Cutter's Way (1981) is not your usual political drama about the unhealed wounds of the Vietnam War on the American body. The wounds here, both physical and spiritual, have shaped its angry, crippled, hard-drinking antihero Alex Cutter, a vet who lost an eye, a leg and an arm to the War and is looking for someone to pay. It's a murder mystery mired in ambiguity, a dysfunctional buddy drama, and a character piece of broken, disillusioned people escaping in drink, sex or rage.
Based on the novel Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg, Cutter's Way was the first feature film project for producer Paul Gurian. Jeffrey Alan Fiskin had a single screenwriting credit to his name—a biker picture called Angel Unchained (1970)—when Gurian picked him to adapt the novel on the strength of an unproduced spec script. With Gurian's blessing, Fiskin rewrote the last half of the book (which he described as "an instant replay of Easy Rider") to become more ambiguous.
The film was set up at EMI with Robert Mulligan set to direct and Dustin Hoffman cast as Alex Cutter. When Hoffman dropped out due to a scheduling conflict, the director also left the project and the financing fell through. It found a new home at United Artists thanks to the support of UA president David Field. Ivan Passer was offered the project after Fiskin screened his 1965 Czech New Wave feature Intimate Lighting with a group of United Artists executives.
A vital member of the Czech New Wave, Passer had written the Oscar-nominated features Loves of a Blonde (1965) and The Firemen's Ball (1967) with director Milos Forman. The two were close friends and together they fled Czechoslovakia in 1969, months after the Soviet Invasion and the crackdown on personal freedoms that followed. "I didn’t come expecting to make movies," Passer explained in a 1981 interview. "I used to think, this country has so many good filmmakers, why would they need a Czech to make American movies? It didn’t make sense. But, as often in life, when you don’t really want something very much, it somehow comes to you."
Passer found his Alex Cutter when he saw John Heard playing Cassius in a Shakespeare in the Park production of Othello. As he described it, "something about his presence made the whole audience quiet down. You can feel the spark. I knew instantly that John was the actor for the part of Cutter." Heard spent weeks using a cane to immerse himself in the physicality of the character before shooting began, and continued using it offscreen throughout the shoot.
UA executives suggested Jeff Bridges, who was currently shooting Heaven's Gate (1980) for the studio, for the role of Richard Bone. Passer thought it was a longshot but set out with producer Paul Gurian to visit Bridges at his Malibu ranch. Bridges met them at the gate of his ranch with his two dogs. When Gurian bent down to greet the dogs, one of them lunged and bit him in the cheek. As Forman later recalled, "Suddenly there’s this guy standing there with a frightened expression, bleeding profusely." Bridges ran for his car and rushed Gurian to a plastic surgeon who lived nearby and was able to repair the cheek. "We never discussed the film, but obviously Jeff had no choice."
The film, originally released under the title Cutter and Bone, suffered from an upheaval at United Artists when David Field, the film's champion, left the studio and the new executive team washed their hands of the unconventional production. It was released for a week in New York City with a minimal ad campaign and immediately yanked after bad reviews in the New York daily papers. "You can assassinate movies as you can assassinate people," remarked Passer weeks after the run. "I think UA murdered the film. Or at least they tried to murder it." A parade of glowing reviews that subsequently appeared in the weeklies and magazines, however, prompted United Artists to give the film to their specialty arm, United Artists Classics. It was retitled Cutter's Way, sent around the film festival circuit (it swept the top prizes at the Houston Film Festival), and given a release in Seattle, a favorite test market for offbeat American films with an independent spirit. It ran for eighteen weeks and expanded to arthouses in Boston and New York.
"The thing about Cutter and Bone [the film's original title] that hits you right away, before you can possibly guess how rich it's going to be, is what a terrific movie it is," wrote Richard T. Jameson in a 1981 appreciation for Film Comment. Its reputation has only grown over the years. Tom Huddleston, writing for Time Out in 2006, called it "nothing less than a modern masterpiece, and a film ripe for rediscovery." Peter Bradshaw praised the film as "an unclassifiably brilliant gem of American independent film-making" for The Guardian in 2011. And for The Guardian film critic John Patterson, who says he's seen the film 30 or so times already, "it may be my favourite American movie…. For once, the word is appropriate: masterpiece."
"Cutter's Way: Review," Peter Bradshaw. The Guardian, June 23, 2011.
"Cutter's Way," Tom Huddleston. Time Out London, June 21, 2011.
"Passer's Way," Richard T. Jameson. Film Comment, July/August, 1981.
"Ivan Passer and Jeffrey Alan Fisk Interviewed," Joe Leydon. Film Comment, July/August, 1981.
"Cutter's Way is a cinematic masterpiece," John Patterson. June 3, 2011.
"An Interview with Jeffrey Alan Fiskin," Paul Rowlands. Money Into Light, 2016.
"Ivan Passer: Making it Cutter's Way," Fred Schruers. The Washington Post, December 13, 1981.
AFI Catalog of Feature Films