Saturday 18 May 2024

Article: The Jagged Edge within Cutter's Way

Cutter’s Way is a fascinating film anomaly. Released in the 80s, yet the cynical 70s tone looms over it. The wounds of Watergate and Vietnam fester from scene to scene. The blockbuster ball had started to roll at this point. All the while, Cutter’s Way (originally Cutter and Bone) fell prey to internal politics. Studio executives had no way of compartmentalising this neo-noir. There was no space for its ambiguity and contempt once the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) rolled onto screens. Sliding in a few months after Cutter’s Way's dismal March release. As the decade had Hollywood move away from the grimness of the 70s era, films like Cutter’s Way felt even more uncommon. However, we should be glad this almost-forgotten gem has supporters. Radiance Films
 garnered a hefty Blu-ray release for starved noir fans to discover. Not many present-day gems would gain such a second life within the cold-blooded streaming era.

The woozy opening of Cutter’s Way evokes a very different period. A marching parade dances giddily in slow motion while Jack Nitzsche's haunting score opens proceedings. The image starts in black and white before bleeding into colour. A quiet primer that seemingly suggests a shocking ending for the film we're about to watch. The juxtaposition of aw-shucks Americana imagery alongside the anxiety-riddled audio composition hints at something dreadfully amiss with the picturesque display. These opening credits remind me of the end credits of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2015). Another film that utilises American iconography ironically. The most interesting American movies seem to love dealing with the country's dying innocence.

This displacement never leaves the viewer once the story opens and the characters are introduced. It’s Fiesta night and Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) is caught in a post-coital exchange with a married woman (Nina van Pallandt). A scene not too out of place if it were found in American Gigolo (1980). Amusingly (Nina) as the satisfied recipient of a roll in the hay with a man named Bone is of little surprise. Van Pallandt was an object of temptation in neo-noirs such as The Long Goodbye (1973) and the previously mentioned American Gigolo. However, the somewhat callous nature of Bridges’ Bone is the eye-opener here. His golden boy good looks hide an insensitive personality. The exchange between them is a beautiful set-up of character. Bone sleeps with the woman under a flimsy pretence that he's selling her husband a yacht. Being an absolute chancer, Bone then nonchalantly bums cash off the same woman using a truthful untruth about seeing an ill friend in his clapped-out car. We discover that both elements of his statement have a kernel of fact. The vehicle needs more than a service. And Bone indeed does go to see an ill friend. Yet the money is clearly for neither of these things. This short scene sums up its main character more comprehensively than many movies.

After his car claps out on him, Bone spots a man dumping what looks like a body into a trash can before driving off. Almost hitting him. Thinking nothing of it, Bone heads to the local bar and meets his friend Alex Cutter (John Heard). Cutter is his sick friend. A one-armed, one-eyed Vietnam vet with a limp in his stride and a chip on his shoulder. Cutter is a loud, obnoxious drunk who appears to be doing his best to win gold in the Offence Olympics. He seemingly does everything he can to upset and distance everyone around him. His first act is racially abusing some black men at a bar where Bone meets him. This is just the start of his antics. 

Mo (Lisa Eichhorn); Alex Cutter's long-suffering wife, is soon introduced. Finding out that Mo and Cutter are in matrimony is baffling enough. When it is realised that she and Bone haven’t blown caution to the wind, the situation becomes more difficult to believe. The inebriated jibes from a deeply resentful Cutter suggest that something may already have happened. Or that he feels it will. Bone is a callow shirker. Cutter is the insufferable loud bore. Yet Mo is the quiet bond which holds the dysfunctional trio together. It’s easy to forget that Mo has reluctantly joined the male duo in some scenes. She slowly absorbs into the background while Cutter brings the world to rights, while Bone cringes. But Mo's silence is loud. Blowing out the water the juvenile idea that the number of words in a female performance is paramount to said character’s actual actions. To know the tale of woe that has fallen upon this trio is to study her face. Although she speaks much less than her male cohorts, she can chop either man down with her comparable wit at a moment's notice.  When she does speak, often in the way of her withering, wounding put-downs, her words count.

But what did Bone see that night of the fiesta when the car broke down? His thoughts on the matter take up less space than even the sentence I used to describe them. Go back. It’s a short line. But when he half mentions the situation to Cutter, a man whose scars have him seeking righteous indignation on anyone he feels deserves it, suddenly a mystery is afoot.  This dysfunctional trio soon embark on a presumed shaggy dog story based on the murky events of what Bone saw. The urge to find out what happened becomes driven by an animated Cutter, whose desire to bring who he believes the murderer is to justice only becomes more deranged from scene to scene. One unsettling moment comes early on when Cutter listens to Bone’s story. For a man who seems to bleed whiskey, the concentration and soberness in his voice at that point become quietly concerning.

