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Backtrack

by Glenn Erickson Apr 22, 2023

Dennis Hopper’s self-indulgent romantic hit man thriller is more interested in modern art and cinematic detours to give its own storyline a fair shake. The supporting cast and celebrity walk-ons are fun; star Jodie Foster does the heavy lifting with a difficult character to play. Kino’s disc has both versions — the theatrical cut is shorter than Hopper’s director’s cut, and uses uses some alternate scenes. The candid audio commentary is by the actual unbilled authors of the shooting script, Tod Davies and Alex Cox.


Backtrack
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1990 / Color / 1:78 widescreen / 116 min. / Catchfire / Street Date April 25, 2023 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95 before discount
Starring: Dennis Hopper, Jodie Foster, Joe Pesci, Dean Stockwell, Vincent Price, John Turturro, Fred Ward, Julie Adams, Tony Sirico, Sy Richardson, Frank Gio, Helena Kallianiotes, John Apicella, Catherine Keener, Anthony Pena, Charlie Sheen, Toni Basil, Alex Cox, Bob Dylan.
Cinematography: Ed Lachman
Production Designer: Ron Foreman
Art Director: Pam Marcotte
Film Editor: David Rawlins
Visual Effects: Rocco Gioffre, Mark Sullivan
Original Music: Kurt Sobel
Screenplay credited to Rachel Kronstadt Mann, Ann Louise Bardach story by Mann
Uncredited screenwriters Alex Cox, Tod Davies
Produced by Dan Paulson, Dick Clark
Directed by
Dennis Hopper

We’re told that Dennis Hopper’s Backtrack began as ‘a story about a woman who falls in love with her rapist.’ That still happens in the final film, but the overall plot is a gangster chase involving hoods and a hit man who dresses like it’s still the 1940s. Well, at least where his hat is concerned. The classic ‘troubled production’ was taken from Hopper, cut by sixteen minutes and released with an anonymous Alan Smithee directing credit. That was apparently straightened out later, for both existing cuts bear Dennis Hopper’s name.

Backtrack experienced production problems that belong in a gangster movie — at one point its film negative was reportedly held for ransom. The show now exists in two separate versions, a theatrical cut and a Director’s Version about fifteen minutes longer. Each has scenes not included in the other.

In either version the finished show is a generic crime chase enlivened with Dennis Hopper’s personal input — a concentration on art, ethnographic concerns and a love for his wild-country home in New Mexico.

 

Concept artist Anne Benton (Jodie Foster) creates designs in the form of LED panels, and appears to be one of the ‘next big things.’ She witnesses a mob slaying by Leo Carelli (Joe Pesci), committed on the order of mob boss Mr. Avoca (Vincent Price). Anne escapes, but the killers ‘Greek’ and Pinella (Tony Sirico & John Turturro) find out where she lives. When they murder her boyfriend Bob (Charlie Sheen), and Carelli’s attorney John Luponi (Dean Stockwell) is able to tracer her right into police headquarters, Anne realizes that the government cop Pauling (Fred Ward) won’t be able to protect her. She changes her identity and hides in a new job in Seattle.

Mr. Avoca assigns the ‘specialist’ hit man Milo (Dennis Hopper) to the job. To earn his exhorbitant fee Milo tracks Anne down by investigating her background. Anne again gives both cops and killers the slip, and flees to Taos New Mexico, where she ‘house sits’ an art gallery for an old friend. By the time Milo catches up he’s become obsessed. He kidnaps her with the idea that they are the perfect couple. When Anne’s resistance breaks down she helps him evade his employers, who now want them both dead. Realizing that there’s no escape, Anne encourages Milo to do what he does best — kill the supposedly unkillable mob elite.

 

Backtrack is a decent-enough lightweight thriller in search of a special style. When it was made some of the biggest Hollywood hits were extravagant, large-scale action thrillers: Die Hard, True Lies, even the gruesome Bond film License to Kill. Dennis Hopper puts his major effort into his quirky hit man Milo, an eccentric who surrounds himself with weird art to ‘enter Anne Benton’s mindset.’ The idea of Dennis Hopper playing against Jodie Foster appeals, but the result is overcooked. Hopper’s performance is all over the place, unforgivably self-indulgent. He indulges a flaky hoodlum accent and various other performance tics.

