Twilight Time Movies: ‘Cutter’s Way’ (1981)

Nick Clement reviews Twilight Time’s limited edition Blu-Ray titles.

A prime example of a “film that got away,” the 1981 dramatic thriller Cutter’s Way is one of those underrated-at-the-time-of-its-release items that’s now finally getting the attention it deserves. The film features an absolutely terrific script by Jeffrey Fiskin (who also adapted Jim Harrison’s Revenge for the late, great Tony Scott), gritty and propulsive direction by Ivan Passer (Born to Win, Intimate Lighting), and boasts a ferocious performance by John Heard (probably his best work) as a disabled Vietnam vet, and a fantastic Jeff Bridges as Heard’s best friend, with the two of them getting mixed up in a murder mystery when Bridges abandons his broken down car in an alley, and accidentally witnesses a body being disposed of. Heard’s emotionally fragile and physically beleaguered character then gets an idea that might push stuff over the edge; I’m trying to be coy with my plot description because the less you know about this mysterious film, the more enjoyable the viewing experience is likely to be. Fiskin’s script details two multi-layered characters who share the narrative with equal dramatic force, and the film’s stinging yet sly indictment of the Vietnam War can be felt in numerous instances, giving off a hostile vibe that reverberates throughout the entire picture. Passer is a fascinating filmmaker with an eclectic set of credits, and his distinct brand of humanism is what guides this particular film to its satisfying conclusion.

Cutter’s Way is one of those films that may have been seen (or interpreted) as being one thing 36 years ago when it first unspooled, but over time, has only grown in stature. The performance by Heard is, simply put, a tour de force of acting; this is the sort of massive role that any young actor working in any generation could only hope to have received, and it’s shocking to think that Heard didn’t become a bigger star, considering his fiery turn in Cutter’s Way, as well as his wonderful performances in 1979’s Chilly Scenes of Winter (aka Head Over Heels) and Paul Schrader’s 1982 cult-gem Cat People; these films didn’t really click at the box-office, which probably led to offers reflecting that fact. Bridges, who I’m not sure has ever given a “bad performance,” has the less showy but equally important role in Cutter’s Way when compared to Heard, but it’s the way the two of them interact with each other during this film that cements its integrity; these were great actors playing hard to define people in terms of being “good” or “bad,” and it’s a testament to Fiskin’s strong-willed writing and Passer’s observational directorial style that the audience sticks with these guys through thick and thin. Lisa Eichhorn is superb as Heard’s wife, while Ann Dusenberry, Arthur Rosenberg, Stephen Elliott, and Nina van Pallandt turned in strong supporting work.

Happily, Cutter’s Way has picked up cult status over the years, and it’s easy to see why. The material is politically charged without being preachy, it’s tense and dangerous when it comes to action and drama, and the performances all register with authenticity and passion. Jordan Cronenweth (Blade Runner, Altered States) handled cinematography chores, and as usual, the results were spectacular, with organic, sepia tones invading the frame, with a hazy quality enveloping most of the film; this foggy visual atmosphere was in perfect tandem with the morally ambiguous themes on display in Fiskin’s screenplay. The musical score by Jack Nitzsche (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Exorcist) hits all the proper notes of reflection, and the smooth editing by Caroline Biggerstaff (The Stunt Man, 9 1/2 Weeks) never allows the viewer to know anymore than the characters do, creating certain suspense without ever feeling over-manufactured in any aesthetic manner. Born out of the events of one decade and made at the beginning of another, Cutter’s Way sports a tone that feels more 60’s/70’s rather than the 80’s, and the thorny nature of the socially conscious narrative is a key highlight to the film’s success. Honestly, make it a double bill with Karel Reisz’s phenomenal and equally underappreciated Who’ll Stop the Rain (also available on Blu-Ray from Twilight Time), and then come and thank me for telling you to do so.

The film had a turbulent production history that only ramps up the curiosity factor. Based on Newton Thornburg’s novel Cutter and Bone, producer Paul Gurian purchased the rights to the novel, and contacted Fiskin about adapting it; Fiskin apparently had not much money at the time, and reportedly stole a copy of the book so that he could read it. Director Robert Mulligan (Summer of ’42, The Nickel Ride) was initially approached to helm the film, with Dustin Hoffman set to play the role of Cutter, which eventually went to Heard; Nick Nolte and Tommy Lee Jones were both also considered at one point, while it’s rumoured that Tom Berenger very much wanted to play the part but producers balked at casting him. Scheduling conflicts with Hoffman led to him departing the picture, as well as Mulligan, and the original investors, EMI, flew the coop. Gurian took the project to United Artists, who eventually agreed to finance the film as long as it could be made for under $3 million, and that Jeff Bridges be added to the cast (the studio execs loved the footage of him that they were seeing from the Heaven’s Gate dailies). When it came time for the film to be released, various executives who had supported the production had left to work at 20th Century Fox, leaving the film caught in-between regime changes; the fact that it wasn’t easily marketable didn’t help matters. The studio barely spent any money to promote it during its opening run in New York in March of 1981, and critics, for whatever reason, were unkind, prompting United Artists to pull the film from theaters. Then, a spate of glowing critical reactions landed on the scene, and United Artists passed the film over to its specialty division, United Artists Classics, who re-titled the film to Cutter’s Way, and then submitted it to various film festivals where it began winning awards. The film was then re-released in theaters during the summer of 1981 in a handful of cities and did some solid business.

Twilight Time’s picture transfer is very solid, retaining that varied, grainy celluloid look that was in full effect during that time period. The image is presented in the film’s original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and is in 1080p High Definition color. Audio is well defined, and presented in English 1.0 DTS-HD MA sound. Special features include an isolated film score track, audio commentary by film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, and the film’s original theatrical trailer. The disc is a Region Free release, and as usual, Twilight Time has produced 3,000 limited edition Blu-ray copies for sale. Get yours right here: https://www.twilighttimemovies.com/cutters-way-blu-ray/


Twilight Time Movies release classic catalogue Blu-ray and DVD titles available for a limited time, exclusively in limited runs of 3000 copies. For more information, visit https://www.twilighttimemovies.com

Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema. He’s currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott, and co-operates the website Podcasting Them Softly.

He is also a regular contributor for MovieViral.com, a site dedicated to providing the best news and analysis on viral marketing and ARG campaigns for films and other forms of entertainment.

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