The (Possibly) Greatest Performance by an Actor Is from a Movie You've (Probably) Never Seen

'Cutter's Way'Credit: United Artists
John Heard is one of the greatest character actors ever. And his performance in Cutter's Way might be the best in film history. 

In 1981, a neo-noir came out called Cutter's Way. It was the story of a womanizer, played by Jeff Bridges, who thinks he sees a rich businessman dump a woman's body in an alleyway. As the only witness to the crime, the police brush away his testimony. The only person who believes him is his alcoholic and Vietnam PTSD-ridden friend, played by John Heard. 

What evolves from this story is a gripping and sometimes hilarious look at two average Joes investigating a crime, as well as a tragic downfalls of a man so gripped by the horrors of Vietnam that his best friend cannot tell whether or not he's having a damaging flashback or really onto something in the investigation. 

At the center of this is Heard's performance, truly one of the greatest if not the greatest ever captured on film. Heard plays a man who lost an arm, eye, and portion of his leg in the service. He curses, drinks, drives, and someone manages to steal the movie away from a nuanced Bridges and a touching and brutal Lisa Eichhorn. 

I saw this movie for the first time thanks to Criterion's Neo-Noir month, and I can't shake it. Heard disappears into the role and demands the audience's attention at every beat. He's self-destructive, vindictive, embarrassing, and yet we cannot shake that America did this to him by sending him over there. It's truly one of the most magnificent performances, and it will change the way you think about writing or directing characters. 

Take a look at this scene from the middle of the movie where Heard's character Cutter comes home drunk. It goes from insanely comedic to sad back to funny, and ends somewhere between tragic and slapstick. It's all about escalating tensions and outrageous behavior. 

This is also a masterclass in writing a character, always toeing the line of what you can say or do. This is a movie about a man unraveling just as his country did. It's an excellent metaphor about how the poor bear every burden while the rich throw parties. 

But it's also a criminally underseen masterpiece that should be talked about much more. We often praise those who go method in modern cinema, but this film contains something akin to human dynamite. Heard was not nominated for an Academy Award—or any award for that matter. It's hard to say but if a movie like that came out now it feels like everyone would be talking about what they saw on the screen. 

I'm still shaken and still laughing. If you have not seen it, check it out. 

Let me know what you think is the greatest acting performance of all time in the comments.      

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First off, Jason, I'll take Kurt Russell's Snake Plissken burnt out vet performance in "Escape From NY" (complete with identical eye-patch, limp, etc, as Cutter's character and the film came out the same year) over Heard's performance any day -- half joking. But seriously, have you seen Brando in "A Streetcar Named Desire", not to mention "On The Waterfront", or De Niro in "Ragging Bull", Pacino in "Dog Day Afternoon", even Heath in "The Dark Knight", and we haven't even talked about the amazing women film performances that are unequalled. I agree, "Cutter's Way" is an under appreciated film, but I think you may be confusing your love of the character over the actor's performance -- in my not-anywhere-near-humble opinion.

July 14, 2021 at 9:13AM, Edited July 14, 9:15AM


Dean nails many of the greats. What Pacino does in Dog Day is incredibly hard…

July 15, 2021 at 11:40AM


I agree. This is one of the greatest films ever made--certainly one of my favorites--and one that has flown under the radar for far too long. Another great film with an equally great performance is Night Moves, with Gene Hackman, made a few years before Cutter's Way. These two titles are some of the best--if not the best--film noirs made in the modern era.

July 14, 2021 at 10:18AM


How about a double feature for all those that haven't seen them (like myself)? Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is showing both "Night Moves" and "Cutter's Way" on Friday 7/23 starting at 7:00 pm Pacific. The night even starts off with "Blood Simple" at 5:00 pm.

July 19, 2021 at 2:59PM

Thomas Prill
Producer / Writer

I think we'd all take this site more seriously if you'd stop writing absurd blog posts that sound like they were written by 9th graders who just discovered the Criterion Collection. There is no "greatest acting performance of all time," just as there is no "greatest movie of the 2000s." A better headline would be something like, "Check out this little known movie and performance by John Heard." C'mon, try to do better.

July 18, 2021 at 9:26AM