Prime Cut (1972) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna


Scoop's notes in white


As the opening credits roll, there is a long prologue which demonstrates the entire process of making sausage, starting with a parade of live cows, proceeding until the meat is stuffed inside the sausage casings. During that industrial sequence, there is a moment of surrealism - a human shoe on one of the assembly lines, casually ignored by a mechanical process untended by humans. What does it all mean? Be patient.

The film begins in earnest with a tough guy named Nick (Lee Marvin) trying to enjoy a quiet drink in a Chicago watering hole. He is approached by a colleague. From their conversation we can deduce that a Kansas City mobster owes the long green, some five hundred large, to the Irish division of the Chicago mob. The Chicago boys had previously sent some of their men in to collect the accounts, but those men were killed, processed in meat grinders, and sent back to Chicago as sausages. Aha! Now we understand the shoe in the meat-packing plant. At any rate, the time has obviously come to call on the greatest mob enforcer of them all - Nick the Mick. A reluctant Nick takes the job because the pay is sweet and because he already has a personal score to settle with the Kansas City guy (Gene Hackman). Something about a girlfriend. Isn't it always?

That scene in the bar goes on too long but, compared to the rest of this movie, it seems as hectic as the intro to Roger Rabbit.

In order to take on the Kansas City boys, the Chicago mobsters can't just hop on a plane with their tommy guns, so they crowd into a black limo and drive to Missouri - in real time. Or at least it seems like it. We see fields of waving wheat, highway signs that say "St. Louis" and "Kansas City", and more wheat. This is truly one of the great wheat-oriented films. Then the director takes a bold step to break the beige monotony of wheat. We see some fields of sunflowers! Whoa! My heart nearly skipped a beat at the excitement. Then we look out the window of the limo into the nighttime city skyline of St Louis. Oh, hell, still only in St Louis? Are we almost there yet?

They do finally get out of the car, but things don't speed up much. The rest of the movie basically consists of shoot-outs in barns, shoot-outs in wheat fields, shoot-outs at county fairs, and shoot-outs in sunflower fields. All of those shoot-outs pitted Lee Marvin and his fellow Chicago mobsters against a bunch of rifle-totin', tow-headed farm boys in overalls. I wish to God I was making this up, but that's really what happened.

The early 70s represented a time of great experimentation in filmmaking. The smell of cultural revolution was in the air to begin with, and an anti-establishment atmosphere pervaded the film business, which always seems to act as a barometer of the country's changing attitudes. The general climate of anti-authoritarianism was magnified by a parallel development in the American film industry. The restrictive Hayes Code, a set of rules and regulations regarding the portrayal of sex and violence on film, had been replaced by version 1.0 of the MPAA rating system. The old proscriptions had been lifted and almost any kind of content was fair game as long as it was properly labeled. As in any period marking the end of a long suppression, people were keen on exercising the freedom just because it was suddenly there, after having been pent-up for more than three decades. Although superficially a mobster film, Prime Cut provided the basics required by the new cultural standards: it provided plenty of violence, plenty of female flesh, and plenty of thumbed noses to the establishment.

Since Prime Cut is filled with daring ideas, you can assume that some of them worked. Law of averages. The film has some interesting aspects:

  • There is some visual imagination. Gene Hackman and Sissy Spacek (in her first credited role) literally run away from the reaper - no, not the Grim Reaper, but the McCormick Reaper.  Just as Hackman and Spacek are about to be overtaken by a gigantic combine in a wheat field, the other Chicago mobsters show up and ram their black limo into the reaper, thus disabling the gigantic machine. The scenes in wide-open fields are stunning in the panoramic expanse of their scope. These scenes have never seemed very impressive on video tape, with a claustrophobic 4:3 aspect ratio, but the DVD presents the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and that allows the impressive cinematography to strut its stuff, displaying the beautiful choreography between the combine, the limo, and the pedestrians as they maneuver around the wheat field. Shot from eye level, the limo can barely be seen as it barrels through the wheat, a shark fin barely visible above water. Shot from a higher altitude, the limo leaves a clear trail of damaged stalks behind it.

  • There are some wild ideas. Hackman runs some kind of meat business as a legitimate front for his drugs and prostitution racket. The most creative idea in the film is that he runs a very different kind of prostitution operation, one based on the same principles as his meat business. He kidnaps orphaned girls, raises them in seclusion from male companionship, then auctions them off as virginal slaves when they reach an appropriate level of development. Prior to the auction, he displays the girls stark naked in pens, as if they were pigs or cattle.

Such subtlety! A reaper coming for your life! People with the corporate mentality who can't distinguish between people and animals! If the symbolism were any more obvious, there would be a train entering a tunnel before every sex scene.

By the way, that wily profiteer Gene Hackman had to be running the world's stupidest racket. He was selling his human female livestock for $20,000 per head. Given the details of his plan, he ain't gonna make money at that price!

  • First of all, figure out the cost of raising a child for sixteen years, even if you maintain her in the squalor of Dickensian orphanhood. Including food, clothing, shelter, and medical care, it is not possible to raise a child for less than $3 day in 1972 dollars (that's the year in which Hackman sold them for $20,000). Plus, it would actually cost Hackman's racket more to raise a kid than it would cost you or me, because we can claim our kids as tax deductions, while he has to keep them off the books, and must pay their medical costs out of his pocket with no ability to add those charges as itemized deductions. At $3 per day over sixteen years, that's $17,000 per girl.

  • But even that sort of calculation assumes that Hackman raises the girls personally, and can watch them 24 hours a day, which of course he does not and cannot do. He has to pay his staff. To watch the girls 24 hours per day, he must cover 168 hours per week and give time off for sickness and vacation, so Hackman will require five full time employees. In 1972 that would have cost him no less than $8,000 per employee per year - total cost $40,000 per year. Yet he only had about a dozen girls being raised in his private orphanage - an average cost of $3,333 per girl per year. Over 16 years, that's $53,000 per girl.

