Chicago mob enforcer Nick Devlin (Lee Marvin) is tasked to collect some overdue payback from ruthless rural gangster/meatpacking magnate Maryann (Gene Hackman). It’s going to be tricky, since the last three men who tried were chopped up and mailed back as sausage meat. Along with his trusted chauffeur Shay (William Morey) and a couple of callow young gunmen (Clint Ellison, Howard Platt), Nick invades Maryann’s Kansas farm and discovers a cheery white slavery auction in progress. Naked, nubile, drugged up young women are displayed like livestock in hay-covered pigpens and to ensure Maryann cooperates, Nick abducts the beautiful Poppy (Sissy Spacek). Back at Nick’s plush hotel suite, Poppy recounts how she was sold into sex slavery by a corrupt orphanage. Moved by Poppy’s gentle innocence, the hard-bitten hitman decides to help her and her friend Violet (Janit Baldwin, later in the underrated Ruby (1978)) escape the mobsters’ clutches.
Michael Ritchie made a number of documentary-style comedy-dramas, like The Candidate (1972) and his masterpiece Smile (1975), but could also sublimate his insight into quirky human behaviour in mainstream assignments, including horror (The Island (1980)), kids movies (The Bad News Bears (1976)) and especially this striking crime thriller. Fresh off his Oscar win for The French Connection (1971) Gene Hackman relishes his role as the venal, self-amused Maryann who clashes fascinatingly with an urbane, stoic Lee Marvin. What’s interesting is that either actor could have easily played each other’s roles and the, admittedly slight, story blossoms into an allegory about animal and civilized behaviour as filtered through our attitude to meat.
Maryann revels in his beastliness and views his captive girls as no different to any other kind of flesh up for sale. Early on Devlin recoils at the sight of him swallowing a mouthful of tripe. “You eat guts?” he remarks, only for Maryann to wink back and counter: “I like ’em”, excited to have unnerved the city slicker. Devlin, by contrast, takes an initially detached view of his profession, although beneath his steely exterior lurks a surprisingly soft centre. His gentlemanly side is drawn out by Poppy in a delightful sequence where the dine inside a swanky restaurant, while a rich customer leering at her bare breasts beneath a see-through dress is swiftly rebuked. Admirers of the gifted Sissy Spacek familiar with her gawky yet lovable heroines in Carrie (1976), Badlands (1973) and Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) will enjoy a rare chance to see her doe-eyed and gorgeous. The cast includes a host of familiar faces including Angel Tompkins as Devlin’s ex-girlfriend (now Maryann’s wife), Plan 9 From Outer Space (1958) star Gregory Walcott as Maryann’s slobbering, in-bred brother, and a surprise cameo from the real-life Popeye Doyle, Eddie Egan as an Irish mobster.
It’s beautifully shot by cinematographer Gene Polito in bright, summery hues that draw the most out of those Missouri cornfields and the popcorn and cotton candy atmosphere of Maryann’s twisted county fair. The set-pieces flow brilliantly, right from the extended opening sequence where a human body arrives on the meatpackers’ conveyor belt, to the ghastly sex slave auction and especially, the moment where Devlin and Poppy flee the bright red wheat thresher and its thrashing blades. That chase is worthy of Alfred Hitchcock. A handful of scenes lapse into silliness, but mostly this ropewalks a brilliant line between horror, humour and gut-wrenching thrills - possibly because the scriptwriter was exploitation veteran Robert Dillon. The music by Lalo Schifrin is among his least-heralded, yet one of his best.
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.