Oh Boy, Alan Smithee directed a dream ensemble cast…
An artist witnesses a double murder by mobsters. Their boss then dispatches his best hitman to find and kill her.
Backtrack (1990) trailer, The Actionmaster and photos © Vestron Pictures
Since 1968, Alan Smithee has been a pseudonym used by directors who are not happy with their finished movie and in using this name they effectively disown it. Smithee’s name has been used by prolific – and not so famous – director names including David Lynch for Dune (1984) and Michael Mann for Heat (1995). There this pseudonym was used for the TV edited versions of both these movies.
A year after this, often actor and sometimes director Dennis Hopper earned acclaim at Cannes for his first stab at directing movies. This was in 1969 for Easy Rider (1969) a film he also starred in where he won a Cannes Film Festival Award for Best First Work. Just over 20 years later, Dennis Hopper made his film project Catchfire (1990).
Catchfire was another film in which he proudly took this dual role. This film’s final running time was three hours, so the completed film was edited to an hour and a half by the film company. This act was reportedly without Hopper’s permission. However, Vestron Pictures kept Hopper’s name attached to this now shorter and edited film released in 1990. This film is the (Alan Smithee) version of the film I am reviewing today.
Both these reasons led to Hopper suing the then bankrupt film company. He was given the right to rename the film’s director as Alan Smithee for this film. This was after Hopper proved he had no creative control over his finished project. However just to confuse things, this edited film was released in theatres as Backtrack in America and Catchfire in the UK and the rest of Europe. Dennis Hopper released a Director’s Cut of this movie also naming it Backtrack two years later.
Backtrack tells of Anne (Jodie Foster), an artist who makes art writing challenging statements and displaying them on LED screens. After discussing the publicity for her upcoming exhibition, she gets a flat tyre on her journey home. She walks home and on her journey she witnesses a double murder by some mobsters, headed by Carelli (Joe Pesci) and his men. They spot her observing them and shoot, as she makes a run for it but.. luckily she gets a lift home.
Then after visiting the Justice Department, she goes home with her supportive boyfriend Bob (Charlie Sheen). But at night, two of the mobsters, Greek (Tony Sirico) and Pinella (John Turturro) break into their house. They head for her bedroom upstairs believing she’s there. However, Anne is downstairs and she hides as she hears them enter her home. Bob is shot dead as he sleeps upstairs (and it’s Goodbye Charlie Sheen).
Anne visits the police headed by Pauling (Fred Ward). After she tells them Carelli is involved, the police try to offer her a place on the witness protection programme. They hope to incarcerate Carelli if she will testify against them. She’s not happy as she spots one of the mob members John Luponi (Dean Stockwell) at the police station.
Luponi follows her as she bolts for it, but she heads for the ladies toilets (and safety). With luck, when she’s in there, she manages to buy a wig and a coat from another woman (who for plot convenience) happens to have both. In this disguise, Anne walks out unnoticed by Luponi and the Pinella waiting outside.
Carelli is not happy she’s not dead yet, and he SHOUTS a lot (as he’s played by an uncredited (his decision) Joe Pesci. The Mafia head honcho Avoca (Vincent Price) sends his best hitman, Milo (Dennis Hopper) to kill her. Meanwhile, Anne has moved onto a new city after clearing out her bank account and taking on a new identity.
Milo is now on the case, he goes to her exhibition first and then later he ransacks Anne’s empty home. He finds some pictures of a scantily clad Anne and her lingerie, both of which he keeps. Then he goes home and plays his saxophone (as it’s a 1980s movie) A few months later, Milo is still trying to find her but to no avail.
Meanwhile, Anne has taken a job in advertising. She (stupidly) uses one of her artistic statements to advertise lipstick. This advert is seen in an arty magazine and recognised by Milo. He hunts her down finding her workplace, waits for her to leave and then follows her.
Pauling and the police also following him and hope to get to her to testify. Anne then on spotting all these men, legs it and hides in a wee wooden church in a crazy golf course. In there, she’s grabbed from behind and it’s Milo (wtf?). Anne fights him off and runs off again (!) evading him and the police (why??).
Meanwhile, Milo’s mow a tad obsessed with his wannabe hit, with him still in possession of her lingerie and photos. He’s taking out his frustrations by playing his saxophone (a bit off-key). So in anger, he throws the musical instrument at an (unbreakable) window.
Anne meanwhile is now happy and has moved to New Mexico. She narrates a tape to a friend telling of her whereabouts (and explaining she doesn’t write letters but has the odd (convenient for the plot) quirk of narrating letters instead). She asks a trucker’s girlfriend (Catherine Keener) to send the parcel – containing the tape – via Canada. However, the trucker, noting the parcel has American stamps – mansplains this is impossible with American stamps – and posts it from the nearest letterbox.
