Cutter's Way (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stephen Bjork
  • Review Date: Jan 18, 2023
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Cutter's Way (Blu-ray Review)

Director

Ivan Passer

Release Date(s)

1981 (November 29, 2022)

Studio(s)

United Artists Classics/MGM (Fun City Editions/Vinegar Syndrome)
  • Film/Program Grade: A
  • Video Grade: B+
  • Audio Grade: B+
  • Extras Grade: A

Cutter's Way (Blu-ray)

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Review

Cutter’s Way (aka Cutter and Bone) is in many ways the paradigm of a cult movie. It’s a phoenix that managed to arise out of the ashes of its own failed theatrical release to develop a loyal following among those who would come to recognize it as one of the finest American films of the Eighties. Its breathtakingly cynical take on the corruption of capitalism and the failure of the American dream is the kind of thing that could only come from an outsider’s perspective, in this case expatriate Czech filmmaker Ivan Passer. Like fellow expatriate Billy Wilder before him, Passer was well-equipped to pierce the shroud of idealized nationalism in order to expose the heart of darkness that lies behind the American mythos.

Jeffrey Alan Fiskin’s screenplay for Cutter’s Way was based on the 1976 novel Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg. He made great changes to the source material, especially in the final act, but the essence of the story survived. Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) is an aimless drifter who has been living with his friends Alex and Mo Cutter while ostensibly working as a boat salesman, even though he makes a real living serving as a gigolo for wealthy women. Alex Cutter (John Heard) is a disabled Vietnam veteran who lashes out angrily at an America that used him up and left him behind. They’re an odd couple of friends, with Cutter’s wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn) caught between the two, and mostly taking comfort in alcohol’s warm embrace. After Bone witnesses the body of a young woman being unceremoniously dumped into the garbage, he begins to suspect that the killer was the corporate tycoon J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott). While Bone doesn’t have any real proof, Cutter latches onto the situation as an opportunity to strike out at the system, and Cutter’s quixotic quest for revenge against the world will put all three of them in harm’s way.

Cutter’s Way is essentially a mystery story where there’s no real mystery involved. While there may be some ambiguity in the film regarding Cord’s actual guilt or innocence, none of that really matters to Cutter. Cord isn’t even all that important to the disillusioned vet. What does matter to Cutter is that Cord represents the exploitative industrial complex that has profited from people like him and then cast them aside. Cutter’s Way is essentially a neo-noir where the femme fatale is the American dream itself. That’s the only real seductress in the film, taking advantage of the gullible while leaving a trail of broken individuals in its wake. Despite their years of friendship, Cutter has always been disappointed in Bone for just trying to get by and to survive in this corrupt system without doing anything to actively disrupt it. Cutter may be tilting at windmills in his own quest to strike a blow against The Man, but his real mission is to awaken his loyal Sancho Panza out of complacency. By the time that Bone finally figures that out, it may be too late for everyone involved.

Distributor United Artists, which was still smarting after the critically and financially ruinous release of Heaven’s Gate, initially had no idea what to do with Passer’s film. They gave it a perfunctory theatrical release on a few screens under the novel’s original title, with minimal advertising, and it quickly sank without a trace. It might have stayed buried in their vaults, too, but thankfully it was rescued by the Classics division of United Artists. They retitled it Cutter’s Way, created a new advertising campaign, and gave it a far more strategically targeted release. That still didn’t result in significant box office receipts, but it did draw more critical attention to the film, and it also started Cutter’s Way on the path to its current status as a cult classic. Some features are designed to be cult movies, while others become one accidentally, but Cutter’s Way was a little bit of both. Like its title character, it stubbornly followed its own path to achieving a kind of immortality.

Cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth shot Cutter’s Way on 35 mm film using Panavision cameras with spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. This version is derived from a 2K scan of the interpositive, and while it’s a shame that the negative wasn’t available, the results still do justice to Cronenweth’s typically impeccable work. There’s a bit of instability during the opening logos, but that settles down once the actual credits start to roll. (The titles that play over the opening step-printed slow motion shot of the parade may appear to waver, but that’s due to the camera setup—the titles themselves are rock solid.) Otherwise, damage is minimal, with just a bit of speckling visible at times. The grain is moderate, but it’s generally handled well by the encode—remarkably enough, the film runs at a consistently high bit rate despite the large quantity of extras on the disc. (To be fair, the extras themselves are heavily compressed to allow that kind of breathing room for the main feature, but that’s the right way to prioritize.) Black levels are solid, with a reasonable amount of shadow detail visible, and the colors look accurate. While a 4K scan from the original negative may have been able to wring out a bit more fine detail than what’s visible here, it’s still a nice facelift for a film that deserved the attention.

Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. Everything sounds clean and clear, with little noise or other artifacts, and the dialogue is smooth and well-balanced. The uniquely eclectic score from Jack Nitzsche sounds as good as it can in mono, although this is one case where it would have been nice if it could have been included in stereo as an alternate mix. Still, this a faithful reproduction of the original mono mix, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The Fun City Editions Blu-ray release of Cutter’s Way includes a reversible insert that features theatrical poster artwork for both Cutter’s Way and Cutter and Bone on the flip side. Like many Fun City titles, the primary artwork was inspired by the film’s VHS release, in this case the distinctive silver oversized cardboard cases that MGM/UA used during that era. It’s a nicely nostalgic touch. There was a slipcover available directly from Vinegar Syndrome, limited to the first 2,000 units, but it’s already sold out. There’s also a booklet with a new essay by Margaret Barton-Fumo, as well as an archival essay by Danny Peary. (The latter, derived from his second Cult Movies book, is indispensable reading for fans of the film.) The extensive extras combine both new and archival material—note that while they’re all in HD, it’s a mixture of 1080p, 1080i, and 720p:

