Laden with the genre-tropes that American crime-dramas of the 1970s were known for (a strong sense of urban realism, action-filled plots and resourceful, tough-as-nails protagonists), director Michael Ritchie’s second feature Prime Cut (1972) adds a new ingredient to the already heady brew that created cork-popping classics such as The French Connection (1971) and The French Connection II (1975), The Getaway (1972) and The Driver (1978): a sly critique on American society, with fairytale elements thrown in for good measure.
Outside of Kansas City, Missouri, the company Mary Ann’s Meats serves as a front for a white slavery, prostitution and drug ring that is a subsidiary of a Chicago crime syndicate headed by Jake (Eddie Egan). Having discovered that the proprietor Mary Ann (Gene Hackman) has skimmed over half a million dollars in profit, Jake sends one of his mobsters to collect the funds. However, after Mary Ann has the man ground into sausage and sent back to Chicago as a package of frankfurters, Jake turns to his top enforcer, Nick Devlin (Lee Marvin), to set Mary Ann straight. When initial negotiations fail, Devlin and his men stir things up in Kansas, much to the detriment of Mary Ann and his brother Weenie (Gregory Walcott). In the process, Devlin rescues Poppy (Sissy Spacek, in her feature debut), a young girl being held as a sex slave, out of the clutches of the depraved brothers (slightly hinted to be lovers). In turn, Mary Ann and Weenie retaliate against Poppy’s friend and fellow-captive, Violet (Janit Baldwin). Things come to a heated climax during an intense shootout at Mary Ann’s cattle ranch.
Originally titled Kansas City Prime, but renamed to avoid confusion with MGM’s sports drama Kansas City Bomber released that same year, Prime Cut offers a superb amalgam of gangster thriller and fairytale, in which white knight/Chicago strong-arm man Nick Devlin visits recalcitrant black knight/Kansas City crime-boss Mary Ann, rescuing damsel in distress Poppy along the way. In doing so, Prime Cut concerns a curious, fundamental naïvety underlying America’s corruption: which allows Hackman to give the country the dope and flesh it wants; which permits Marvin to attempt to live out his Beauty and the Beast romance with Poppy; and which implies, in a fairground shootout, an America totally oblivious to what’s going on in front of its eyes.
In their succession of bars, hotels, flophouses, ranches, cities and countryside, director Ritchie and DOP Gene Polito demonstrate a truly fine handling of locations, best realised in two Hitchcock-like chases: through the fairground, and across a cornfield, pursued by a combine harvester. This intimidating piece of machinery echoes the dangerous ogres of countless fairytales, while Mary Ann’s cattle spread serves as a bastion of darkness, to be taken to end the reign of an evil king. But the fairytale origins of much of the plot do little to detract from the grim realism, violence and depravity on display in Prime Cut. Made all the more shocking when carried out in America’s heartland – under bright, sunlit skies and among waving amber horizons.