Anne Benton (Jodie Foster) is a conceptual artist whose current work is in electronics, but she is losing interest, and leaves the gallery which exhibits her art early one night to drive home. However, as she powers along the highway, lost in thought, one of her tyres explodes and she is forced to stop by the side of the road. Unable to change the tyre, she sets out on foot, but quickly she decides not to continue by the highway when a car draws up packed with yelling young men, so she walks down an embankment and takes a different path. One which leads her to witness two men being murdered by Mafia hitmen...
Catchfire was also known as Backtrack, and originally the director Dennis Hopper - who also starred - delivered a three hour cut of his preferred vision for the movie, something the studio balked at, and recut it to a more manageable ninety minutes or so. Much to Hopper's disdain, so much so that he demanded his name be removed from the credits, leaving this one of those efforts blighted with the dreaded "Directed by Alan Smithee" tag, and though a "director's cut" was released on video, it still fell far short of the full length incarnation he originally envisaged for it. Hopper went to his grave never seeing the film released in its complete form.
But there were more problems than that with the work, as there were rumours Foster did not enjoy working with him, and tellingly Joe Pesci, who was playing one of the mobsters, had his name removed as well in spite of playing a substantial role. Not only that but the names credited as screenwriters were not the ones who actually wrote the script, as it had undergone a rewrite from husband and wife team Alex Cox and Tod Davies, who in some versions even showed up here in acting roles. Nevertheless, there were fans of Catchfire around, mostly because of its defiantly off-kilter atmosphere which may have stemmed from its missing scenes that could explain things.
It seems to be about how the act of watching someone for a long time can give you a perspective on them akin to not merely obsession, but love as well, and so it is with Hopper's character Milo, who is hired as a hitman to track Anne down when she goes on the run after her boyfriend (Charlie Sheen!) is accidentally killed by the gangsters. He is the one who follows her about, preoccupied with her to the extent that he thinks he's in love with her and doesn't want to kill her after all, truly believing that by examining her life and art to the degree he does that he is inside her mind and is the only one who understands her. There are hints this is intended as comedy since Milo is something of a buffoon, but in the main the effect was eccentric at best, alienating at worst.
Anyway, Milo finally announces himself to Anne by breaking into the retreat she is staying in and handcuffing her while he can explain. She goes from spitting insults at him and accusing him of rape to abruptly getting all lovey-dovey and behaving like a devoted girlfriend, suggesting a major scene or two were left on the cutting room floor, and not saying much for the movie's sexual politics. As you mull that over, you can spend the time star spotting and wondering if famous faces like Bob Dylan or Vincent Price got more to do in the full version - Julie Adams, for example, is credited prominently at the beginning yet her screen time amounts to saying hi to Anne then driving off within thirty seconds, never seen again. When that palls, you ponder how much of this was supposed to be serious: a film where Jodie Foster implores Dennis Hopper to rescue a lamb from a crevice certainly has a quality not seen elsewhere. Foster's fans get more of a kick out of Catchfire than anyone else, for obvious reasons, but Hopper is as wayward as he ever was, if sober by that point. Music by Curt Sobel.
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One of the biggest cult stars of all time, he began his career as an actor in the fifties, a proponent of "The Method" which was popular at the time, and a good friend of James Dean, who he appeared with in Giant and Rebel without a Cause. He gradually moved to larger roles - including Gunfight at the OK Corral, Night Tide, Queen of Blood, The Trip and Hang 'Em High - until the late sixties and his directorial debut Easy Rider. The film was a sensation, shaking up Hollywood and becoming an instant classic, but Hopper's increasing dependence on drugs meant he had trouble following up that success as his next work, The Last Movie, was a notorious flop.