America wasn’t even three months into Ronald Reagan’s first term when Cutter’s Way came out, but no film of the following decade would provide so indelible a metaphor for the nation’s callous transition from post-Watergate, post-Vietnam angst to the cartoonish nostalgia of Morning in America as when the movie’s eponymous hero, Alexander Cutter (John Heard)—a one-armed, one-legged, one-eyed casualty of our deadly misadventure in Southeast Asia—drunkenly unloads his pistol into a smiling stuffed animal floating in the waters of the Pacific Ocean.
Released in March of 1981, Cutter’s Way (originally titled Cutter and Bone, after the Newton Thornburg novel of five years prior) was the last great film of the Seventies, as well as the last in a line of ultra-bleak neo-noir conspiracy thrillers that include Alan Pakula’s Paranoia Trilogy (Klute, The Parallax View, All the President’s Men), The Long Goodbye, Chinatown, The Conversation, Night Moves, Winter Kills and Cruising. One final, rage-filled howl into the void from the baby boomers before they sold out and bought in, audiences at the time were no keener to listen to what the film had to say than its characters are to listen to Cutter’s rolling torrent of lewd invective and profane soliloquies. Their loss, since not only does the movie contain its share of hard truths, but also because it’s one of the most gripping and surprising murder mysteries of the last half-century.
Directed by the late Ivan Passer, a Czech emigre who cut his teeth penning early scripts for Milos Foreman, Cutter’s Way opens with slow motion footage of a town parade set to an eerie zither score courtesy of composer Jack Nitzsche, as it slowly bleeds from black-and-white to color. The creeping dread that underscores this wholesome slice of Americana anticipates the zeitgeist-capturing work of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks towards the end of the decade, while setting the hazily creepy tone for the next two hours.
As soon as we’re on the other side of this title sequence, we’re introduced to one half of our hapless heroic duo: part-time boat salesman and “the fastest dick on the beach” Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges), fresh off his latest one night stand with one of the countless tanned, blonde and bored housewives that make up the coastal California community of Santa Barbara. Bone’s half-hearted sales pitch to his prospective customer falls flat, and the woman doesn’t seem all that happy with the sex, but he still manages to squeeze a couple of bucks out of her, bucks which he clearly needs since he’s crashing on his old pal Cutter’s couch, much to chagrin of Cutter’s long-suffering wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn), with whom Bone is desperately in love.
(As outstanding as both male leads are—and this is undoubtedly Heard’s finest hour, while even Bridges has rarely been better—Eichhorn outshines them both with her wounded, jaundiced, existentially terrifying performance. In a rare case of proper retrospective justice, the AFI deservedly named it “The Most Underrated Performance of the Decade”.)
A low-rent hustler scraping by in a high-rent city, the melancholic Bone is desperate to avoid any attachments or responsibilities, so it’s doubly bad for him when he happens upon a man dumping the body of a murdered teenage girl into some trashcans on his way home. Worse yet, he quickly comes to suspect the culprit is the most powerful man in Santa Barbara, oil and real estate magnate J.J. Cord. Despite exclaiming “That’s him!” upon seeing Cord riding in the Founder’s Day parade a few hours after the body is discovered, Bone quickly backtracks. But it’s too late: his friend Cutter is convinced Cord is the guilty party and, along with the sister of the victim, he embarks on a haphazard and convoluted blackmail scheme to prove it.
(By the by: if a movie starring Jeff Bridges as a California burn-out who gets roped into scamming a rich tycoon at the behest of his unhinged Vietnam vet buddy sounds familiar, you’re on to something.)
While it’s obvious that Cutter doesn’t actually give a damn about the dead girl, it’s also clear he’s not just in it for the money. It’s not a payday he’s after, but payback—payback for the war, for his injuries, for his lot in his life, for all the shit turns of luck that befall people like him while eliding elitist bastards like Cord. “He’s responsible,” Cutter says of the suspect who he’s never even met, “him and all the motherfuckers like him. They’re all the same. You know why they’re all the same? Because it’s never their ass that’s on the line. It’s always somebody else’s. Always yours, mine, ours.”
Thus, the nihilistic ex-soldier is suddenly transformed into a knight errant, albeit one in the grotesque mode à la Captain Ahab and Don Quixote. Cutter references both at separate points, but while he sarcastically invokes the chivalry of the latter, it’s the former he more closely resembles, not only physically—what with his black eye-patch, peg leg, scraggly hair and beard, and old sea dog’s growl—but spiritually; his mad jihad against his personal “white whale” placing him, as well as all those who have tethered their lives to his, on a collision course with annihilation.
Ironically, Cutter’s journey initially reads like a repeat of Vietnam, a mortal folly undertaken for all the wrong reasons and pursued to its inevitable bitter end. However, just as the viewer begins to suspect the murder investigation will end on an ambiguous note, the film takes a sudden turn before delivering us to a furious reckoning in which tragedy and vengeance are meted out in equal measure.
In a 2011 Guardian article celebrating the film’s 30th anniversary, writer John Patterson suggests that viewers will “hate the ending the first time out.” This was certainly true of my experience. The film’s final set piece—which involves, of all things, a horse chase—initially struck me as completely random, and only on subsequent viewings did I notice how prevalent its horse motif is. But over time, I’ve come to grasp the ending’s full mythic power, even as its exhilarating final shot—which leads to one of the all-time great smash cuts to black—has haunted me ever since I first saw it.
