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An artist (Foster) witnesses a Mafia hit and calls the police. At the police station she realizes that the Mafia has a man in the force, so she runs. Trailed by the police, who need her testimony, and a hitman (Hopper) hired by the Mafia, she goes to Mexico, where eventually she meets the hitman, who has become infatuated after studying her art and life to prepare for the hit. Written by
Ed Sutton <email@example.com>
it's no Magnificent Ambersons, but it's some fun time with a few great moments
Backtrack, aka Catchfire, is one of those classic "Alan Smithee" cases, but unlike say David Lynch's Dune it's hard to feel too sorry for the filmmaker in the case of producers fiddling with the "original" vision. Dennis Hopper's original cut of the film was three hours, which is more akin to a move out of Erich von Stroheim; maybe it is genius in its full form, but perhaps Hopper would have been better just taking what is a half-bitter, half-sweet neo-noir with pitch black comedy and crazy romance as a shorter feature. Is the question more that a 3 hour cut may *still* be a mess rather than it's a lost masterpiece? (Originally Easy Rider had a fate like this with Hopper's original cut something like 4 hours, then trimmed to 95 minutes it was great). A Magnificent Ambersons butchering it also is definitely not. No tears are shed over Backtrack/Catchfire's status.
Matter of fact there is a 2 hour director's cut, which somewhat sadly is hard to track down. So, taking into account this 98 minute "studio" cut (studio in a loose term since Vestron is no longer even around), it's bound to have flaws. To give Hopper his credit a lot of this is due to a choppy rhythm; sometimes there's a spectacular cut (i.e. when he jumps from a rooftop it cuts right away to him opening a drawer in a room), and sometimes it really does feel like a little extra detail or moment is excised in favor of keeping the plot going.
It's not a bad plot either, if somewhat typical in the film noir tradition: a woman has one of those freak chance of occurrences on a road as her tires go flat on a highway, and walking along the side of the road she sees in a wasteland a mob hit. The mobsters see her, she escapes in time, goes to the cops, and then when the mob comes by and kills her boyfriend she goes on the run - not taking into account a strange, soulful hit-man is on her trail, more as a stalker than a killer, leading to a very challenging moment halfway where the gears shift in tone.
The first half is fairly fun as a chase movie and has some surprises, mostly in cameos that had me smile (Vincent Price) and shaking my head and laughing like I was having a hallucination (Bob Dylan), with Hopper creating what looks to be another in a line of classic psychos (he has the skill of a puzzle-solver following Foster's trail, and sometimes plays the saxophone to relax). The mood also reflects wonderfully a sense of the noir with Foster changing her look (blonde wig and black jacket) with the conventional jazz music put behind her. When he finally tracks her down, however, there's a possibly great scene: Hopper, with a tie around her neck and handcuffs on her hands, gives Foster a choice, either die right now or be "mine" so that she would be under his total control. There's such tense acting here by the leads that it promises that this will lead to an electrifying second half.
This is not the case. Instead we get a fairly quickly unfolding of a romance, oddly enough, as Hopper's quasi-captive finally falls for her sort of sensitive and awkward hit-man, and there's even a weirdly "cute" scene where Hopper fulfills a secret that she has which is to have lots of pink Hostess cakes! There's a sort of absurdity here that maybe echoes Bunuel; it's kind of sadistically dangerous, and at the same time starts to make less sense even as it ratchets up some memorable, baroque images (the burning figure at night right before Hopper goes into Foster's room to take her sort of hostage). The acting isn't bad either, but again the sense of rhythm is off, and it's hard to look past that as the film is what it is and has to be seen like that.
As a curiosity it's surely a must-see - it's got a who's who of stars and character actors, from Charlie Sheen to Price to Joe Pesci to Catherine Keener to Jon Tuturro to Paulie from the Sopranos - though it's hard to exactly call it a very "good" movie. Too much of it ticks and tocks with a near originality to ignore it, but it's too flawed to see as some work of tortured genius either.
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