Late in 2018, John Penner took a table in a restaurant in West Hollywood with one of his former film professors at USC, Ivan Passer, a key figure of the Czechoslovak New Wave, and later, the director of the 1981 cult favorite Cutter’s Way. Penner shaped the hours they spent talking about Czechoslovakia’s turbulent history and Passer’s life long friendship with fellow Czech director Miloš Forman into a package of articles that ran in the Los Angeles Times just a few weeks ago. At the end of last week, Penner found himself writing a coda—an obituary for the man he called “an unassuming, even reluctant filmmaker of uncommon talent, a generous spirit, and a superb storyteller.” Ivan Passer had died on Thursday at the age of eighty-six.
He’d spent much of his childhood wandering the mountains with a hunting dog and a Russian rifle while the Nazis rampaged across the continent. After the war, he was sent to a boarding school in a thirteenth-century castle in Poděbrady, a spa town east of Prague. It was there that he became fast friends with Forman. Together, they went on to attend the film school at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU), which had restructured its program in order to survive the communist coup of 1948. At FAMU, Passer and Forman fell in with the group of filmmakers who, beginning in the early 1960s, would revive their country’s moribund film industry with stylistically innovative and darkly humorous works that constituted what would eventually become known as the Czechoslovak New Wave. “We were very fond of each other,” Passer told Penner. “We understood something, which I have never seen since. That the success of one of us was an opportunity for the other.”
As a cowriter, an assistant director, or both, Passer worked on all of Forman’s Czech films, and despite off-and-on run-ins with the censors, works such as Loves of a Blonde (1965) and The Firemen’s Ball (1967) were met with international acclaim. Another cowriter on both films, Václav Šašek, approached Passer with a treatment he’d sold and asked him to direct. Passer agreed, but then forgot all about it. When the studio that had bought in asked how the project was coming along, Passer and Šašek quickly hunkered down and typed out a screenplay. Ian Johnston, writing for Not Coming to a Theater Near You in 2006, suggested that “perhaps no film sums up the spirit of the Czech New Wave as Ivan Passer’s light and breezy masterpiece, Intimate Lighting.”
The 1965 film, the only feature Passer directed in Czechoslovakia, is loosely structured around the reunion of two friends, both of them musicians, over the course of a single weekend. The authorities banned Intimate Lighting for twenty years, and Graeme Hobbs and Mehelli Modi, writing for Vertigo, have figured that “what got up the backs of the Party members was also one of the reasons why the film remains so fresh today: it simply ignored them and found its subject elsewhere, in the daily life of people getting by, in their arguments, their rhapsodies, their dreams, and their music.”
When Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1968 to put an end to the Prague Spring, Passer and Forman began talking about leaving the country. On the night of January 9, 1969, they each loaded a single suitcase into Forman’s car and headed for the border to Austria. When they arrived at four in the morning, they were met by a single guard—who happened to be a major fan of Forman’s work. Knowing full well that they were defecting, he let the two filmmakers pass.
In the States, Forman wrote and directed Taking Off, starring the late Buck Henry, in 1971 before his career well and truly took off four years later with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Passer’s 1971 film was Born to Win, a black comedy about junkie criminals starring George Segal, Karen Black, Paula Prentiss, and a young Robert De Niro. It was “only Passer’s second movie,” wrote Roger Greenspun in the New York Times, “and it is a dreadful disappointment—but not without its reasons, and not, I think, without some honor.” Passer went on to direct a few more features as well as television movies and episodes, but his only work to be met with immediate critical acclaim was Stalin, a 1992 biopic made for HBO, starring Robert Duvall, and shot by Vilmos Zsigmond.
Cutter’s Way, which Jonathan Rosenbaum has called “Passer’s masterpiece,” spent decades recovering from a botched release. A reshuffling in the United Artists executive offices led to the film’s falling into the hands of suits who saw no commercial potential in it. Passer himself, talking to Ronald Bergan in Film Comment in 2016, called Cutter’s Way “a damaging account of a nation that has lost its final illusions in the Vietnam War and of a society eaten away by corruption.” Harsh pans greeted Cutter’s Way when it opened in New York, but then, even as UA was planning to pull it from theaters, raves followed from Time and Newsweek, and the film has spent the ensuing decades clawing its way out of undeserved obscurity.
Adapted from Newton Thornberg’s 1976 novel Cutter and Bone, the neonoir sees gigolo Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) tagging along with wounded vet Alex Cutter (John Heard), who dreams up a scheme to blackmail a wealthy oil magnate J. J. Cord (Stephen Elliott), whom they have reason to believe—or at least believe they have reason to believe—murdered a teenage girl. “The question of Cord’s guilt is ultimately incidental,” writes Jake Cole at Slant, “as the evidence for and against his culpability collapses against Cutter’s single-minded desire for revenge against anyone who made it out of the ’70s in better shape than when they went in.” Like Rosenbaum, the Guardian’s John Patterson considers Cutter’s Way to be a “masterpiece,” but warns that it’s also “a movie that starts yielding up its real treasures around the third viewing, so stick with it (you’ll hate the ending first time out). I’ve seen it perhaps thirty times—it may be my favorite American movie.”
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