Saturday, February 7, 2009

Book Into Film: CUTTER AND BONE (1976) and CUTTER'S WAY (1981)

As a rule, it's not a good idea for me to read a novel before a movie is made from it. Movies usually can't help but suffer in comparison because they have to cut so much material out. Worse, screenwriters or producers often make arbitrary changes for no apparent good reason, or no reason that has to do with cinematic values. When that happens I can't help but wonder why -- and to try and understand the process better, I decided to read a novel that had been made into an acclaimed film, and then to watch the film.

A lot of my casual reading lately has been crime fiction, influenced by my growing appreciation for film noir and related work from the 1940s and 1950s. As a big fan of most things from the 1970s, I wanted to move forward in time, and chose Newton Thornburg's novel Cutter and Bone, which I knew had been adapted into Ivan Passer's film, which was renamed Cutter's Way after the studio blamed the title for the movie's initial flop. The novel is very much a phenomenon of the 70s, and the movie is as well, despite its date of appearance. It's my own view that for cinema, the 70s didn't really end until around 1983, but that's a topic for another time.

Cutter and Bone is about Richard Bone, a drop-out from white-collar work and middle-class family life, and his pal Alex Cutter, a once-wealthy Vietnam vet who lost a leg, an arm, an eye and his sobriety in the war. Cutter lives with Maureen (Mo) and their child, "Old Brown Pants" in domestic squalor which Bone shares occasionally. One rainy night, Bone's car breaks down and he has to walk off a drunk through town to Cutter's place. On the way he sees a man get out of a car and dump some large object into a trash can. He later learns that the object was a murdered woman's body, but he can't help the cops with the investigation because he couldn't make out the man's face. Later, when he sees a picture of food service magnate J.J. Wolfe in the newspaper, he has an intuition that Wolfe was the man with the body. He almost instantly retreats from the claim, but once Cutter heard it, he assumes that Bone was right the first time. Cutter becomes obsessed with doing something to Wolfe, but its never clear (even to Cutter himself) whether he means to blackmail the millionaire or trap him into a confession that would get him arrested. The victim's sister, Valerie, joins Cutter and a reluctant Bone in the scheming. Bone can't bring himself to do his part in the blackmail plan, so Cutter takes the initiative. When Mo and the baby die in a house fire soon afterward, Cutter becomes convinced that Wolfe was sending him a message and grows increasingly unhinged as Bone tries to keep him tethered to reality.

At that point, book and film diverge dramatically, but Passer and screenwriter Jeffrey Alan Fiskin had already made substantial changes in the story by then. They increase the stakes for Bone (Jeff Bridges) by having him treated initially as a suspect in the girl's death, which he never really is in the book. Thornburg has Bone ratted out to the cops by a radical wannabe who'd heard his story while staying at Cutter's place and left in a huff over some petty dispute while Bone slept with his girlfriend. Those two characters are gone in the movie, which is excusable for concision's sake. A more distressing omission is the absence of Cutter (John Heard) and Mo's child. In the book, Mo is a poor housekeeper and an erratic though loving mother, as well as a heavy drinker and drug-user. She drinks in the movie, but the absence of the baby works to soften her character so that she remains more sympathetic and appears less like an irresponsible loser. Likewise, the movie never really states that Bone supports himself as a gigolo, and has him living on his own on a houseboat rather than as Cutter's guest. Again, he's less of a lowlife than he is in the book. This makes Cutter stand out more as an anomaly than he does in the novel, so that you might think he's the irritant primarily responsible for making Mo and Bone miserable (or for driving them into each other's arms). Valerie is also whitewashed. In the novel she's a part-time prostitute, but not in the movie. In both, though, she skedaddles after the fire.

Fiskin also does one of those arbitrary changes, changing J. J. Wolfe into J. J. Cord for no intelligible reason. He also changes J.J. from a poultry magnate based in the Ozarks into an oilman based right in Cutter and Bone's hometown. He then takes another character, George Swanson, who has no relation to Wolfe in the novel, and makes him an employee of Cord for the movie. George retains his function from the novel as a wealthy friend who helps Cutter out a lot, and I think the tie to Cord can be justified as a way of keeping George in the story. Later in the movie, Cutter will assert that Cord had killed George's father, or had him killed, in the past, and paid for George's education and made him a protege in order to atone but also to keep George under his thumb. It's teased a little that George might betray Cutter and Bone to his boss, but nothing really comes out of it.

