PRIME CUT (1972) – Directed by Michael Ritchie. Prime Cut was released less than 4 months after The Godfather but it’s difficult to think of two more different gangster films. And I say that as a good thing. Prime Cut is not trying for the epic, operatic scope of The Godfather, it’s just a fairly solid street-level gangster flick with a few admittedly silly action sequences.
The Chicago Syndicate bosses are being disrespected by a subordinate Kansas boss who is itching to break out from under their thumb and take complete control of his own little empire. Part of that figurative declaration of independence took the form of not sending the Chicago boys their required tribute.
The Windy City mob sent a tough-guy “negotiator” to try leaning on the Kansas rebel only to have that Jayhawk State gangster take things to the next level by having the tough-guy killed, then literally ground into hot dog meat. Adding insult to injury the Kansas boss sent the hot dogs/ bodily remains of the negotiator back to Chicago in the package they were supposed to use to send their tribute money.
Chicago’s response is to send four button men under the command of one of their coldest, most hard-assed enforcers, to Kansas to bring the upstart back into line by whatever means prove necessary. Much bloodshed ensues, with butchery and slaughterhouses of all kinds reflecting the title theme.
GENE HACKMAN plays the Kansas insurgent, incongruously called Mary Ann from his high-level prostitution ring that, along with drug-pushing, is one of the illegal rackets that Mary Ann’s wholesale meat business serves as a front for. “Cow flesh, girl flesh, it’s all the same to me,” Hackman’s mob boss muses.
LEE MARVIN stars as Nick Devlin, the legendary enforcer sent from Chicago to nip the incipient rebellion in the bud. Nick is all business and savagely beats up Mary Ann’s brother/ underboss as an attention-getter before demanding a meeting with the Big Man himself.
SISSY SPACEK portrays Poppy, the disturbingly young prostitute who is one of the women that Hackman auctions off at what on the surface appears to be a cattle auction. Poppy is one of the latest models of young hookers supplied to Mary Ann through the pipeline from an orphanage he funds in order to groom successive years’ worth of sex slaves.
ANGEL TOMPKINS plays Clarabelle, who is currently Hackman’s high maintenance woman but who used to be Lee Marvin’s character’s lover, adding another ingredient to the volatile napalm soup brewing between the two. Clarabelle is a shrewd reader of the winds and figures that her Kansas man can’t possibly win against the mammoth Chicago syndicate. Trying to arrange her next meal ticket she plays up to Nick Devlin, trying to get him to take her back.
Back to the story, Mary Ann agrees to a meeting with Devlin, held at the aforementioned cattle/ white slavery auction. At that tension-filled but non-violent encounter between our two leads it appears that Hackman will show common sense after all and pay Chicago what he owes.
Marvin is icy cold but is businesslike enough to accept Hackman’s offer. He’s even calm enough to take some verbal slings from Hackman, like “Chicago’s a sick old sow, grunting for fresh cream.” Devlin seems to feel Mary Ann is just talking trash to save face in front of his boys. As long as Hackman is agreeing to pay up, he’ll be a big enough man to let the insult pass. He DOES, however, take Poppy (Spacek) with him to keep him warm while he’s in town.
It turns out that Mary Ann is pulling a double-cross. He arranges for Devlin – who brings along Poppy – to pick up the money from him and his boys at a very public and heavily-attended county fair. The large crowds are presumed to guarantee that neither side will try violence as Hackman at last gives Chicago its due.
We get another character bit from Gene, emphasizing once again what a hayseed his ambitious mobster really is. A prominent politician attends the fair as a speaker and a livestock judge, and Hackman grandly humiliates him just to show off for Devlin that such a powerful man is nothing but his bitch now. Our Kansas Capone would be considered a gavone in Mafia circles.
Okay, he may be buffoonish but he IS cunning. He sends Lee Marvin and Sissy Spacek elsewhere on the fair grounds to supposedly pick up the small fortune that he owes Chicago. The exchange ground turns out to be near one of the fair’s shooting competitions, with the shots from the competitors ensuring that when Hackman’s goons open fire on Devlin and Poppy the noise will just blend in with the other gunshots.
Lee and Sissy survive the attempted ambush, fight back and eventually escape when Devlin’s backup men arrive just in time, setting up the much-lauded scene where their limo gets destroyed in an encounter with a wheat harvesting combine driven by one of Hackman’s soldiers.
From there it becomes a game of hit and counter-hit, whack and counter-whack, leading up to a climactic raid on Mary Ann’s stronghold. Devlin emerges as the victor and even shuts down his vanquished adversary’s pipeline of groomed young ladies from the orphanage so that his successor can no longer draw from it.
Prime Cut often makes lists of Best Guys’ Movies and it is possibly the greatest example of a pre-Tarantino film which blazed a lot of trails that Quentin would later pave into major highways. There’s blood and gore galore mixed in with scenes of meat-heavy meals being consumed plus a gay love affair between two brothers. No, I’m not joking.
If you like gangster movies but have never seen Prime Cut then you need to remedy that as soon as possible. The characters are ugly and unlikable but hey, that’s because in real life gangsters are ugly and unlikable.
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