Sometimes the casting in a film is so peculiar and unique that you feel compelled to take a chance on it no matter how many negative things you’ve heard about it. Wouldn’t you want to see a movie that featured Jodie Foster, Vincent Price, Joe Pesci, Charlie Sheen, Dean Stockwell, Bob Dylan and numerous other well-known stars? Such is the case with 1990’s Catchfire, one of Dennis Hopper’s least known movies but there’s a reason for that.
Hopper virtually disowned the film after the production company Vestron Pictures reedited it against his wishes. We’ll never know what his original three hour cut was like but the 98 minute version Vestron released theatrically was savaged by the critics. The 116 minute version released later on DVD and retitled Backtrack didn’t fare much better. The story of a hit man (Dennis Hopper) who falls in love with his intended victim (Jodie Foster), a Los Angeles conceptual artist who witnessed some murders by the mob, is part road movie, part chase thriller, and part oddball romance with a kinky edge. It might even be a satire about the parallels and posturings that occur between the art world and the criminal underground but none of it works on any level. What is fascinating and often entertaining about Backtrack (the version I saw) is the casting. Even if many of the familiar faces on display end up as little more than cameo appearances, there’s a certain pleasure in spotting them in such a bizarre mishmash, especially those at such an early stage in their career like Catherine Keener as a truck driver’s companion.
Where to start? John Turturro plays a none-too-bright hit man named Pinella who functions mostly as comic relief. His homicidal cohort is none other than Tony Sirico, who is best known as Paulie Gualtieri on the HBO hit series The Sopranos. Both of these thugs are in league with the hot-tempered, aggressive Joe Pesci (he made Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas the same year) and all three report to Dean Stockwell, a Mafia kingpin with a public identity as a lawyer who enjoys inside LAPD connections. Stockwell, in turn, reports to the crime syndicate chieftain Vincent Price.
On the side of the law we have Fred Ward as a blundering, barely competent police detective with Sy Richardson (a regular in the films of Alex Cox – Repo Man, Sid and Nancy, Straight to Hell, Walker) as his equally ineffectual, donut-munching partner. Helene Kallianiotes, the ranting lesbian hitchhiker from Five Easy Pieces, shows up briefly as Pesci’s put-upon mistress and then, of course, there’s Dennis Hopper in the starring role of Milo, the kind of hit man who plays the saxophone (he wants to be Charlie Parker) and has his apartment walls covered with the art of Hieronymus Bosch.
Among the other notable cast members are Charlie Sheen as Jodie Foster’s unlucky boyfriend and Julie Adams (the terrified object of The Creature From the Black Lagoon and Hopper’s co-star in his 1971 experimental epic, The Last Movie) pops up briefly for no rhyme or reason in the Taos, New Mexico portion of Backtrack. I was almost convinced I saw Jamie Foxx as a desk clerk in the police department sequence but IMDB lists his screen debut as Toys, which was released the following year, 1992.
Besides the aforementioned Ms. Keener, there are also brief glimpses of choreographer Toni Basil (Hopper’s co-star in Easy Rider and the mastermind behind the 1982 MTV music video hit, “Mickey”), director Alex Cox (who allegedly contributed to the screenplay of Backtrack) and Bob Dylan as a chainsaw-wielding artist reputedly modeled on Venice based California legend, Laddie John Dill. Dylan has zero screen presence as an actor but as himself, he exudes an effortless charisma and mystique. Check him out in D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 Don’t Look Back or Murray Lerner’s Festival (both 1967) and then compare that to his awkward, uncomfortable performances in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), Hearts of Fire (1987) or Masked and Anonymous (2003).