George's tie to Cord also facilitates the movie's major change in the plot. In the novel, Cutter and Bone finally head to Wolfe's home ground in the Ozarks, with a new girl in tow -- Monk, "the Virgin of Isla Vista," whom Bone met after a suicidal swim after the fire ended in a hallucinatory orgy with "the Clap Twins" in which Monk didn't participate. The absence of all this material from the movie, including Monk, is understandable. In Wolfe's home town, Cutter disrupts a parade by blabbing about the great man's alleged crimes. It remains maddening unclear to Bone exactly what Cutter intends to do, and so it is to Cutter, whose mind deteriorates rapidly until he loses it completely at an amusement park and is left pretty much a vegetable in a local VA hospital. That leaves Bone to face minions of J.J. Wolfe and to become increasingly certain that his hunch is right after all. He can't be absolutely certain about that, however, until the final scene, in which he's driven down by Wolfe and a flunky and gets a good look at the shotgun that will kill him.

In the movie no trip to the Ozarks is necessary, since J.J. Cord is practically a neighbor. Taken to lunch at a country club by George, Cutter goes after Cord during a polo party, threatening to "crucify" him. Later, Cutter steals George's invitation to a Cord party and sneaks onto the Cord estate with Bone playing his limo driver. Despite Cutter's claim that the gun he's carrying isn't loaded, Bone fears the worst, but when Cutter gets loose from him, it's Bone who's captured and roughed up by Cord's bodyguards and finally taken in for an audience with the magnate. Cutter somehow eludes his pursuers long enough to get hold of a horse in Cord's stable and go riding to Bone's rescue. He makes it to Cord's house, but the horse throws him through a window, apparently killing him. Bone is now convinced that Cord killed the girl, and tells the dying or dead Cutter that fact. He then turns on Cord, saying, "It was you!" "What if it were," Cord scoffs, putting on dark glasses. Bone aims the gun still in Cutter's hand at Cord and fires. Blackout. Credits roll.

Bone (Jeff Bridges) points out a parade highlight to Cutter (John Heard) in Ivan Passer's CUTTER'S WAY .

To Thornburg's dismay, the producers deemed it necessary to change the ending of his story because they felt that death by rednecks was too reminiscent of the ending of Easy Rider. In a recent interview, Thornburg scoffed at that reasoning. "I thought to myself, so many people have been killed over the years by shotguns, for heaven's sake," he said, "You can't copyright an ending because there's a shotgun." Taken in the context of the film, however, the new ending has a more plausible if not necessarily better explanation. The film underplays to the point of ignoring the fact established early in the novel that both Bone and Cutter have been contemplating suicide. Both characters in the novel are sporadically paralyzed by indecisiveness or an inability to stick with a commitment, demonstrated by both men's failure (carried over in the film) to deliver the blackmail letter. Something of this survives in Bone, but it's become more like the more typical fear of commitment than the inability to trust his own instincts or impulses that fatally characterizes the original Bone. The movie Cutter is no more self-destructive than any movie alkie or Viet vet. His main trait seems to be a need to be or see a real hero. That's why he goads Bone into action, then takes heroic action himself at the end, as if redeeming himself with the ride to the rescue. There's less ambiguity about his motives in the movie than in the book. It's unclear up to a very late point in the novel whether Cutter means to kill or still just blackmail Wolfe, while the movie Cutter consistently wants to "get" Cord, first for being the sort of rich jerk who'd presumably never put his ass on the line, then because he's absolutely convinced that Cord had Mo killed. Cutter's more single-minded than in the novel, where it's rarely certain and often disturbingly uncertain whether he's sincere or putting someone on as a private joke. For Thornburg, Cutter and Bone are two disintegrating personalities. For Fiskin and Passer, neither really is; the protagonists are dysfunctional in less profound ways.