Cutter’s Way is a film with murder as an inciting incident at its heart. Yet the film keeps a viewer on tenterhooks as to whether the suspect, almost arbitrarily labelled as the killer by Cutter, ever did anything wrong. The story is far more interested in the bitter regret that gnaws at these characters every day. Anchored by three superlative performances, Cutter’s Way plays out like a grim kitchen sink drama. Bone’s uninterest in solving the so-called case highlights his trait as a commitment phobe. Cutter is extremely happy to remind Bone that he doesn’t see things through. Yet looking at the scant “evidence” of the case, Cutter’s drunken quest for revenge feels like the ramblings of a madman. He is a self-proclaimed man of the people, angry at a world that steps over veterans like himself. As for Mo? Her pain is etched across her face. A small moment has her wordlessly watch children playing, while her husband drunkenly grizzles on. Once again, with such simple economy, the film fills the audience in on the character's state of mind more effectively with brief reaction shots over typical, obvious dialogue. 

These haunted characters allow Cutter’s Way to disarm a viewer. The murdered girl is almost insignificant. But then the person who talks about her murder the most is a war-torn vet who was never at the scene in the first place. The limping, one-armed man with an eye patch believes everyone else is blind to the facts. The most disturbing thing about Cutter’s Way is how it plays out a second time. At first, it’s watched through the eyes of Bridge’s Bone. Playing off like an offshoot of his character in The Last Picture Show (1971) or a precursor to his iconic role in The Big Lebowski (1998). He is our passive protagonist, guiding us past John Heard’s showy performance of Alex Cutter. Holding us a certain amount of distance away from Cutter’s charismatic mania. The second watch, however. It’s almost impossible to watch it through Cutter’s eye. Does his conspiracy theory make sense? Maybe not at the time, but his hostility certainly shapes things. The film pushes you more than a few steps towards his demented claims. Suddenly the coastal backdrop that felt unimportant to the drama in the forefront the first time around takes on a new sinister angle within a rewatch.

In Cutter’s Way and the equally tragic Born to Win (1971), director Ivan Passer incisively captures the cynicism many Americans seemingly held at the time of release. His outsider perspective gives the film its strength. A notable director of the Czech new wave of the 60s, people often knew him more for his lighter fare. However, two of his American films hold a remarkable toughness about themselves, a viewpoint which suited the downbeat cynicism laid bare by the era.  In Born to Win, Passer welds the circular bleakness of drug addiction in a way that keeps the film from feeling like an After-school special. Yet in Cutter’s Way, the filmmaker finds something even more haunting. A country so blighted by a war it lost and a lying president that rot has crept in. Eating away at the home-spun fantasy that many have happily bought into. Be it Bone’s commitment phobia or Cutter's deep-seated anger towards the establishment. These characters have been broken down by the promises that both America and each other failed to keep.  These frustrations are laid bare within this compact small-town story.

Such ennui allowed a sickening rot to set in. Corroding the happy home-spun fantasy brought into by many.  Bone hides early adultery with a beige capitalist alibi: selling a boat to a wealthy patron. During the Founders Day parade, Cutter wiles away time by making suggestive comments about the young girls in the procession. He does so in earshot of Mo. The moment has a touch of Virginia Woolf to it. Cutter makes a habit of making dubious comments disguised as vindictive jokes. Often grimly marking himself as a crippled cuck to get a rise out of his dispassionate associates. At one point Mo, who's grown sick of the trio's listless existence, buys fresh food as if such a superficial gesture would make an instant difference to their mindsets outside of a TV commercial. Eichhorn is so quietly moving through the narrative as the film's heart. Wait until halfway through when said heart bleeds. It's agonising.

By stripping away the exceptionalism found in so many American movies, Cutter's Way brings an honesty that America loves to shy away from.  It’s worth noting how the film is released only months before audiences fall in love with an adventurous historian who just so happens to masquerade as James Bond with a whip. Almost a decade before Cutter Way, audiences gained a deep-rooted connection with Clint Eastwood’s solitary, rule-breaking law enforcer, Dirty Harry (1971). Nowadays, the audience's embracement of the exceptional hero resides even longer with us. The era of franchises started and progressed with films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, which had us look to the heavens for our heroes. It's fascinating to watch Passer ignore this. Instead, scratching beneath the surface to where others are reluctant to itch. Digging into a world lacking in heroes. Opening the door to a realm of indifference even before the gen-x cynicism of the 90s. The resentment these people harbour has infected all three of them deeply. It sticks to them. Refusing to let go. Causing their self-worth to weaken before spiralling outwards towards a country incubating their anger. The power of Cutter’s Way comes from how honest the dishonesty is. We watch the despondence of this trio of lost souls and realise how easy it could be for such a heinous murder to idly pass by.

