Crime fiction rare with extra meat

The Video Vulture sinks his teeth into Prime Cut

If Prime Cut (1972) were just a little bit less oddball it might be considered neo-noir. It is a cynical tale of crime and revenge filled with characters of such astonishing evil and corruption that the hero of the film can be a mafia enforcer and yet still seem like a nice guy by comparison. On the other hand no neo-noir has ever started with an extended dialogue-free sequence of a meat-processing plant going through its daily routine.

We see cows led through metal gates then slaughtered then turned into hamburger patties and steaks. A man’s shoe is briefly glimpsed on the conveyor belt. One of the workers stands by the machinery holding his watch and grinning. When the time is right he stops the machine gathers up a length of sausages and mails it to an address in Chicago. Nick Devlin (Lee Marvin) a grizzled gangster receives the package and looks none too happy about it. He has a discussion with his mob buddies about unco-operative deadbeats and hands the package to a startled underling telling him to bury it as it contains the remains of a debt collector.

The unco-operative deadbeat who turns gangsters into sausages is a supremely corrupt meat baron incongruously named “Mary Ann” and played by none other than Gene Hackman. Mary Ann has a private army and has reached the point where he thinks he can push the Mafia around with impunity. Devlin is sent to rural Kansas to teach the big butcher a lesson.

Strong-arming his way past a battery of shotgun-toting hicks Devlin invades what appears to be a cattle auction only the pens are filled with drugged naked women instead of cattle. They are virgins purchased from an unprincipled all-girl orphanage and sold to the highest bidder. One of the girls is Sissy Spacek in her feature film debut. “Poppy” (Spacek) is so spaced out she can barely manage a word and a pleading glance in Devlin’s direction but that is enough to convince Devlin to rescue her from her straw-lined pen as he leaves the barn in a token show of defiance to Hackman’s chuckling crime lord.

Having spent her entire life imprisoned in an orphanage Poppy knows little about the intricacies of wearing gowns or dining in restaurants and Devlin sets out to ease the lass into normal society. Poppy has also never seen a man before and she tells a steamy story about cuddling with her orphaned roommate Violet and “pretending.” Now freed from her manless prison she’s soon looking at Devlin with more than gratitude and admiration in her eyes. Devlin is aware of this but he’s also aware that they are on enemy turf and settling things with the murderous pusher-pimp-butcher must take priority over romance. Sure enough Devlin and Poppy find themselves in a series of hair-raising situations including a bizarre sequence in which their car is devoured by a gigantic combine harvester. Eventually Devlin must gather his surviving henchmen and lead an assault on the Kansas mob leading to a memorable shootout in the middle of a huge field of sunflowers.

While far from perfect Prime Cut contains several scenes of such bizarre originality that they simply cannot be forgotten. In addition to the unsettling opening scene the virgin auction and the car being eaten by a combine we get to see a greenhouse the size of a football stadium collapse on itself after getting rammed by a speeding truck. Marvin Hackman and Spacek all give marvelous performances as usual with Spacek showing off just as much skin as she did in Carrie (1976) which I’m sure you’ll recall featured full frontal nudity before the opening credits were finished.

According to IMDb.com Prime Cut was filmed right here in Calgary Alberta. The film has been available on DVD since 2005 and had a fairly wide VHS release prior to that but its fan base still seems rather small. Considering the cast the originality of the script and the unforgettable set pieces one must wonder why this unusual film isn’t better known.