Milo must consider himself a frustrated artist, because (in the long version) he tortures a saxophone at regular intervals. He takes his kidnapped prey to a motel, and then acts vulnerable and needy: ‘Sure, I’m threatening you with death, but I’m really sensitive, too.’

Ms. Foster actually gives her farfetched character some credibility. She must find a way to react as Milo hems and haws, talking Anne into sex in that motel room. It’s as if director Hopper hasn’t really thought about the scene before shooting. In the short version these scenes are cut in half. The film functions better when we accept the tired convention that any mismatched couple on the lam together will eventually fall in love. Dialogue tries to make light romantic banter from this situation:

Milo, the hit man:  “I gave up my career for you.”

The ‘girl falls in love with her rapist’ storyline is now 100% invalid. But how many older movies indulge the sexist fantasy that a ‘real’ man can force a woman to love him with a physical attack, like James Bond ‘taming’ the lesbian Pussy Galore in Goldfinger?  Yet we still believe in the limitless possibilities of screwy relationships, as shown by Pedro Almodóvar in his &Aacuteltame!

 

Hopper was coming off the reasonable success of Colors, filmed for Orion, but Backtrack feels like a commercial effort, where the director-star wasn’t fully engaged. Jonathan Demme’s Married to the Mob had just had great fun with the same gangster conventions that Backtrack struggles to master. A few months later would come the debut of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, which raised organized crime films to a new level.

By not engaging with the material, Backtrack relies on stock characters navigating standard plot twists. Anne escapes from Luponi in police headquarters by changing into a wig, coat and dark glasses taken from a woman in a public bathroom. Milo first finds her by seeing one of her LED mottoes used as an advertising line for lipstick. That’s just weird enough to work, but it’s not explained how the on-the-lam, anonymous Anne secured her high-end ad writing job.

The film’s notion of a hit man is to laugh at as well — Milo’s success rates him upgrades in the mob, like a $20 million Marina Del Rey apartment and a fabulous rustic cabin perched on the edge of terrain so beautiful, it should be a national monument. The film’s weakest set-piece plays out on a miniature golf playground, with Fred Ward’s elite cops unable to capture either Anne or her hit-man pursuer: “Aw come on guys, we’re supposed to be professionals!”

 

Was this a freaky experimental concept, directed too straight?

The screenwriters may have been trying to stretch Backtrack into comic book exaggeration, as John Frankenheimer attempted years before in Robert Dillon’s awkward farce 99 & 44/100% Dead . That’s the only way to explain one of Anne & Milo’s absurd escapes: although he returns only occasionally to his mountain retreat, Milo’s ready-to-fly helicopter is parked not far away. Oh, did we forget to tell you that Milo is a terrific pilot?  Why the mob wouldn’t stake out the property they bought for Milo or remember that they are paying for the upkeep on a helicopter, we can’t say. By 1990, helicopter chases were a bore. We were surprised when Martin Brest managed an excellent one in his Midnight Run.

Dennis Hopper of course gave a number of fine performances in classic films. In Backtrack he dashes off the uninteresting Milo characterization while making life difficult for Jodie Foster — who must make Anne Benton seem credible and fit her into her director-costar’s notion of a Hot Movie Babe. Anne Benton likes to relax in sheer nightgowns; when Milo peeps at her in the shower, the long version is unnecessarily voyeuristic. The way the lovemaking scenes play, Foster at least drew the line at any in-bed action.

The on-the-run bonding business is . . . not strong. A few verbal spats lead to Anne supporting Milo in a shootout, and suddenly they’re a Bonnie & Clyde pair. To seal the deal, Milo rescues a (literal) lost lamb for Anne, which she then cuddles in her arms. Aw, a cute lambykins and kisses, who could resist?  These scenes now play like a weird dream flashback for Silence of the Lambs.

 

Hopper may not have treated Foster well, but he seems to have used Backtrack to generate work for his loyal friends. At one point commentator Alex Cox calls the movie ‘Payback.’  Every other scene introduces a walk-through bit covered by a name actor that likely appreciated a good job — on location, even. Qualifying in this category might be Helen Kallianiotes, Catherine Keener, Charlie Sheen, and uncredited, Bob Dylan.

