann, flat on his back, next to a sow pen. Mary Ann taunts Devlin to kill him, telling him to finish him off, like he would an animal. Devlin tells him that since Mary Ann is a man, not an animal, he won’t do that. He walks away, leaving Mary Ann to die on his back.

In the final scene, Devlin and Poppy go back to the Missouri orphanage and demand the release of the rest of the girls. When the matron resists, Poppy knocks her out, to the approval of Devlin. As they walk away Devlin tells her they’re going back to Chicago, and when Poppy asks what it’s like, he replies it’s “as peaceful as anyplace anywhere”

The working title of the film was Kansas City Prime. According to Filmfacts, National General changed the title to Prime Cut to avoid confusion with the M-G-M release Kansas City Bomber. As the opening credits roll, a slaughterhouse sequence is shown in which the cows are slaughtered and butchered into sausage meat as “Weenie” oversees the process. As the blade rises to kill one of the cows, a brief image of a human body appears. Filmfacts noted that location shooting was done in Alberta, Canada, Chicago, Illinois and Kansas City, Missouri. A November 1971 news item in Variety added that the wheat harvest scene was shot in Calgary, Canada.

Prime Cut marked the first major role and onscreen credit for Sissy Spacek, although several modern sources state that Spacek’s first screen appearance was an uncredited walk-on role in the 1970 film Trash. Eddie Egan, who appeared as “Jake,” was the New York City detective whose exploits served as the basis for The French Connection, which also starred Gene Hackman as a fictionalized Egan. Modern sources add Jerry Tracey and Judy Williams to the cast.

“He was a strange person. I wouldn’t know from one day to the next how he was going to be. Kind of like a Jaguar I used to own. Drives great when it drove but I never knew if it was going to start the next moment. He was a strange dichotomy. I remember I had lunch with my agent one day in a restaurant on Sunset Blvd. Lee came in with his agent, Meyer Mishkin. He saw me there, came over, and sat down. He talked for a while, shaking hands. Just delightful, you know? He was great, with his white teeth shining. Then, about a year later, I went down to Tucson on a film. By then, he had moved Tucson with his wife, Pam. He came into a restaurant on that day, saw me and just said, “Oh, yeah,” and just walked right passed me. He was a strange mixture of man.” – Gregory Walcott

Spacek got her first real role, as an innocent victim of white slavery in Prime Cut. Filmed in Canada with stars Lee Marvin and Gene Hackman, Spacek remembered: “I was the only one in the cast who believed the script. White slavery? You bet. I believed Lee Marvin would have picked me.”

A crew member recalled that, on the set of Prime Cut, Spacek was “so goddamn sunny she made you want to put on sunglasses.” ………about her cheery image of her work. “It never bothered me,” she answered. “I am the way I am. I don’t try to exploit my accent or the way I am. I’m just . . . compulsive about making other people feel comfortable. I believe, ultimately, that it’s a better working situation if people are happy.” – Sissy Spacek

Making the film in the late summer of 1971 proved miserable for everyone. Marvin and Ritchie were at each other’s throats half the time, and the atmosphere was poisonous, Hackman steered clear. in December 1972 Lee Marvin said, “I’ve made some mistakes I wish I hadn’t. One of them was working with Michael Ritchie on Prime Cut. Oh, I hate that son of a bitch. He likes to use amateurs because he can totally dominate them. Nothing worked with that guy, and the whole picture fell apart.

Presumably the amateurs dig was aimed at Eddie Egan, the real “Popeye Doyle’, who made his acting debut playing Jake, the Chicago mobster who sends Marvin to get his money from Hackman. Ritchie, incensed by Marvin’s outburst, made his feelings clear to Donald Zec: ‘I am prepared to talk about, say, Burt Reynolds, Robert Redford, Walter Matthau or any other pleasurable subject. But not about Lee Marvin. He said some wicked things about me and I am not disposed to reply in kind. Nor, on the other hand, am I disposed to say anything favorable cither.

Gregory Walcott recalled a telling incident early on during the film: “Lee invited Gene and me to drive out with him on location about forty miles out of the city. Lee was in a very talkative mood that morning and kept up a continual commentary all the way to the location. Gene mainly listened. He seemed a little amazed at Lee’s uncanny ability to chatter using his ‘shorthand method of speaking. Gene had just received rave reviews of his performance in the film I Never Sang For My Father. Lee said, I haven’t had a chance to see that film with you and Melvyn Douglas. What’s it called? I Never Sucked My Father’s Cock?’

“Then the topic segued to his own father. He told how they had a bitter relationship and it had been years since he had seen him. Then he went on to add that on Lee’s birthday a couple of years prior, he got word that his father had died. Wouldn’t you know that the bastard had to die on my birthday, and spoil it for me. I looked at Gene, and by now he was wondering if he should take his costar serious. His shock approach seemed to be one of his favorite ways of dealing with people. As the weeks progressed on the film, I began to wonder if the shock method was not a way to cover his insecurities. With all of his two-fisted bravado, I could not help but sense some insecurity in Lee Marvin.”

Marvin balked at the romance between his character and Spacek. “Actually, I thought Lee was protective of her in that thing,” stated Walcott. “I know in the original script, he was supposed to make love to the girl, the child. Lee didn’t go for that. Lee nixed the idea… I think it was Lee that had that changed. Once again, I want to stress, that as wild as he could be, maybe deep inside there was a moral streak in him that came out.

Some years later Lee Marvin said, “I’d probably had a little too much booze inside of me when I said those things. Okay, so I didn’t hit it off with Michael Ritchie, and I got pissed off about some things, but if I said anything out of order which I probably did. I shouldn’t have done. And I’m very sorry. Maybe I felt a little left out of the Gene Hackman Appreciation Society. I mean, Gene God knows is a great actor and a great guy. but he wasn’t the only actor in the film, for crissakes”

Presumably Marvin and Ritchie never did patch things up before the actor died in 1987 Prime Cut was released in the summer of 1972 in a version Ritchie insisted was not his final cut: his version was shown in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where it met with great success Elsewhere it fared moderately at a time when many movies were sinking without trace.

Hackman recalls the film as ‘not especially rewarding. It works on a certain level. I didn’t expect it to work in any other way. It’s just that sometimes you’re working experiences are very exciting. sometimes they are not Nevertheless, the result was a dark and gritty study of the American underworld, violent, often disturbing and in its way quite compelling Marvin was strong as a good-bad guy, and Hackman even better as the thoroughly bad-bad guy Ritchie’s flair in blending tense build-ups with explosive action set pieces made for a slick pulp thriller.

Michael Ritchie

Joe Wizan

Robert Dillon

Lee Marvin
Gene Hackman
Sissy Spacek

Lalo Schifrin

Gene Hackman-Michael Munn

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s