Last but not least we have Ms. Foster, who is the true star of Backtrack and has more screen time than anyone else as a Jenny Holzer-like media darling whose LED message board art is the rage of the L.A. gallery scene. It is also one of the few roles of her adult career in which she becomes a highly erotized sex object, viewed through the male gaze of the film’s director. Sporting an ever changing wardrobe that accents her nubile form with special attention paid to her lovely legs, Foster displays a surprising amount of skin including a sensual but subtle nude shower scene. The real topper though is a naughty tete-a-tete between Foster and Hopper as the former slowly strips down to her black lingerie while taunting her kidnapper with comments like “Why don’t I tie you up? That would be exciting.” None of this is the sort of thing you’d expect from an A-list actress like Foster who made Backtrack between The Accused (1988) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991), both of which won her Best Actress Oscars. While it is true that Foster has taken a lot of risks in her career (mostly the pre-1988 years) with such offbeat indie offering as Carny (1980), The Hotel New Hampshire (1984) and Fiesta (1987), Backtrack definitely stands out from the crowd as a true oddity.
Unfortunately, there is little sexual chemistry between Hopper and Foster but it would take a brilliant script and an actor other than Hopper to generate the sort of attraction/repulsion needed for this master-slave relationship. The idea of a kidnapped woman falling in love and lust with her abductor/would-be murderer is some sort of romanticized rape fantasy and it’s been done before in Robert Aldrich’s lurid The Grissom Gang, which was a remake of the equally lurid 1948 noir, No Orchids for Miss Blandish. Probably the biggest problem with Backtrack is the inexplicable and baffling transition between Foster being enraged and miserable to frolicking with abandon in Hopper’s bed. Once they set up housekeeping in a rustic cabin in the mountains of New Mexico with a herd of goats, you start to wonder if you’re watching the same movie. I’m sure Vestron is responsible for the shoddy continuity but it’s impossible to tell if Hopper’s original three hour version could have made this central relationship work.
But if Foster and Hopper make unconvincing lovers, they have a loose, spontaneous rapport together on screen which was NOT reflective of their off screen relationship. During the filming of the infamous shower scene, Foster yelled “Cut” when she became dissatisfied with Hopper’s direction. Although she was reprimanded by her director and didn’t do it again, Foster obviously was unhappy with the whole experience. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Hopper later revealed, “I have a problem with Jodie, and it was not a problem when I was working with her and directing her in the movie. She did something that wasn’t very pleasant to me. I had a picture I wanted to use Meryl Streep in, and I wanted to direct her in a movie, and Jodie went out of her way to call her and tell her she shouldn’t work with me, and I can’t really come to grips with that one. I called her a number of times. She’s refused to call me back. It blew what I thought at the time was a go project a few years ago. ‘Cause Meryl suddenly said no. She [Foster] thought I had this AA mentality where I was really just doing this sober drunk or something, and I just couldn’t possibly understand women. But she didn’t say that, confront me with that on the set, so I didn’t know where that was coming from, ’cause I thought I treated her rather well.” (Source: Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel by Peter L. Winkler).
Next to The Last Movie, Backtrack is probably Hopper’s most compromised and rarely screened feature. And though it is a total mess, there are memorably moments along the way such as a nighttime festival in Taos, New Mexico where a giant effigy is burned (homage to The Wicker Man?), a scene where Foster’s craving for pink Hostess coconut snowballs is appeased by Hopper and the nutty climax where our runaway couple don silver metallic suits and stage an explosive showdown with the mob in an L.A. refinery, shades of White Heat. While the idea of a hit man becoming personally involved with his victim is an intriguing if overly familiar plot device (see Murder by Contract, both versions of The Killers or Hard Contract for reference), Hopper at least gives Backtrack a pop culture shine that separates it from most contemporary film noirs. The color cinematography by Edward Lachman (The Limey, The Virgin Suicides, Far from Heaven) is often stunning and the roadside Americana depicted in New Mexico (the El Cortez Theater, Andy’s La Fiesta Restaurant, the Rio Grande river) and California (the art gallery scene, a goony golf course, a reference to In-N-Out Burger) is fun for armchair tourists. As stated earlier, the quirky casting is a big drawing card here, even if the wildly divergent acting styles result in something closer to a parody than a crime drama/chase thriller. Certainly any Dennis Hopper completist needs to see Backtrack and anyone else curious about this much maligned movie may actually enjoy the ride.
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