The saddest thing about Cutter’s Way is that its muddled release holds a similar haplessness to the film's own characters. By the time it was released the numbing obsession with the superficial was complete. Audiences wouldn’t be invested in the crumbling visage of a once innocent America in the same way that anyone other than Cutter would be disinterested in a conspiratorial murder mystery. It’s not like cynical neo-noir is new. Yet a sense of brevity is found in Passer viewing America as the story's femme fatale. A nation far too unwieldy and rotten for its own good is now happy to delude itself with seductive yet self-centred idealism. It will placate the people with pageantry and parades. Blindly ignoring its victims. Our unfortunate trio are nothing more than the fall guys to the fa├žade. In its own way, Cutter’s Way has deeper wounds than others. And the injuries are turning septic. Passer remarked in an interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum that the film is about what it takes to pull the trigger. The scary thing about Cutter’s Way as it fades to black is that even if people find the strength to pull the trigger, they may still be left in the dark. The film’s shocking yet ambiguous final moments rubber stamps this notion. For two hours, Cutter’s Way drags its viewer through the distorted mind of a veteran broken by war. By the end, Ivan Passer’s film considers how much we should believe him. The answer gets more disturbing the more you think about it.

Cutter's Way is out on Amazon Video at the time of writing. But try and find the limited edition Blu-ray by Radience Films if you can. 

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Friday 17 May 2024

Article: Indulging in The King of New York

The first time I heard the name Frank White was listening to The Notorious B.I.G.  Christopher Wallace vocally gave himself the moniker on many of his tracks. The name was taken from the fictional character portrayed by Christopher Walken in Abel Ferrara's kinetic crime drama The King of New York. To see rappers label themselves with the violent crime characters of the movies is no big shock, especially in the 90s. The earlier albums of Jay-Z were filled with skits which lifted movie dialogue from Carlitos Way (1993). The 1983 version of Scarface influenced the lyrics of several rap artists, while southern rapper Scarface made it his stage name. However, I always found Wallace using the Frank White nickname to be an amusing one. By extension, giving himself the name, the artist was labelling himself King of New York emcees. His reputation grew after his fatal shooting ended his far too short career. But the self-proclaimed nickname feels like such a wry and knowing aspect of mythmaking before the bleak tragedy of his passing.

The King of New York is equally as dark. Ferrara’s film feels just as doomed as B.I.G’s seminal hip-hop debut ‘Ready to Die’. Their main characters deal with death, drugs, and money in equal parts. All with the lingering knowledge that their ideals are in no way sustainable. Frank White is released from prison with the intent to go straight. He wants to be mayor of New York City. Taking a leaf out of Micheal Corleone’s book, he’s decided to decimate the criminal underworld and consolidate his drug empire while looking to frame himself as legitimate. New York’s narcotics squad quickly catch wind of White’s activities. Leading the case are three dogged yet weary detectives. However, with no tangible evidence against the kingpin, their efforts look in vain. However, if you’ve heard Biggie’s ‘Suicidal Thoughts’ you just know that tragic consequences loom around the corner.

It's crazy realising that The King of New York stuts its stuff in the same year that Goodfellas (1990) and The Godfather: Part 3 (1990) flexed their Mafioso muscles. While the two crime films of Coppola and Scorsese waltz around with an air of prestige about themselves. The King of New York is as down and dirty as they come. Eschewing the romanticism of the larger studio pictures and becoming its own Shakespearean tragedy set within the Big Apple. Frank White holds similar, lofty aspirations to that of Micheal Corleone. To run in the halls of government, even if it means getting there by nefarious means. But no Machiavellian scheme exists here. Both Coppola and Scorsese love to manoeuvre around the hierarchy of their gangsters with an element of pomp. Ferrara is less interested in pageantry. The King of New York, like many of Ferrara’s other films, is a lean beast. Like White, there’s no time to play around.

Frank White:” I’ve lost a lot of time. It's gone. From here on, I can't waste any. If I can have a year or two, I'll make somethin' good. I'll do somethin'...

[Chuckles] ... somethin' good. Just one year, that's all.”

In a 2012 interview on the Arrow region B Blu Ray of the film, a candid Abel Ferrara remarks that the film is how a volume of prosperity gained from a newly established nouveau riche (the drug dealers) was briefly viewed from the eyes of blue-collared joes, the cops trying to take White down. Amusingly, in the same interview, Ferrara considers White as a “dreamer”. A man full of contradictions with little time on this earth. The slenderness of The King of New York as a movie eerily in parallel with the rap star who made the film’s lead character his namesake a few years later. But the plight of Frank White and the metaphors viewed by his creator are also fascinating. A focus on the conflicting idealism that often occurs in similar gangster movies. They only need to be in “the life” for a little longer. The ill-gotten fruits of their violent crimes can then be obtained without consequence. White forgets that he lives in what Ferrara deems a "life of survival". Unfortunately, none of us get out here alive. In the case of Frank White, life is more likely to be a good time than a long one. With that one good year starts to look mighty precious. But as Frank notes in the film's latter end: he doesn’t need forever.