This tape then falls into Milo’s hands and on looking at the envelope, he tracks down Anne in New Mexico. On meeting her – after watching her undress and take a shower – Milo gives her a choice, he can shoot her or she is now his property and he can do what he wants with her.
Needless to say, Anne agrees to the latter choice but makes no secret about just how much she hates Milo. Then in time, he tells her he loves her.. in time, she grows to love him too (why?). Meanwhile, both the mobsters and police are after this pair of star crossed lovers…and his sax (which he can play a lot better).
On reading more I discovered there are a few different versions of this movie. There are a 1990 version, Hopper’s Director’s Cut and the unseen original three-hour epic. Other versions of this film that were released after this reviewed film are reported to have extended scenes or scenes are also shown in a different order.
The Director’s Cut is noted to have white and different typography to this version, and the director credits accredited to Hopper. The many differences between the 1990 film version and Hopper’s Directors Cut are discussed at length HERE at the Movie Censorship Site.
I felt personally that if you overlook some of the more apparent disjointed plot holes in this film, that it did appear to be a fun action movie. It’s easy to ignore these plot holes, due to the great casting and scenic cinematography in later scenes. There are some great moments of suspense, particularly in the early scenes where Anne evades the mobsters.
I also liked the later scenes where Milo tracks her down in New Mexico. These scenes showing the action between the protagonists and this intercut with the town inhabitants in a celebration, unaware of the happenings. However in the film I reviewed I felt there was also much unsaid and not shown in the 1990 film, as regards to character development for many of the characters.
Many cast members had really wee insubstantial roles with more scenes in the Director’s Cut as reported HERE at the Movie Censorship Site. However, I felt that both the Charlie Sheen and Vincent Price characters were particularly underused in both these film versions. I wondered if these actors had more character development and scenes in the original three-hour film.
It would have been useful to also flesh out the roles of other characters, particularly those who played the mobsters and their relationship with Avaco (Price). Bob Dylan also has a wee cameo, and it’s unclear if he like the others had more scenes in the uncut film.
Returning to this reviewed movie, with a more rounded look at Anne and Milo. Anne was seen quite favourably. However, as an artist who designed those outlandish statements on LED screens, I thought originally that this was a bit daft (not being the arty type) later I believed this was a clever idea to aid the later plot.
On reading more this art was in reality the work of an actual artist, Jenny Holzer. Holzer – whose work was used in the film – was also credited for her work in the film credits. Praise must go to the writers for using this art theme as a more original way for the hitman to track down his prey. However, I disliked how – possibly due to the bad editing – Anne hated then fell into bed with her captor by the next scene, especially after she accused him of raping her.
Milo however was an odd character as he kept her lingerie and those sexy pictures. After he hears the tape of Anne talking to her friend on her tape (as she doesn’t write letters) about an odd dream and fantasy involving a scarf, he recreates this moment for her on meeting her. This was kinda creepy. Anne also mentions in a later scene about him raping her (not seen in this film version) and he asks her to dress up in her lingerie which she does (for no apparent reason) albeit over her clothes (at first).
Unless I’m totally wrong, I believed could be some not so subtle symbolism related to that saxophone. This plot device is played out more convincingly in the Director’s Cut. In this version Milo plays his sax badly at first, then getting frustrated and not playing it well at all and then happily playing it well. With him falling obsessively in love with his victim in those pictures, one can only conclude what the sax really is signifying. Or perhaps it means something much more innocent.. with him only frustrated about love or not tracking down his hit.
It was a surprise that this film wasn’t released in full at the time. After all, director / actor Kevin Costner got the green light for Dances with Wolves (1990) and Costner’s epic movie was 3 hours and 1 minute (with an ice cream break halfway through, I remember it well). So it’s a surprise that this film’s length reduced so much. Especially with a prolific cast including so many then past Academy Award nominees and with Vincent Price and Charlie Sheen.
It would be interesting to see Hopper’s original unedited film. One would hope to see his vision as a director more fully. I would also hope to gain a full understanding of the plot, the correct scene order and characters. I for one would love to understand more about this Hopper film, particularly that subtext for those saxophone scenes. As the renowned jazz saxophonist Steve Lacy said of this musical instrument, “The potential for the saxophone is unlimited”.
Weeper Rating: 😦 /10
Handsqueeze Rating: 🙂 🙂 🙂 /10
The Alan Smithee Blogathon 2019 No 84
This film was entered into Movie Movie Blog Blog II‘s Alan Smithee Blogathon Other reviews with this cast include Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider and EdTV. Julie Adams appeared in Dead Weight. Jodie Foster appears in Frasier and Circle of Fear. Joe Pesci stars in Home Alone. Dean Stockwell appeared in Murder She Wrote, Hart to Hart, Columbo, Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Vincent Price in The Love Boat, Columbo, Batman, The Bionic Woman and The Man from UNCLE. Charlie Sheen in Wall Street and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.