Chicago hit man Nick Devlin (Lee Marvin) is minding his own business in a bar one night when he is approached by a representative of the local gangsters. They have a proposition for him to go down to Kansas and see if he can make a troublemaker, Mary Ann (Gene Hackman) see sense and pay what he owes them. But Mary Ann is a powerful figure in Kansas, running meat processing plants and drug rings with equal skill, and he has killed the previous hoodlums who have gone to get the Chicago gangsters' money, even going as far as turning the last man into sausages. Will Nick be a match for him?
Starring two of the most virile stars of their time, Prime Cut is not short of machismo. Written by Robert Dillon, the plot is fairly straightforward, but it's the trappings surrounding it that mark it as out of the ordinary, and something that only the seventies could have come up with for a thriller. It gets to a point where you're not sure how seriously to take any of it, with its villain who treats everything in terms of cattle, including people - his wife (Angel Tompkins), an old flame of Nick's, even has a cow's name: Clarabelle.
Nick wastes no time in announcing his presence in Kansas, and the first time we see Mary Ann he is at a meat market. Sort of. The cattle here are young women from the local orphanage, who are grown until they reach the right age and sold off as sex slaves to the highest bidder. In this market, they are lying drugged and naked in straw-filled pens, just like cows or pigs. One of these girls is Poppy (Sissy Spacek), who Nick gets to live out a "rescuing the damsel in distress" fantasy with when he liberates her from Mary Ann's auction on his way out.
Mary Ann dismisses Nick's attempts to get the money, and Hackman's sinister, overbearingly cheerful peformance is a good match to Marvin's more understated, quietly humorous approach. That's not to say that Nick is not a man of steel, as we witness in the action scenes, including a shoot out at a country fair. This leads to a rural spoof on Alfred Hitchcock's famous North By Northwest set piece, with a combine harvester instead of a crop dusting aeroplane. Another strange bit has characters stand about in awe to watch the machine devour a limousine.
From its off-kilter opening with a meat factory making sausages and hamburgers accompanied by anodyne music as we see a shoe mixed among the cuts of meat, to the climax that sees Nick stabbed with, yes, another sausage, Prime Cut is determined to be unconventional. Nick may be a cold blooded killer, but he is blessed with a sense of humanity that Mary Ann does not have, and he proves it in this test of manhood that almost reduces everything to level of product and consumer. They don't make movies like this anymore, but I imagine they still make sausages in this way. Music by Lalo Schifrin.
American director, from television, whose films of the 1970s showed an interesting, sardonic take on America. After sour skiing drama Downhill Racer, he had an unhappy experience on the bizarre Prime Cut before a run of acclaimed movies: political satire The Candidate, the excellent Smile, coarse comedy The Bad News Bears, and another sporting comedy Semi-Tough.