What ever happened to Ivan Passer, the would-be great Czech import who never quite made it in American movies? How many directors of lost gems—the movies of their own particular genre, the strange, slow, idiosyncratic mysteries that hit theaters for a few weeks in a time no one can remember, were forgotten before they closed and get to be rediscovered for the personal visions they were—are still out there, unceremoniously calling “Action” on the set of TV cop shows, trying to make a living directing whatever they can get? Too many, it seems.
Cutter’s Way is one odd little American masterpiece of a forgotten auteur. Passer’s unmistakable touch is obvious from the hypnotic, beautiful opening onward. What looks like an old newsreel film of a Los Angeles street parade—dancers slowly fading up from black and white to color—transitions to a close-up of Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) trimming his moustache, shirtless, having just pleased a sugar mama (The Long Goodbye’s Nina Van Pallandt) in the type of place the movie returns to again and again, the luxury digs where L.A.’s bored upper classes entertain the lowly folks who serve them. Bone makes a bit of hustler small talk and then scams some money off her before fleeing into an unforgettable movie: sequence after sequence of lived-in detail and bizarre happenings that are business as usual for guys like Bone and his best friend, Alex Cutter (John Heard).
Cutter’s a Vietnam vet with an eye-patch, a bum leg, a missing arm and a predilection for dropping the N-word in black company just to see what kind of reaction he’ll get. Heard plays him as a spot-on image of what Tom Waits would have looked like if his music career had never taken off and his drinking problem had gotten the better of him. The men are soul mates and two points of a triangle that’s completed by Mo (Lisa Eichhorn), Cutter’s alcoholic wife, who loves the two wayward men equally.
The plot revolves around Bone’s half-remembered encounter with a shadowy man he catches dumping a girl’s body in the rainy alleyway where his Healey convertible breaks down. Accustomed to cruising through life on his good looks and charm, and at heart a lazy man, Bone doesn’t think much of a dead body in an alley. So instead of calling the police he heads to the bar to meet Cutter, then to Mo’s house for a late-night drink.
When the cops show up at his door the next morning, asking about the car he abandoned by the dead girl, Bone is genuinely incensed that someone might think he had anything to do with it. “Crushed trachea, fractured skull, semen in her mouth and on her face. It’s ugly. Around L.A., it happens all the time,” a police detective grumbles to the impassive Bone when he’s brought in for questioning. Bone makes the papers as a witness, and Cutter, the alcoholic vet with nothing to do, decides to take up the case. Bone is hesitant—he doesn’t do much of anything in life besides laze around while bumming off the rich and sleeping with their wives—but Cutter, a strangely brilliant bum with an obsessive energy, has a hold on him. He needs a real-life murder mystery just to make life interesting.
It’s hinted that Cutter’s impotent, which puts him at odds with Bone the virile gigolo, but he compensates by being the brains behind their pairing and never letting Bone forget it. Their dynamic makes it all the more dangerous when they hatch a plot to extort the Santa Monica oil tycoon that Bone fingers as the girl’s murderer. Cutter has an axe to grind with the industrialist types he blames for Vietnam, and thus the loss of his limbs and eye, but they happen to be the same types that Bone has been sucking from for years. The constant tensions—vets against plutocrats, poor against rich, bad luck against good—are woven into the story as if they’re what the world is made of.
There are some issues here too—there are bound to be with a film this small and discordant and moody. It’s unlikely that the pair would have the connections they do, and it undermines the otherwise believable story; Bone is a lackey for one of the tycoon’s main underlings, so he and Cutter get special invites to the gatherings of men who pull the strings in the city. And the climax, which features Cutter riding a white horse through a garden party, the would-be scourge of L.A. corruption, is even more absurd than it was intended to be. But this is a cruelly sick image of life in the sunlight that makes all the seediness of L.A. so deceptively bright. It makes for one of the oddest-toned and laconic mysteries in American movies. It isn’t the greatest L.A. noir in history — Chinatown, The Long Goodbye, The Big Sleep and even The Big Lebowski surpass it in terms of sheer cleverness and stylistic energy. But it deserves a place in those ranks, if a rung or two lower. At the very least for Heard’s magnificent Tom Waits imitation, it deserves to be dug up and reveled in.