Cutter’s Way (US 1981)

John Heard and Lisa Eichhorn

I’m delighted that Cutter’s Way was re-released in the UK by Park Circus on 24 June in ‘Key Cities’. This is a ‘limited release’ but if it’s on anywhere near you, I recommend a trip.If you don’t know the film, DVDs are available.


Cutter’s Way is an adaptation by the Czech New Wave director Ivan Passer of the highly acclaimed 1976 novel Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg. The dates here are important because Thornburg’s story is about an angry Vietnam veteran Alex Cutter (John Heard) and 1976 was a year after the last American helicopters left Saigon. Five years on and Passer’s film finally reached cinemas during the first year of Reagan’s presidency when the political mood in America had changed. Cutter’s Way appeared as a film seemingly twice out of place since it more resembled the intelligent downbeat films of the ‘New Hollywood’ of the 1970s than the entertainment films of the new era of Spielberg/Lucas et al. As a result, Cutter’s Way had a difficult release and eventually came out as something akin to an independent film. Since its original release it has become something of a ‘cult film’.

This re-release has been promoted by the BFI which is screening the film on an extended run at the NFT with a feature by Michael Atkinson in Sight and Sound (July 2011). The re-release has been timed to be part of the BFI’s Jeff Bridges Retrospective. This is interesting for several reasons. It’s John Heard who in some ways steals the show in the film and the Bridges on view is the young man who was so beautiful rather than the post-Dude Bridges who is now a cult figure. Audiences who might be drawn to the film by Bridges’ presence may be surprised by what they find. Lisa Eichhorn is mesmerising as an alcoholic. She never got another major role of this quality and the American Film Institute reckoned her performance to be the most under-rated of the era.

Outline (no spoilers)

Santa Barbara, Southern California. Part-time yacht salesman and occasional gigolo Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) witnesses an odd incident on a rain-swept backstreet when his car breaks down. He only realises later that a murder has been committed and that since he was at the crime scene, he is a suspect. Bone spends much of his time at the home of disabled and often drunk Vietnam vet Alex Cutter and his wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn). Alex is quick to persuade Bone that he has seen the murderer – local business leader J. J. Cord. Alex wants revenge on the people who have caused all the trouble in the world, not least the useless war, and Cord fits the bill. Can Cutter and Bone finger Cord?


When I began to think about the film I realised that there is a great deal to explore – possibly too much for a single post. Let’s begin with the background to the adaptation. The Sight and Sound coverage of the film by David Thomson (Spring 1982) is an excellent read. Thomson reveals that the rights to the book were bought by an independent producer, Paul Gurian, who first interested EMI (which at this time was seeking to distribute films in North America as well as the UK). At this point, Robert Mulligan was to direct with Dustin Hoffman as Cutter and John Heard as Bone. But this didn’t happen. Mark Rydell was then going to direct before the script (by Jeffrey Alan Fiskin) was picked up by United Artists. This was at the time that Heaven’s Gate was in production and UA decided to go with Cutter and Bone if they could persuade Jeff Bridges – one of the younger players in Heaven’s Gate to play Bone, allowing Heard to become Cutter. Passer came on board at this stage. Unfortunately, when Heaven’s Gate crashed, nearly closing UA down, a $3 million production like Cutter and Bone was not a priority. The film was released and withdrawn almost immediately in March 1981. Only spirited critical responses could persuade UA to reconsider and it was passed to the new ‘UA Classics’ division (with a name change to the less helpful title of Cutter’s Way). Gradually the film began to pick up fans and festival appearances and it was released in the UK in early 1982.