  • Audio Commentary with Matthew Specktor
  • Audio Commentary with Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman
  • Audio Commentary with Larry Franco and Barrie Osborne
  • Introduction by Jeff Bridges (5:42)
  • Introduction by Bertrand Tavernier (26:27)
  • Mo’s Way (38:53)
  • From Cutter and Bone to Cutter’s Way (11:16)
  • Cutter’s Way (La Blessure) (37:43)
  • Gurian’s Way: The Road to Cutter and Bone (26:21)
  • Two Plus One (17:41)
  • Cut to the Bone: Inside the Score (11:55)
  • Cutter and Bone Trailer (1:53)
  • Cutter’s Way Trailer (2:44)
  • Image Gallery (17:24)
  • Isolated Music Track

The extras kick off with a new commentary track by novelist and screenwriter Matthew Specktor. It’s as much an appreciation as it is a commentary, with Specktor primarily admiring what’s happening on screen. He does cover some of the differences between the book and the film, and he also addresses the themes of the story. It’s a bit sparse, with Specktor frequently pausing to take in what’s happening on screen, and he does spend a bit too much time describing the action, but there’s still some interesting analysis to be had here.

The first of the archival commentaries features producers Larry Franco and Barrie Osborne, this time paired with filmmaker Gillian Wallace Horvat as moderator. It was recorded for the 2022 Via Vision Blu-ray release of Cutters’ Way, so it’s still a relatively new extra. Horvat keeps things moving briskly, and she provides some substantial background information of her own, such as a biography of Ivan Passer. Much of the rest of the track functions as an extended interview, with Horvat asking questions of the two, although she still contributes plenty along the way. It’s a surprisingly lively commentary that’s well worth a listen.

Last and certainly not least, the other archival commentary features Julie Kirgo and the late Nick Redman, originally recorded for their 2016 Twilight Time Blu-ray release of Cutter’s Way. While it’s a bit more sedate compared to the Franco and Osborne track, they provide a perceptive analysis of the film. They’re less interested in technical information or production stories than they are in the thematic implications of the narrative. Among other things, they contrast their own views to that of writers like Glenn Erickson, who feels that the story is essentially Hamlet, while Kirgo feels that it has more in common with Moby Dick. This is the best of the three commentaries for those who are more interested in what Cutter’s Way is about, rather than how it was made—and it’s always poignant to hear the distinctively soothing tones of Redman’s voice since his untimely passing a few years ago.

Aside from Specktor’s commentary, the only other new extras on this edition are Mo’s Way and From Cutter and Bone to Cutter’s Way. Mo’s Way is an extended interview with Lisa Eichhorn, who tells some interesting stories about her background in the film business, including her adventures auditioning for John Schlesinger’s Yanks, before talking about her experiences making Cutter’s Way. Her cogent insights into the character of Mo prove why she was such a perfect casting choice for the film. From Cutter and Bone to Cutter’s Way features Ira Deutchman, who was the head of marketing at United Artists Classics in 1981. When he first joined the company, United Artists Classics had primarily been a non-theatrical division, though it did sometimes do limited distribution of foreign films to repertory theatres. That changed during his tenure, and he was involved in the revised marketing campaign for the re-titled and re-released Cutter’s Way. Deutchman describes that process, and also talks about some of the other films that he was involved with at the time. (Interestingly, he says that he worked on a marketing plan for a re-cut version of Heaven’s Gate that ended up never seeing the light of day.)

Like the Franco and Osborne commentary, Two Plus One, Gurian’s Way, and Cut to the Bone were all originally included on the 2022 Via Vision Blu-ray, as was the introduction by Jeff Bridges. Two Plus One is an interview with screenwriter Jeffrey Allen Fiskin, who talks about his relationship with producer Paul Gurian and the process of writing the script, as well as his feelings about the finished film and it’s treatment by United Artists. He admits that he had to shoplift a copy of the book in order to adapt it, but says that he brought it back when he was done. Gurian’s Way features the producer explaining how he came to acquire the rights to Thornburg’s novel, and he also describes the tortuous path of bringing the book to the screen, including the travails with United Artists. Gurian says that he’s the one who convinced Ridley Scott to let Jordan Cronenweth shoot Blade Runner, after seeing his fine work on this film. Cut to the Bone examines Jack Nitzsche’s score, with music editor Curt Sobel describing the unusual instrumentation, such as water glasses. The introduction by Jeff Bridges is a brief audio reminiscence by the actor about how he became involved with the production, including the fact that his dog ended up attacking Gurian and sending the producer to the hospital.

The remainder of the extras include Cutter’s Way (La Blessure), an isolated score track, an image gallery, and trailers for both the original Cutter and Bone release and the revised Cutter’s Way re-release. Cutter’s Way (La Blessure) is a 2015 interview with the late Bertrand Tavernier that appears to have been produced for French television, or possibly for an earlier French home video release of the film. He splits his time between expressing his admiration for Ivan Passer, and also for the film itself. He calls Cutter’s Way the best film about post-Vietnam America, and at one point, he makes the brilliant suggestion that it should be put on a program with Karl Reisz’s Who’ll Stop the Rain. (That would be a double feature for the ages.) Finally, the isolated score track offers Nitzsche’s music in lossless 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, and yes, it’s in full stereo here.

That’s an almost an overabundance of extras, and while most of it consists of relatively static interview footage, it still offers a wealth of information about the production, release, and legacy of Cutter’s Way. Fun City Editions continues to do a wonderful job of spotlighting neglected classics like this one, and then giving them the lavish special edition attention that they deserve. Even without having access to the original camera negative, their Blu-ray for Cutter’s Way is still arguably one of the best physical media releases of 2022.

- Stephen Bjork

(You can follow Stephen on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook.)

 

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