In the world of cinema, journeyman filmmakers are often thought of as those who work reliably and consistently but seldom distinguish themselves. But the literal definition reads as a more positive descriptor.
“a craftsman, artisan, etc, who is qualified to work at his trade in the employment of another.”
Ivan Passer would doubtless be proud to be known as a journeyman.
Passer was a key figure of the Czech new wave that began in the 60s. After working as an assistant director during the early part of the decade, in 1964 he wrote Audition, a long-form short film by the great Milos Forman, and that same year he served as Forman’s Assistant Director on Black Peter.
The next year he made his directorial debut with Intimate Lighting (which he also co-wrote) the story of a symphony musician visiting an old friend. It is still considered one of the seminal films of the Czech new wave. His relationship with Forman continued in 1965 with Loves of a Blonde where he again served as AD as well as screenwriter. Two years later, Forman would direct Passer’s screenplay of The Fireman’s Ball, which was nominated by the Academy for Best Foreign Language Film.
Passer and Forman fled Czechoslovakia in 1969 after the invasion by the Soviet Union.
In 1971 Passer would write and direct his first film in the United States, Born to Win, starring George Segal, Karen Black, featuring a young Robert DeNiro in a smaller role. It’s a bit of an oddity. Segal plays a drug addict on a downward spiral in a film that might remind some of A Panic in Needle Park or Drugstore Cowboy, except that it incorporates slapstick humor — to highly unusual effect. It’s a strange amalgamation, but as Roger Ebert said at the time of its release, “Born to Win is a good-bad movie that doesn’t always work but has some really brilliant scenes.” The film received mixed to negative reviews, but there’s no denying that it’s more interesting than a lot of “successful” movies.
Passer’s next three films (Law and Disorder, Crime and Passion, and Silver Bears) came and went without much notice. So did 1981’s Cutter’s Way, starring Jeff Bridges and a never better John Heard. If you’re ever asked to name a “lost classic,” Cutter’s Way is a great answer.
In the mold of such downbeat classics as Arthur Penn’s Night Moves, or Ulu Grosbard’s Straight Time, Cutter’s Way presents itself as a neo-noir murder mystery but then goes much deeper than that as a character study of lives on the margins. Blind in one eye and missing an arm and a leg, Heard is unforgettable as Bone’s (Jeff Bridges) friend, Alex Cutter — a man whose mind and body have been mangled by the Vietnam War.
As the two men try to solve the murder of a young girl whose body Bone discovered dumped in alley way, Cutter becomes more obsessed and unhinged. Bone tries to step away after they get too close and Cutter’s home is burned to the ground with his beleaguered wife in it. But Cutter can’t stop seeking justice — even if it means losing his own life.
Cutter’s Way is a story of failure. About how knowledge and fine intentions can bring you no profit, and how obsession leads to no good end. Almost no one has seen it, but those of us who have, see it as a heartbreaking ellipsis for an era that still haunts us today. The era of stupid wars, stupid politicians, and how both create broken men.
It is a masterpiece.
Sadly, Passer never achieved those artistic heights again – although his epic 1992 Stalin biopic for HBO starring Robert Duvall was well received, winning three Golden Globes and four Emmys.
Passer made only four more films after that. Three for television and then his final film Nomad: The Warrior in 2005.
Much like his best film, Passer’s name is a bit lost to the cinematic ages. But those of us who have seen Cutter’s Way — we happy few — know better. Ivan Passer was a craftsman and an artisan.
His journey ended on January 9, 2020. He was 86 years old.