Jeff Bridges in beach boy mode

I’ve introduced Cutter’s Way as in some way the a late entry into the ‘New Hollywood’ of the 1970s. I need to explain the term. The period between 1965 (the date of the last major success of the traditional Hollywood studio musical, The Sound of Music) and 1975 (the appearance of the first modern ‘blockbuster’, Jaws) was a time when the studios to some extent lost control of American filmmaking. They still made films – or at least acquired them for distribution, but the nature of the films changed and many of the conventions of Hollywood production fell away – like the Production Code, the tedious happy ending, the genre certainties. The new films attempted to engage with the counter-culture and with politics – ‘personal’ and ‘hard political’ – and social issues. This period is often confused with the rise of the ‘Movie Brats’ and indeed Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Peter Bogdanovich and William Friedkin did initially make films which seemed to challenge ‘Old Hollywood’, but Lucas soon followed Spielberg into making the new form of blockbuster – essentially in homage to 1940s Hollywood. Coppola followed later. For me the interesting purveyors of 1970s Hollywood were older, wiser or more embittered and had histories in television and theatre. They weren’t Hollywood at all: Arthur Penn, Sam Peckinpah, Alan J. Pakula and Robert Altman. (I’ve read somewhere recently that Pakula was judged to be a nouvelle vague follower.)

Passer has an affinity towards this group but he properly belongs to the European émigré group of the period – Passer’s old colleague from the Czech New Wave, Milos Forman plus Roman Polanski and the Brits, Karel Reisz, John Boorman and John Schlesinger. All of these directors made films in the 1970s which explored American genres. The other two films that share some elements with Cutter’s Way are Polanski’s Chinatown (1975) and Karel Reisz’s Dog Soldiers (Who’ll Stop the Rain?) (1978). Cutter’s Way has a similar trio of characters to the Reisz film with the aggressive Vietnam vet Cutter, the indecisive commitment phobe Bone and the depressive Mo. In a sense this trio represent three responses to the craziness of America in the post Vietnam era. Andrew Britton put it very well in a 1980 piece in Movie 27/28. His argument includes the observation that the Vietnam War cannot be ‘explained’ satisfactorily within American ideology. It’s no use just assuming that the war is morally wrong since the war was inevitable given the American commitment to imperialism and fighting communism. For that position to be tenable would mean endorsing socialism in an American context which Hollywood can’t do. I haven’t space to go into the full analysis but it means that the normal ‘heroic’ role for the ‘US male’ is not available in a Vietnam film. Thus the hero is forced either to be ‘passive’ (‘acted upon’ rather than acting) or psychotic – there is no available way of being heroic. Cutter and Bone are in effect psychotic and passive. So does this then mean that the woman in the threesome must be depressive since neither man can offer her a fulfilling relationship?

Inevitably perhaps Cutters Way has to be carried by the performances and it is here that Passer’s direction works so well. The film is engrossing because the characters are believable and all three actors grasp their roles and deliver. This is a film you can keep on watching.

The opening sequence to Cutter’s Way featuring Jack Nitzsche’s wonderful score:


  1. keith1942

    Apologies, plot spoilers.
    I was interested in the film and Roy’s comments. I can see that Bone is passive as hero: and there is an element in Cutter of the psychotic. But what struck me is his impotence. I don’t think this is explicit in the dialogue, but it seems this is true of his sexual relationship with Mo. And of course, he is metaphorically castrated, with the loss of a leg and an eye.
    But he is clearly very active in pursuing Cord and trying to effect some activity in Bone. The climax conjures up ironically stereotypical images from Hollywood.


    • Roy Stafford

      Hi Keith

      By chance your comment got held up by the system so I took the opportunity to snip out the major spoiler. I think that your comment still makes sense without it, but apologies if it doesn’t.

      I wanted to keep my posting relatively short so I didn’t go into much detail. I was trying to argue that Cutter was the aggressive action character – but that his overall behaviour is not heroic in the American context. His impotence (and Bone’s virility) I think enhances the way in which the two characters are presented in this ‘post-Vietnam’ scenario as unable to function fully.


