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Big Lebowski fans, sit up and take notice: The Dryden is screening a little-known template for that film this Thursday, one week before they put the Dude up there himself. While Cutter's Way (1981) stands on its own just fine, thank you, it's similarly impossible not to view the earlier film through the lens of the latter.

            For starters, Cutter stars Jeff Bridges as a nonchalant layabout who drives a heap of junk and gets sucked unwillingly into a blackmail scheme by his friend, a rancorous, blustery Vietnam vet who loves to hear himself talk.

            While that may sound strikingly familiar, don't expect too many traces of the Dude himself (who the Coen brothers based on a friend, in any case). It's not called Cutter's Way for nothing, as it's John Heard as Cutter who commands the film.

            Normally genial and reserved, Heard explodes here with an extravagance that doesn't overplay its hand for the simple reason that Cutter is off his nut. Where John Goodman's character in Lebowski spews the babble of an insecure lunk, Cutter is a whirling, thinking fury whose words only betray a fraction of what's holed up inside of him. Come to think of it, the only difference in those two things may be that Cutter is not a comic character.

            For a while, the film easily escapes comparison with its progeny thanks to a delicately wrought tone. It is basically a character study of the three principles (Cutter, Bridges as Richard, and Cutter's wife, who completes a love triangle).

            The superb score by esteemed composer and producer Jack Nitzsche shifts from sweet poignancy to growing pools of disquiet and paranoia, and does so with only minor alterations, monitoring likewise changes in the film. The paranoia comes courtesy of the satisfyingly ramshackle suspense plot, which traffics in the hopeless realization of conspiracy The Parallax View and Chinatown parlayed more famously.

            There are a few other striking echoes to be found in the incidentals aside from the plot outline. And as the film's eccentricities accumulate toward the end, it starts to seem like the Coens used the film as a creative font as well. A scene set at a polo match has all the hallmarks of a brilliant Coen brothers comic piece --- except it's played straight. They could have taken all the lines and action direct from the script, and turned it into a classic Coen scene, getting totally different results from a few minor adjustments in tone. (Much as Airplane! retools a '50s B-movie called Zero Hour!)

            It becomes impossible not to see the Coens' loopiness hidden in this and other scenes when you're thinking of it. For this reason Cutter is fascinating viewing, beyond the merits of its own excellence.

            (For a similarly startling experiment in the origins of a director's style, newly minted Guy Maddin fans fresh off The Saddest Music in the World should check out Fritz Lang's Secret Beyond the Door. The Monroe County library has a VHS copy).

            Cutter's Way screens Thursday, July 15, at the George Eastman House's Dryden Theatre.

--- Andy Davis

I am a hardcore romantic. Not the flowers-and-candles kind. I'm talking about the go-for-broke, no-regrets kind. You know, the foolish kind. The good kind. And if you're like me, you will fall hard for Before Sunset. If not, you and your black heart should go fork your seven bucks over to Mary-Kate and Ashley.

            Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), you may remember, met on a train and wandered through the streets of Vienna the night of June 16, 1994 in Richard Linklater's Gen-X talkathon Before Sunrise. By the close of the film, they were thoroughly smitten with each other, but he was en route to the United States and she was headed home to Paris. Too hip/stupid to exchange contact information, they vowed to meet in Vienna exactly six months after their parting.

            Before Sunset takes place in 2003. Jesse is appearing at a Parisian bookstore in support of a bestseller he wrote about that one night when he spies Celine in the wings. What follows unfolds in real-time as they stroll through the City of Light and reminisce, vent, and confess. Celine and Jesse no longer enjoy that 20-something idealism. Firmly ensconced in their 30s, they're complacent, almost resigned, and slightly jaded.

            She's thinner, and he looks like he's been dead for a couple of years. But as they talk, the chemistry and memories that resurface restore some of that youthful hope, sometimes painfully. To go into detail about their conversation would ruin the film, as that is the film. Suffice it to say their one evening together left an indelible impression. This is not surprising if you've ever had a seemingly unfinished relationship --- one that you romanticized because it never had the chance to go bad.

            Linklater and his two stars get screenwriting credit here, which accounts for the effortlessness of the dialogue. I've never been terribly impressed by either Hawke or Delpy, but these characters seem to bring out the best in them. Paris is gorgeous bathed in the late-afternoon sun, and as I write this, airfare is $303 roundtrip from New York City. Just in case you were wondering.

            The denouement of Before Sunset is subtle, scary as hell, and so romantic, as we (and Jesse and Celine), dread/anticipate what might happen. And the final shot? C'est parfait.

            Before Sunset opens at the Little Theatre on Friday, July 16.

--- Dayna Papaleo

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