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March 27, 2006

Cat Chaser


Abel Ferrara - 1989
Artisan Home Entertainment Region 1 DVD

I suspect that even if a "director's cut" of Cat Chaser were to be made available, I would still conclude that the dominant force behind this film was still Elmore Leonard. Along with The Moonshine War, Cat Chaser is one of only two films based on a Leonard novel that also has a screenplay by the novelist, in this case in collaboration with James Borrelli. The first hour of the film is a faithful, if abreviated, version of the novel. The last half hour has three significant changes: two characters are killed off, a there is a scene that takes place in the movie that is not in the novel, and the off-screen narration functions adds a tone to the film that is not in the novel.

The story is about a former soldier whose chance reunion with the wife on an acquaintance turns into an affair. The soldier, George Moran, was stationed in the Dominican Republic in 1965 and dreams about his experience there. Mary, the wife, is married to Andres DeBoya, a former Dominican general now living in South Florida. Because of his affair with Mary, Moran is assumed to be involved in a plot against DeBoya to steal his stash of two million dollars. The film was produced by Vestron, a small distribution company that had a major hit with Dirty Dancing, followed by a production slate of too many movies that made too little money. Ferrera made China Girl as well as Cat Chaser for Vestron. Both films were released in versions that Ferrara disowns. The available version of Cat Chaser is full-screen, with a running time of ninety-minutes.

In the third-person narrative of the novel, the tone is relatively neutral save for some commentary about life in South Florida. In 1981 when Leonard wrote the novel, the Atlantic Ocean was being hidden by giant condominiums. (As a Miami Beach resident, I can tell you the process is almost complete.) The tone of the narration in the film is rueful, if not outright regret, in the past tense. I do not know if the narrator exists in Ferrera's version of the film. The narration seems out of character for Leonard based on the other novels I'm familiar with. Usually in a Leonard novel, no matter what happens, the protagonist goes along for the ride, making the best of bad, unlikely or impossible situations. A Leonard "hero" may be amused or bemused, but rarely regretful.

Leonard also will occassionally have characters from one novel make an appearance in another novel. In the case of the novel Cat Chaser, the mention of Marshall Sisco had extra significance.

That a couple of supporting characters get killed early may have been a way of reducing some of the narrative threads. This was probably done for the sake of narrative clarity for the film. Or quite possibly Leonard felt he had a different way of telling his story.

The most significant change is when DeBoya rapes Mary after confirming her infidelity. In the novel, Mary has been beaten and observes herself in a mirror, overwhelmed physically and emotionally by her husband. In the film, DeBoya humiliates Mary by forcing her to undress at gunpoint, followed by placing the gun barrel at her mouth and moving the gun down Mary's nude body to her vagina. From what I have read, this is one scene that was edited without Ferrera's approval. As Leonard is credited has the co-screenwriter for the film, I am hoping he or Ferrera will in some way make available information concerning these changes from the novel.

Where Ferrera leaves a bit of his signature is in the interiors of DeBoya's house. Some of the artwork on display reflects Latin American expressions of Catholicism. While not emphasised, Mary depicts the Madonna-whore schism. While Mary is engaged in an illicit affair, her marriage is sexless, as is that of a "bride of Christ". While less obvious, the rape scene and the portrayal of Mary echo some of Ferrera's recurring themes.

Leads Peter Weller and Kelly McGillis are acceptable, if bland, in their roles. More notable for their screen presence are supporting actors Phil Leeds, Charles Durning, Thomas Milian and Frederick Forrest. Weller later directed the film version of Leonard's Gold Coast.

The Latin jazz tinged music is the only feature score by Chick Corea, featuring the distinctive, sometimes mournful trumpet of Mark Isham.

Those with interest in either Leonard or Ferrera would hope that a DVD is released of Cat Chaser that more closely resembles the intentions of the literary and film authors. The official version currently available is a disservice to both artists.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 27, 2006 12:01 AM