  • Adding those factors together, the cost would have to be about $70,000 per girl, but those calculations exclude inflation and the cost of money. Let's not be too technical and call the cost $75,000 per girl.

So Hackman is going to spend $75,000 raising a girl, and will then sell her for $20,000. Genius! Of course what he loses on margin he makes up in volume.

Think about one more thing. Where, exactly are a bunch of Kansas City cowboys going to keep their sex slaves?

The film would like to be anti-corporate, but as I recall from my college days in the late sixties, those anti-corporate revolutionary types never seemed to take any classes in math or finance, and that shows in this script. Why is it that those who spew bilious rhetoric against the ruthless corporations never seem to be able to go through the mental discipline which is actually necessary to be ruthlessly effective? Whatever happened to "know thy enemy"?

Let's take it one step further, just for fun. Hypothetically, given those costs and that volume, what would be a realistic price for a human slave raised from early childhood? (According to the story, the girls had never even met any men, so they had to be cloistered from the time they were toddlers.)

Well, mobsters aren't going to fool around with a business that has a 20% gross profit margin. Why take the risk of criminal punishment for a lower margin than they could make honestly by running a freakin' supermarket? In fact, the Hackman Plan isn't even a good racket of he can raise the children for free!! He only seems to "graduate" one or two per year. That's a hell of a lot of trouble for $40,000 per annum! Real mobsters would want at least 60% gross profit, so if they spent $75,000 per girl, they would have needed to clear about $190,000 in 1972. Two girls per year would net them a quarter of a million bucks in 1972 dollars - maybe a million in today's dollars. Now it's starting to be worth it! If you ran the same scheme today, the equivalent minimum price tag would be about a million bucks. In that price range, Hackman would not be able to sell the girls on public auction in Missouri, as pictured in this film. The Kansas City cowboys pictured here aren't going to be able to pony up a million bucks (today's equivalent) for a sex slave. The only way to make the whole Hackman scheme work would be to get contractual advance commitments from billionaires, because the ultra-rich are the only people who can afford to own human slaves raised from early childhood in a developed country. Indeed, even if the slaves were given out as gifts, only the super-rich could afford the kind of massive self-contained real estate holdings necessary to keep such slaves a secret from the authorities. Since Hackman only seems to have a couple of girls per year come of age, even selling them for a million bucks apiece hardly seems worth the time and trouble to run his scheme. Since a million dollars is small change for a billionaire, I expect that Hackman's price per girl would actually be far, far higher than that, assuming a demand greater than his supply.

If I were to re-write this film for a 2005 remake, I would have Hackman fulfilling advance orders from rich oil sheiks, or auctioning the women off to the ultra-rich in an elegant setting. Given the latter premise, the Hackman character shown in the original film would really have to work on his marketing skills, because the way he presented the "products" in the original movie, keeping the girls on straw beds in livestock pens, would not impress people who spend tens of thousands on their wrist watches and expect every detail of their lives to be exquisite.

At any rate, that's enough digressions!

Now that I think about it, my fanciful proposal for a remake is not such a bad idea. This film meets the basic qualifications for a sensible remake project: pretty good movie that could have been great, interesting core of ideas that can be easily updated. On the other hand, those same criteria applied to Rollerball, and look how that turned out.

At any rate, the bottom line on the existing version of Prime Cut is that it is a very slow-paced and obvious film, and the whole human slavery angle is totally illogical, but the film has two classic macho stars, and some beautiful grains of wheat hidden among the chaff.

OK, I agree with most observers that this is a very impressive chase scene, but here's a tip for you youngsters. If you are ever with your girlfriend, and the two of you are running away from a single combine, consider splitting up and going in opposite directions.

Also, this is not the ideal time to hold hands.

 

DVD INFO

  • the transfer is widescreen 2.35:1, anamorphically enhanced for 16x9 screens
  • no features, but the transfer is good and the thirty year old film looks fresh.

NUDITY REPORT

  • Sissy Spacek - all

  • Janit Baldwin - all

  • various other women from the auction block - substantial nudity, including frontals

  • Angel Tompkins - breasts only. (Wearing a nightie, but her breast fall out from time to time.)


Tuna's notes in yellow


Chicago mob enforcer Lee Marvin goes to Kansas City to collect a debt from Mary Anne (Gene Hackman) and his brother, who use a meat packing company as a front for prostitution, white slavery and narcotics. As an extra complication, Hackman is now married to Angel Tompkins, who has a romantic history with Marvin.

In the most original scene, Marvin breaks in on a special "cattle auction" where naked women are displayed in cattle stalls and sold to the highest bidder. Hackman evidently has an exclusive arrangement with a woman who raises orphans on federal funds to purchase the attractive girls when they turn 18. He dopes them up, and auctions them off. Marvin takes one (Sissy Spacek) when he leaves.

It is a classic good gangster vs. bad gangster film which consists of chases and shootouts. Marvin's typical screen personality is perfect for this role, and Hackman, always an effective villain, shows nothing but disrespect - for the Chicago mob; for the orphans he buys from an orphanage and sells into slavery; for everyone except his stupid brother weenie. It has a lot of visual appeal, good characters, great nudity, and more than enough pace and plot to keep me interested.

The Critics Vote ...

The People Vote ...

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal.(C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, it's a C Scoop) to C+ (Tuna). It had a lot of solid, imaginative elements that brought it close to greatness. It's a decent flick, but if you love films you will think you could take the original footage and edit it into a great movie.

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