On its own terms, Cutter's Way is worthwhile for John Heard's furious performance as Cutter. He's not as ambivalently sardonic as the character in the novel, but it makes cinematic sense for him to be a more explosive personality. Heard really shines in extreme scenes that aren't in the book, like his outburst at the polo match. Best of all is a scene at an amusement pier, where Bone dawdles at a shooting gallery while Cutter waits for him to make a crucial phone call to Cord's office. His patience at an end, Cutter produces a loaded pistol and blasts Bone's target, telling the barker to "give the man his goddamn doll." When the second call proves fruitless, Cutter goes berserk, grabbing the stuffed animal and flailing at the pier railings with it before tossing it into the ocean and emptying his gun into the poor thing. Heard also nails a scene from the book in which he rams a neighbor's car and lambastes the neighbor with filthy insults, only to reappear after swallowing some mouthwash to play the humble, deferential wounded veteran when the police arrive. Jeff Bridges has little choice but to be a straight man for Heard, but does so with his expected charm. He also excels in tormented romantic scenes with Lisa Eichhorn as Mo, and his performance has resonance beyond the film itself, as I'll explain shortly.

While Fiskin may not have liked the novel's ending, he did like the element of the parade, which he transports to Santa Barbara for an early scene during which Bone has his great intuition about Cord and Cutter gets to make some nasty cracks about Indians and other parade participants. He also makes at least one change that enhances the suspense element of the story. In the book, we follow Bone into Wolfe's office and see him chicken out, intimidated by a flow chart that shows Wolfe's power over numerous major corporations. Thornburg wants us to know that he's lying to Cutter and Valerie about delivering the blackmail letter. In the movie, we see Bone go in, then see him get back in the car to announce his mission accomplished. It's not until Cutter goes nuts with the doll on the pier that Bone tells him the truth, which should come as a proper surprise to viewers who hadn't read the book. I don't really approve of the movie's ending, but overall I think that Fiskin and Passer constructed a story that succeeds in its own right, but not as profoundly as the book.

Through most of the movie I was trying to think of what Jack Nitzsche's score reminded me of. The answer: Nitzsche's score for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which uses similar instruments in a way that now strikes me as the generic soundtrack for dying hippy dreams, or dying 70s dreams -- whichever you prefer.

Cutter and Bone team up (somewhat passively on one side) to dispense some form
of justice in CUTTER'S WAY.
Screen capture from
Radiator Heaven.

Finally, here's more of an echo than an epilogue. A quick Google search confirms that I'm far from the first person to think of this, but what does it sound like when you have Jeff Bridges as the relatively laid-back sidekick of an often-angry and singleminded Vietnam veteran? So are there hints of The Big Lebowski in the novel? Not as many, I think. Bridge's Richard Bone is a more placid character than Thornburg's, who is clearly on more of a downward trajectory than the movie Bone. In book and film alike Alex Cutter is a long way from Walter Sobchak, but the business with the car foreshadows Walter's destruction of a car in the Coen Bros. film, and I could see Cutter believing that Lebowski was faking his disability ("This man walks!"). The one element in the book that might be a foreshadowing or a proof that the Coens read it is the fact that Mrs. Little, a woman for whom Bone goes to work as a "handyman" in the novel, and who doesn't appear in the film, is a sculptor -- an artist, as Maude Lebowski is in the later movie.

In closing, I recommend Cutter's Way as a good sample of very late 70s cinema, but I recommend Cutter and Bone even more strongly as a great 70s novel.


Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Very nice piece, Unk. I saw Cutter's Way a few years back (highly touted by Danny Peary in the Cult Movies books) and while it wasn't my particular cup of Earl Grey, I did admire the quirkiness of it. I like the Big Lebowski parallels, too--in fact, I thought of Cutter when I first saw Lebowski but I didn't put too much into it at the time.

I didn't see your Whitmore tribute until after I wrote mine, but it's refreshing to see someone else reference that TZ episode he was in--great minds think alike!

Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks for writing, Ivan. The movie is definitely more "quirky" than the book is. Ivan Passer did okay with the material, but Robert Altman or John Huston might have done a more faithful and greater adaptation.

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