I could say the same of the film as a whole: while parts of it left a strong impression on me after my first viewing (which would have been exactly ten years ago), I regarded it as an interesting film that just didn’t quite work. It wasn’t until I finally returned to it a few years ago—and then several more times afterwards—that I came to recognize it not only as a great American film, but one of the great films about America.
And yet…for as masterful a movie as Cutter’s Way is, there is one thing keeping it from being perfect: the fact that the book is somehow even better.
There is no reason that Newton Thornburg’s Cutter and Bone should be so obscure. When it was released in 1976, it was met with good sales and great reviews, and the purchase of its movie rights netted Thornburg a cool hundred large. This was no flash-in-the-pan success either: Thornburg had already published three previous novels, including his other masterpiece, To Die in California (1973), which, like the book that would follow three years later, tells an emotionally devastating story about an outsider bullishly intruding upon the hedonistic enclave of Santa Barbara’s upper class in order to flush out a murderer. (In the case of To Die in California, the hero is a Midwestern farmer, whose biography strongly resembles Thornburg’s, investigating the suspicious death of his teenage son).
Following the release of Cutter and Bone, Thornburg would write seven more books, including a handful of crime/suspense novels, but mostly strange familial dramas, as well as one science fiction story, 1980’s Valhalla, about an apocalyptic race war that devastates America. By the time of his death in 2011 (shortly before Cutter’s Way enjoyed a brief resurgence of interest thanks to a DVD release timed to its 30-year anniversary), these novels, including the two that had been made into films (the other being his incest melodrama Beautiful Kate), had fallen completely out of print. Save for a few vocal champions, such as crime novelist George Pelecanos, they’d also fallen out of memory.
It’s easy to imagine Thornburg might have enjoyed a stronger, steadier relevance if only he’d stuck to mystery fiction, but that doesn’t track with his actual writing. Tempting as it is to compare him to the other great scribe of Santa Barbara noir, Ross Macdonald, their work has little in common outside of their shared locale and an inherent cynicism. But even in this, they diverge. Macdonald’s cynicism is of the hardboiled, two-fisted type, whereas Thornburg’s is far more despairing and achingly empathetic. Despite a noticeable conservative bent in his work, he is, at heart, a writer of and for America’s loser class.
One of the greatest strengths of Thornburg’s writing is how it refuses to conform to the expectations of genre. In his introduction to the 2001 edition of Cutter and Bone, Pelecanos wrote that Thornburg “challenged the very foundation of the traditional crime novel”. Even more than the movie, the novel ignores its central mystery for long stretches, focusing instead on its characters’ minor daily struggles, while also turning inward to their deeply disturbed emotional and psychological states.
This is but one of the many differences between the book and the movie, many of which seem small at first, only to result in major changes. For example, in the book, the suspected killer is named J.J. Wolfe, and he’s not a local oil tycoon, but a visiting Missouri cattle baron in town on business. This might not seem that important, except that it eventually leads Cutter and Bone on a cross-country road trip for the book’s back-half, whereas the movie stays put in Santa Barbara for its duration. As a result, Thornburg’s novel takes on the stature of a true American odyssey, a landlocked Conradian journey into his own country’s heart of darkness.
While the movie does a great job of bringing the novel’s characters to life, it never quite captures the depth of their desperation like the book does. Take the first scene in the film, in which Bone manages to finagle a couple of dollars from his latest lay on his way out the door. In the novel, it’s not a bored housewife he’s just bedded, but a vacationing high school teacher, one who’s sadly fooled herself into thinking she and Bone shared a connection beyond the physical. Unlike in the movie, Bone’s attempts to squeeze some cash out of her end in failure and recrimination. We get a much clearer picture of Bone as a mercenary hustler as well as an abject failure, not only through scenes such as this, but through a detailed backstory which the movie for the most part ignores. We learn that Bone was a once successful ad man with a wife and children, until he one day up and walked out on them for reasons that he can’t quite comprehend.
Similarly, while it wouldn’t be fair to say the movie sands off Cutter’s rough edges—indeed, added scenes wherein he lobs racist insults at a couple of innocent bystanders and hits Mo reveal him at his ugliest—Thornburg spends much more time detailing the “gutter squalor” in which he lives (Cutter and Mo’s house in the movie is a very memorable piece of set design, but it’s a bit too neat and tidy for people so down and out). As with Bone’s backstory, the movie changes a key component to Cutter and Mo’s family life by removing the baby boy they have in the novel. This is the adaptation’s biggest misstep, and the only change that can truly be considered a copout. Granted, it’s understandable why it was made: not only would audiences have a harder time going along with two strung-out addicts if there were a neglected toddler in the mix, but also because, as anyone who’s seen the movie knows, a very upsetting event that occurs a little past its halfway mark is made ten-times more devastating by the addition of a child.
But it’s that bone-deep sense of devastation that makes the novel so damned remarkable. It’s there in every page, but it’s most palpable during its concluding pages, which are very different from the final minutes of the film. Both book and movie end on similar actions—moments of brutal clarity followed by swift dispersals of violence—but the movie contains a cathartic sense of justice that Thornburg mercilessly denies the reader. The film will haunt the viewer, but the book will absolutely wreck its reader. Ultimately, Thornburg’s novel might just be the purely saddest noir ever written.
Regardless of their discrepancies, both the book and the film deserve to be recognized as bitter masterpieces of, as well as essential works within, the canon of what Philip Roth dubbed the ‘American Berserk’. On the dual occasion of their 40th and 45th anniversaries, it’s finally time Cutter and Bone get their proper due.