When director Quentin Tarantino first started following the work of Abel Ferrara, he felt that the Bronx native would become the next Martin Scorsese. An understandable notion from an aesthetic point of view. The King of New York has a few visual instances that suggest that earlier Scorsese vibe. The opening scenes of Frank White surveying New York in a stretch Limo after his release feel strangely reminiscent of Travis Bickle roaming the streets in Taxi Driver. The short, sharp, bloody first shootout resembles Scoresese's earlier works. A drug deal filled with tension explodes. Bodies are strewn across the floor in a matter of a few squib-filled seconds. But the two paths diverge from each other soon after.

One difference is Ferrara embracing the melting pot of New York. Despite the cynicism within The King of New York, Ferrara appears fascinated with dynamics not so keenly approached by his peers. In his review of The King of New York, Roger Ebert constantly looks for a logic that Ferrara cares little about. Frank White is a Caucasian criminal with an army of loyal black men under his wing. Ebert spends time wondering why. Wanting the script to tell us more. Yet we are left with an ambiguous commentary on race relations. Handled with a contradictory earnestness and community not found in earlier Scorsese features. White’s relationship with black street criminals is frowned upon in the film and questioned in film reviews.  However, the mixed racial groupings of both cops and criminals hold a dramatic contrast to the more dismissive or aggressive relationships found in the likes of Goodfellas and Taxi Driver. Granted those films are not about racial harmony. Nor is The King of New York. However, the dynamic found in Ferrara's film gives a fresh sense of precedence. Reflecting the audiences who would connect with the film. Despite a tepid box office performance, The King of New York did very well with black audiences. Suddenly The King of New York had me thinking of films such as Kanas City (1996), One False Move (1992) and, of course, the boom period of hood movies that graced the 1990s. The addition of music from Schooly D, one of the originators of Gangster Rap, not only cemented a sense of immediacy but also strengthened the ties to inner-city black America. A far cry from the misty-eyed, segregated period pieces of the same year. The idea of The King of New York being a racial trendsetter might be reaching for some. However, Ferrara’s desire to let such provocation linger for a viewer does make King of New York even more compelling. Bringing forth the overriding statement that the only colour that matters is green.

For all this talk about racial commentary, The King of New York is also a formidable exercise in style and mood. So much of the charisma of Frank White is compiled in how Abel Ferrara, Christopher Walken, and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli construct the world. From the first moments of White swaggering out of prison to the cold, pensive close-ups of him as he is driven through the underbelly of his desired kingdom.  Is Frank White cavalier on his idea to be New York’s Robin Hood? Of course, the imagery of Walken dancing with his stoned mistresses, bathed in golden diffused light, or gazing out at the New York skyline is seductive enough to gloss over the practicalities. It delivers the conviction. Bazelli’s work is of standout here. Capturing faces in mesmerising close-ups. The sense of power felt watching Walken in those early moments is palpable. In addition to this, Bazelli indulges scenes by bathing them in bold primary colours. So much so that I was reminded of another film: Deep Cover (1992). Guess who the cinematographer was. A quick glance at Bazelli’s filmography also features his potent work in features like The Ring (2002) and A Cure for Wellness (2016). Although one wonders how the cinematographer feels about revisiting Boxing Helena (1993).

But for all the style, it's astounding that The King of New York maintains an air of B-movie grit about itself. Ferrara combines lean, kinetic energy with the extravagant criminal indulgence found within sensationalistic second features and Blaxploitation fare. The King of New York never shies away from its thorny racial comradery nor its brazen sexuality and over-the-top violence. And it's all the better for it. Where else can you see such a scummy Laurance Fishburne performance? The type of off-the-chain display that could only exist in a film with one foot still in the exploitation world. How can a man with such calm, commanding roles like Furious Styles and Morpheus have a performance like this in his locker? Will mainstream cinema ever have such a charismatic anti-hero display his lustful desire with such wanton abandon on a subway train? Possibly not. But we should be lucky The King of New York exists as a jolt of lightning in a bottle, almost forgotten in a year where two of the New Hollywood champs came out with some big swings. Goodfellas became ranked as one of America’s best crime films. The Godfather: Part 3 became the uneven brother to its muscular siblings.  The King of New York stumbled out of the blocks but became the cult cousin that rewards viewers willing to give a little time to films that lay off the beaten track. When Biggie Smalls crowned himself as New York royalty, he saw the swagger and energy of Frank White that he wanted to replicate within his music. Both Frank Whites were here to excite, and each did so with aplomb. 

The King of New York can be found on Amazon Prime. However, I recommend picking up the great Arrow 2 Disc Blu-ray if possible. 

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