December 5, 2005
Prime Cut (1972) is a neglected crime thriller directed by Michael Ritchie, known more for helming the Fletch movies than making a gritty action movie with Lee Marvin and Gene Hackman. Nick (Marvin) is an enforcer hired for $50,000 to collect $500,000 that a Kansas City mobster (Hackman) owes his Chicago superiors. His employer has already sent down several of his own men, all of which were killed—even one ground up and returned as links of sausage. Nick is given three young henchmen to help “straighten them out,” but you know that these inexperienced guys are only going to get in the veteran killer’s way. It seems like a simple enough task, especially for a seasoned pro like Nick.
The mobster’s legitimate front is Mary Ann’s Meats, a meat-packing plant to cover his real business: drugs and prostitution. The women are laid out, naked, amidst the hay in a barn, like common cattle. When they aren’t being shown off, the women are stored in a large greenhouse like dormant plants waiting to be cultivated.
Lee Marvin has played this kind of role before, most notably in The Killers (1964) and Point Blank (1967), and slips into his character with ease. Marvin’s got a great, menacing gravelly voice and a no-nonsense attitude that gives him such a natural, tough guy presence. He also has a way with dialogue. When Nick checks up on a thug that he roughed up earlier on he asks him, “How’s the thumb, Weenie? If it still hurts why don’t you stick it in your mouth and suck?” Marvin delivers the line in perfect, deadpanned manner that is funny and cool.
Gene Hackman plays his criminal as a jovial, gregarious fellow but underneath this cheery façade is a mean S.O.B. At the county fair, Hackman’s character judges cattle and pays off one boy’s cow to be slaughtered even though the child says that it’s a pet. The exchanges between Marvin and Hackman are excellent. One of the best parts of Prime Cut is watching their contrasting acting styles and personalities bounce off each other: Marvin playing the expressionless big city killer and Hackman’s cocky, good ol’ boy mobster.
However, there are some jumps in logic in the film’s screenplay. For such a consummate pro, Nick really underestimates the Kansas City mobster. He shows up to their county fair meeting without a gun which seems out of character. In addition, he and his crew go back to their hotel even though anybody with any smarts would know that someone will obviously be waiting for them. This is sloppy writing that betrays the intelligence of Marvin’s character.
The final showdown in Prime Cut, where Nick finally decides to tear the mobster’s operation apart, makes up for the jumps in logic a little bit (although, the seemingly inexhaustible supply of corn-fed henchmen is a bit much). Marvin provides a typically solid performance and it is a lot of fun to see him pitted against Gene Hackman’s bad guy.