We guess that Julie Adams can’t feel she was abused on the Peruvian location for Hopper’s The Last Movie, as she’s back here happily doing her bit in Taos. Joe Pesci’s large role is front and center, so we don’t know why he’d choose to be un-billed. Dean Stockwell gets third billing and acquits himself well enough, but in general Hopper just rushes through all of the scenes with the mobsters and the cops. Stockwell and especially Fred Ward just leap in at intervals to deliver one-line exposition blurbs. John Turturro gets to display a quirky personality, but it’s nothing like his tour de force in the same year’s Miller’s Crossing.

 

The slackness is most apparent with Vincent Price’s main mob guy Mr. Avoca. In the same year’s Edward Scissorhands his vocal delivery was so shaky that it was decided not to have him talk at all. Here Vincent recites several lines, but he mostly seems detached and unfocused, even when he’s sitting next to Hopper in a limousine. Seeing Price looking so ‘out of it’ is distracting and does the show no favors. Is he here because, as a fellow art collector, he was also close friends with Dennis Hopper?  The last time we saw Price give a full supporting performance uncompromised by physical limitations may have been three years earlier, in Lindsay Anderson’s The Whales of August.

The crime story barely hangs together, yet Hopper fills the show with references to his personal interests. His house in Venice was partly an art gallery. Anne Benton’s LED artworks are based on those of a real artist, while guest star Bob Dylan pretends to be a Taos artist who works in wood with a chainsaw.

 

Too many settings look as if Hopper is trying to lend the film a slightly artsy abstract look, the kind achieved by Wim Wenders and Robby Müller in The American Friend. Anne’s apartment and the converted theater in Taos are packed with odd art installations. A hideaway under a staircase contains stacks of film cans, revealing more of Hopper’s autobiographical intent for the show. One art allusion that works is when Anne compares her view of an adobe church to one in a Georgia O’Keefe art book — cameraman Ed Lachman’s sky is a good match.

Once in Taos, Hopper can’t resist staging an elaborate street festival with Native American dances, and even a glimpse of a Penitente parade for added artistic effect and thematic context. Screenwriter Alex Cox does a guest bit as the spirit of D.H. Lawrence, reminding us of the auteurist meanderings of Hopper’s The Last Movie.

As light entertainment Backtrack is harmless and at times even fun, if only to see what Dennis Hopper will do next. His scattered personality doesn’t seem to have lent itself to the organization needed to keep a thriller of this kind in motion. In his next picture The Hot Spot Hopper stuck with a simple storyline and concentrated on atmosphere and mood. That movie has serious issues as well, but Hopper is far more engaged, and in control.

 


 

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of  Backtrack is a great way to see this odd show, which we’re told was denied a U.S. theatrical release. We’re grateful that Dennis Hopper’s longer cut was retained by the rights holders. It first appeared on VHS in 1992; we think it’s now taken as the Official version. The entirely different theatrical version is here as well, which both deletes and adds material, has different title and credit sequences and even different music cues. Both are in very good shape, in stereo sound.

The commentary by Alex Cox and Tod Davies carries a great number of surprises. As Tod and Alex say it, they were brought on to rewrite the whole picture, without credit. Ms. Davies also re-wrote Hopper’s The Hot Spot without credit. The corroborate other rumors — some of the film was ‘held for ransom’ by an irate producer. Hopper’s way of making the film personal was to shoot in all of his personal properties, in Venice California and Taos, New Mexico. Cox reminds us that everything — furniture, props, etc., could thusly be charged to the production.

They say that Hopper’s first cut was 2.5 hours. In addition to the two finished versions on this disc, both titled Backtrack, they say there was a longer cut with the working title Catchfire. Many more friendly / candid statements slip through. The impression is given that Dennis Hopper felt the need to hit on every female he found attractive — Ms. Davies infers this from personal experience.

At this time our old friends Rocco Gioffre and Mark Sullivan had established their own effects shop. Alex Cox holds up his ‘great guy’ reputatio 100% — he calls Rocco out by name for the terrific miniature shot of the helicopter exploding. Rocco and Mark are both excellent matte painters, which is why the painted rock outcropping miniature perfectly matches the live-action New Mexico mountain in the surrounding shots.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Backtrack
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good – minus
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Audio commentary by Tod Davies and Alex Cox.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
April 20, 2023
(6922back)
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About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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