Color, 1981, 109 mins. 6 secs.
Directed by Ivan Passer
Starring Jeff Bridges, John Heard, Lisa Eichhorn, Stephen Elliott
Fun City Editions (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Twilight Time (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Imprint (Blu-ray) (Australia Region A HD), Sidonis (Blu-ray & DVD) (France RB/R2 PAL), MGM (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
A coda of sorts to the sad-eyed modern noir films and activist dramas of the 1970s, Cutter's Way remains one of the pivotal cult films of the early '80s, one of those sleeper films that critics kept putting on lists of "the best movies you've never seen" for decades. Czech director Ivan Passer, who had made an international splash with Intimate Lighting in 1965, was in the midst of his highly offbeat Hollywood career by this point with films like Born to Win and Silver Bears under his belt (and Creator and Haunted Summer yet to come). The process of bringing Newton Thornburg's 1976 novel Cutter and Bone (the film's original release title) was a lengthy one, with United Artists (in the wake of Heaven's Gate) keeping Jeff Bridges around as one of the stars. Initially ignored, the film picked up steam through word of mouth, belated critical acclaim, and film festival recognition, with frequent cable TV play and home video releases keeping it around for future generations to discover.
On the way home from a casual sexual encounter, Richard Bone (Bridges) has a car breakdown during a rainstorm in Santa Barbara. At the spot he sees something large being tossed into a dumpster, which he later confides to best friend Alex Cutter (Heard), a disable Vietnam vet, and his wife, Mo (Eichhorn), might be the body of a murdered young cheerleader. A random parade sighting leads Bone to recognize the potential culprit as a major businessman in the area, igniting Cutter's abrasive conspiracy theorist side and setting up an unorthodox investigation that could cost them their lives.
A murder mystery of sorts but not exactly a thriller, Cutter's Way belongs to the same lineage as films like Night Moves and The Long Goodbye but with even more of a post-Vietnam hangover. What you actually get is a unique snapshot of the atmosphere of Santa Barbara, the paranoia still lingering in the air after traumas like Watergate, and a surprising strain of optimism running through what could have been a cynical story with a truly unforgettable final scene that allows both Heard and Bridges to shine. The film also diverges from the usual private formula here with multiple amateur detectives (of sorts) who aren't above resorting to blackmail for the greater good, a tactic that proves to have ripple effects beyond what they could have anticipated. Adding an eerie sheen to the film is one of the best scores by Jack Nitzsche, who somehow turned this one out in between Cruising and his Oscar-winning work on An Officer and a Gentleman.
An early DVD release from MGM in 2001 only a trailer as an extra, Cutter's Way first appeared on Blu-ray from Twilight Time in 2016 as a limited edition featuring the trailer, Nitzsche's isolated score (which was later issued in expanded form on CD, but good luck finding it now) and an excellent commentary by Julie Kirgo and the late Nick Redman charting the entire bumpy history of the film and its cinematic significance. All of those are ported over for the greatly expanded 2022 Blu-ray from Fun City Editions, which comes in a standard edition (featuring a nice throwback to the '80s MGM/UA VHS box designs) or a limited slipcover. This one came not long after an Australian edition from Imprint with all of its extras and more included, so this is the definitive one to grab. A new commentary by novelist Matthew Specktor is personable and covers a lot of the ins and outs of the film (including its several deviations from the source novel), though he also tends to take very long pauses at times. In addition to the Kirgo-Redman track you get the Australian's releases commentary with assistant director Larry Franco and unit production manager Barrie Osborne, which is jammed with stories about working with Passer and shooting on location in Santa Barbara (which doesn't tend to get captured on film all that even, even when it's fudged on TV shows on like Psych). The transfer is cited as a new 2K scan from the interpositive, and it looks brighter by comparison with a more neutral color scheme compared to the browner, earthier appearance of the Twilight Time.
On the video extras side you get a video intro with Bridges from the Aussie disc (5m41s), a 26m27s appraisal by director Bertrand Tavernier hailing it as one of the best American films of the 1980s, a "Mo’s Way" (38m53s) interview with Eichhorn about her path to becoming an actor and the approach she took to her character, and an audio-only "From Cutter and Bone to Cutter’s Way" (11m16s) interview with former United Artists Classics executive Ira Deutchman who was instrumental in salvaging the film under its current title after its dismissal by the new management regime. In "Cutter's Way (La Blessure)" (37m43s) from the film's French home video release, Passer looks back at how he was drawn to the Cutter character based on his own observations of combat and concentration camp survivors, the arduous process of finding an audience for the film, and his collaborative process with his actors. In "Gurian's Way: The Road to Cutter and Bone" (26m21s), producer Paul Gurian covers the film from his own perspective including identification with his father (who also had one leg), his first impression of the novel and its depiction of anger, and the challenges with casting actors in the roles who fit the parts but met the studio's demands for name recognition. In "Two Plus One" (17m41s) from the Imprint release, writer Jeffrey Alan Fiskin explains the dubious way he first got hit mitts on the book, the process of paring away elements that wouldn't work for the screen, and using elements of his own experience to make the characters believable. Finally "Cut to the Bone: Inside the Score" (11m55s) with music editor Curt Sobel dives into the score's use of the glass harmonica (which Nitzsche employed to haunting effect in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) and the process of using it to push the limits of what a film score could be. Also included are a lengthy 17m24 image gallery and two trailers (as Cutter and Bone and Cutter's Way, neither of which sell the film terribly well), and a 16-page insert booklet with essays by Danny Peary and Margaret Barton-Fumo.
Fun City Editions (Blu-ray)
Twilight Time (Blu-ray)
Reviewed on November 28, 2022