Cutter’s Way (1981): Ivan Passer’s Post-Vietnam Era Tale Starring Jeff Bridges

Ivan Passer’s noir melodrama is a richly textured, entertaining thriller, fueled by peculiar and volatile tensions of intimate friendships set against the post-Vietnam era and its social fabric, capturing the cynical and bitter mood that previaled in the mid-1970s.

Initially titled “Cutter and Bone,” the film failed at the box office the first time around. The title might have been one problem, but not the only one, for when the film was released as “Cutter’s Way” it didn’t do any better.

On the surface, it appears to be an unfocused murder mystery about eccentric young Californians who live on booze, drugs and their wits. They talk about Vietnam, violin, corrupting rich. But the essence of the film is an examination of the tangled web of relationships among four characters, who could be described as post-hppies, still clinging to the mores of the counterculture of the 1960s.

Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) is a beach bum and part-time gigolo adrift in Santa Barbara; in the first scene, he is engaged in a amorous affair with a rich patron. Alex Cutter (John Heard) is an unpleasantly disfigured and amputated reminder of the Vietnam War. Lisa Eichhorn and Ann Dusenberry give very vivid impressions of contemporary young women who are also somewhat lost, albeit for different reasons.

Bone becomes the chief suspect of brutal murder of high school cheerleader, but we know he is wrongly accused. Cutter sports eye patch, artificial leg, his best friend a manic, possibly psychotic war veteran. Eichhorn as Heards wife is patient but also mysterious. Bridges as Bone is a sleek 30s Santa Barbara yacht salesman and gigolo. Heard as Alex Cutter, Bones buddy is a peg-legged Vietnam veteran, crazy, obnoxious, still authentic American hero. When Bone is falsely accused of murder of a teenaged girl, Cutter concocts plan to clear him and trap real killer, an oil magnate living in the hills

Its the kind of picture that refuses to play by the rules and tells the audience what its about. Director Passer captures both the dreamy, sun-bleached Santa Barbara high-life and the desperation and squalor of the post-1960s types who didnt make it

Reflective of Czech-born director Ivan Passer’s brand of humanism, the picture is full of unresolved ambiguities and complexities. Furthermore, as Andrew Sarris noted, “The two brawling buddies are comparatively unpleasant by American buddy-buddy movie standards. The script preserves the hard edge and raunchy sexuality of the ambitious novel, but in the name of dramatic compressions some necessary changes were made. The downbeat ending is more ambiguously treated in the movie than in novel, in which the conclusion was too close to that of “Easy Rider.”

Cast

Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) Alex Cutter (John Heard) Mo Cutter (Lisa Eichhorn) Valerie Duran (Ann Susenberry) J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott) George Swanson (Arthur Rosenberg) Woman in hotel (Nina Van Pallandt) Mrs. Cord (Patricia Donahue) Susie Swanson (Gerladine Baron) Toyota woman (Katherie Pass)

Credits

Produced by Paul R. Gurian. Directed by Ivan Passer. Screenplay: Alan Fiskin, based on the novel “Cutter and Bone” by Newton Thornburg. Camera: Jordan Cronenweth Editor: Caroline Ferriori. Music: Jack Nitzche. Art direction: Josan Russo.