By Mark Schuster
JOPLIN, Mo. —
We all have skeletons in our closets. The entertainment industry is loaded with them.
Stars who have gone on to be living legends often start out small and have at least a handful of shady projects on their resumes. Today I focus on two such projects, obscure movies from the early 1970s with big stars and plenty of gumption that have been unjustly forgotten.
I have two words for you: human sausage. “Has anyone seen Larry?” “No, but my, aren’t these sausages delicious? So tender and juicy É”
So it goes in “Prime Cut,” the demented 1972 potboiler starring Lee Marvin, Gene Hackman and Sissy Spacek in her first screen role.
Hackman steals the show as Kansas City meat wholesaler “Mary Ann,” perpetually chewing everything the movie places in his path, from scenery to the omnipresent sausages. Marvin plays a tough Chicago face-cruncher sent as an agent of “persuasion” after Mary Ann reneges on a debt.
When Marvin arrives on the scene and realizes that Mary Ann is peddling more than sides of beef, things get mighty sticky in Kansas City.
“Prime Cut” is a small, tight film that does what it does economically and with an amusing flair for the perverse. All the scenes that other movies of this ilk would cloak in darkness, “Prime Cut” sets during the blazing light of day.
Nude, drugged and dazed young orphans (of whom Spacek is one) are kept in pens and sold like cattle. A chase scene involving a combine harvester running roughshod through a wheat field is particularly memorable, as is the film’s climactic shootout. Music by Lalo Schifrin (”Dirty Harry”) provides a subtle, jazzy backbeat that keeps things moving.
“Prime Cut” is not a classic by any stretch of the imagination. It didn’t change society, and you won’t feel compelled to question everything you believe in after you watch it.
But it is a guilty pleasure; a grungy, sleazy, high-cholesterol thriller, hot-blooded and warm on a cold winter’s night.
Ah, Clint Eastwood, he of few words, and even fewer facial expressions. He is the kind of rugged and virile man who can kill a mess of cattle rustlers, eat a hearty supper, love on his wife a bit, and then sleep soundly and wake rested the following day, ready to do it all over again.
Eastwood the archetype is a living legend, but Eastwood the man has proven from time to time to be somewhat more complex. Case in point: the 1971 gothic romance “The Beguiled.”
Set during the waning days of the Civil War in the ravaged South, Eastwood plays John McBurney, a Union soldier severely injured in the vicinity of an all-girl boarding school and struggling for survival. It isn’t long before one of the wide-eyed students stumbles upon the Yankee, and McBurney soon finds himself the lit fuse in the ticking time bomb of sexual repression and frustration engulfing the school.
Just when you think you know where the story is going, the movie jumps the rails and heads off in a new direction, eventually spiraling into a vortex of lies, deceit and tragedy.
What makes the movie so compelling is that it purposefully undermines the Eastwood archetype at every turn. McBurney is incapacitated in some form for most of the movie, reliant completely on the women of the school.
And while Eastwood excels at playing the “tortured good guy,” filled with doubt and self-loathing but always erring on the side of justice, McBurney has no such compunction, lying and shrewdly playing the women against each other to meet his own ends. He is a scoundrel, through and through, and it is both delightful and profoundly unsettling to watch Eastwood play so thoroughly against our expectations.
Perhaps “The Beguiled” was the victim of poor marketing, or perhaps it was lost in the shadow of “Dirty Harry,” the other film Eastwood made with director Don Siegel in 1971. Whatever the reason, “The Beguiled” seems to have been forgotten.
But for fans of Eastwood, or Southern gothic tales in general, the film is a treasure and ripe for discovery.