  2. des1967

    Since I live in city that isn’t likely to figure in the ‘key’ ones getting the limited release, I watched it on DVD last night and am glad I did. I agree about the three central performances though at times I felt John Heard’s performance as Cutter was pitched a little too high, though the ‘objective correlative’ in the form of Cutter’s war-mangled body was only too evident. However, I think its heightened quality is all the more evident in contrast to that of Bridges’ passive performance, one he’s perfected on several occasions (for example, the under-rated The Fabulous Baker Boys). I can see the link with Chinatown though another ‘New Hollywood’ film that I thought of when watching Cutter’s Way was Five Easy Pieces, something about the tone – despite the obvious differences in narrative structure and genre.

    As Keith says, the climax is classically Hollywood, albeit in a knowing sort of way. You have an inkling of what the character is about to do when he is hiding in the stables but it was a terrific, almost-over-the-top-but-not-quite quality. I’ll leave it at that to avoid a spoiler.

    Lisa Eichhorn’s performance was indeed terrific. I first saw her in Schlesinger’s Yanks many years ago and wondered what had happened to her. I thought I recognised an actress who appeared in an episode of the BBC’s fairly formulaic spy series, Spooks and watching Cutter’s Way reminded me that it was indeed her. Nina Von Pallandt’s brief cameo at the start was interesting as it reminded me of her involvement in the Howard Hughes fake biography scandal some years ago which landed her partner a prison sentence but it took me further back still to recall her as part of a husband-and-wife anodyne “folksy” singing duo which appeared regularly in the early 60s on the show of Scottish comedian Jimmy Logan which I used to watch as a kid and which went out only in Scotland if my memory serves me well. And the husband, a Swedish count, ended up being bumped off by a drugs cartel in SE Asia for double-crossing them. As a gangster character in Once Upon a Time in America puts it, “Life is stranger than shit” – or at least stranger than the movies!

    But one point I wanted to make was about the term ‘New Hollywood’. I wonder how useful it now is as it has become so ambiguous, being frequently used for all ‘post-classical’ (and that term is not without its problems) Hollywood cinema. I prefer the term ‘American New Wave’ which, like the French nouvelle vague, displayed a stylistic and tonal contrast with what preceded it. Just as we can locate the beginnings of the French phenomenon within a year or two, so we can recognise the first flowerings of the US version in 1967 with The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde (though with a few less well-known harbingers). Likewise with the French version, it doesn’t come to an end but gradually merges into the mainstream or goes off on separate tributaries (if that’s not inverting the metaphor too much).


    • Roy Stafford

      Yes, ‘New Hollywood’ isn’t a very useful term. I used it because that’s how we thought of the films at the time, but you are quite right in pointing out that its meaning has subsequently been lost. I have come across ‘American New Wave’ but I’m not sure that is much better. My interest is really in the industrial context of Hollywood studios dealing with different kinds of films – so it is a description of industry practices rather than the films themselves I think. You also raise another ‘naming issue’ which is the use of ‘American Independent Cinema’ as a term to describe the cinema of the mid 1980s (Sayles, Soderbergh etc.) up to Pulp Fiction. I’m not sure why this doesn’t really begin with the BBS productions such as Five Easy Pieces in the early 1970s – except that again it’s because of the institutional changes in American Cinema, this time the importance of revenues from video distribution which largely funded the new ‘independents’.

      Nina and Frederick were also on English TV! Frederick was Dutch but born in Denmark. I assume that Nina’s appearance in Cutter’s Way is partly a tribute to Altman’s The Long Goodbye in which she plays a similar character?


  3. keith1942

    Interesting comments.
    I did revisit The Long Goodbye, and I did not think it stood up that well. Whereas Cutter’s Way really does stand up and deserve the revisiting.


  4. des1967

    Despite my grump about not living in a city where the limited showing of the film was likely to appear, Cutter’s Way is being shown next week for a couple of days at the Aberdeen Belmont. Unfortunately it’s at the 9 pm slot and I struggle to remain awake. When I think it wasn’t so long ago I stumbled out the cinema at 1 am after watching Godard’s “Notre Musique”!


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