Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness switches the action from Africa to Vietnam to telling effect given the reverberations the East Asian context would have with an audience of the late 70’s and beyond. Thus, in Apocalypse Now, Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard journeys up the Nung River with a boat full of assorted and richly drawn American GI’s to deal with Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz.
The stories behind the film’s making are legendary (a typhoon destroying the helicopters being used on the film, Martin Sheen’s health troubles, etc.) but the end product is a mesmerising and reflexive exploration of the dark side to humanity. Brando makes a brief but arresting appearance as the disturbed but magnetic leader of a rag-tag jungle army which includes Dennis Hopper in one of his more deranged roles (and that’s saying something!). However, Sheen’s contribution is just as important as Brando’s, if not more, as the film rests on his shoulders for the vast majority of its long duration. It’s a powerfully tempered performance that encapsulates, more than any of the others, the fragile and disturbing yet steely nature of man.
The last word, of course, should be reserved for Coppola for Apocalypse Now is a sublime piece of film-making. From the very opening sound that phases between the sound of helicopters and that ceiling fan to the illuminating shots that followed it to the audacious La Cavalcata Delle Valchirie sequence now immortalised as perhaps the most famous movie sequence of all time, the level of inspiration and innovation demonstrated here, both technical and from a purely artistic point of view, is simply spell-binding. It was also arguably Coppolla’s last truly great work and given that it was capping films like The Godfather Part I and Part II and The Conversation, he certainly seems to have burned twice as bright as practically every other director working at that time. And if Apocalypse Now really was his denouement as a genius director, it’s an utterly unforgettable piece of work to sign off on.
Rating: The Good – 75.7 Genre: Thriller Duration: 90mins Director: Abel Ferrara Stars: Peter Weller, Kelly McGillis, Charles Durning
Elmore Leonard adaptations are rare enough to come by so they’re worth investigating when you do. Cat Chaser flew so far under the radar that it barely counts as a footnote in either his, its star Peter Weller, or its director Abel Ferrara’s careers but nonetheless it’s an intensely curious and really quite engaging thriller. Weller stars as George Moran, a Miami hotel owner and former marine who is drawn into a dangerous love affair with the wife of a deposed general from the Dominican Republic, the same place he and his “Cat Chaser” platoon fought in during the US invasion. The affair coincides with the arrival of a number of eccentric yet in their own way threatening individuals and an intriguing game of cat and mouse develops.
Cat Chaser begins with a giddy momentum as Reni Santoni narrates us into a dreamy world of lust and danger. Santoni captures the tone of Leonard’s words intuitively to such an extent that we’ve rarely had a more appropriate entry into one of his stories. Being a Leonard adaptation, it’s not long before we encounter an array of tricksy characters who each add an unsettling air to the tidy premises of Moran’s hotel. Like the narration, the dialogue is darkly but playfully pitched and it’s only sharpened by the edgy characterisations and indeed its delivery. Frederic Forrest prods and nudges the plot forward in a fun manner as the slimy P.I. who shows up out of the blue with sketchy agendas and a general air of sordidness. Kelly McGillis shines in the role of Moran’s love interest and embellishes Ferrera’s soft film noir themes as a Femme Fatale with a twist. Best of all these support players is undoubtedly Charles Durning as the General’s treacherous and vicious bag-man. A cross between Eli Wallach’s Tuco and the Penguin, Durning’s sneering and manipulative killer moves through the film like a dark cloud and if this film was remembered better, he would surely have gone down as one of the great villains. So good is he that it’s a testament to Weller’s evergreen presence and charm that he doesn’t let Durning steal the film from under him. On the contrary, Weller is terrific as the one straight and unflappable shooter in the story allowing everyone else to play off him to the betterment of their characters while maintaining the integrity of his. Ferrara wonderfully captures the feel and mood of Miami during the 1980’s with a varied palette of light colours. It’s no Miami Vice pastiche as everything is toned down to believable levels but it does draw the audience willingly into a relatively dark story, a seduction which parallels much of the central drama. Of course, this is helped substantially by Chick Corea’s breezy and sultry score.
For all these strengths, one might wonder why Cat Chaser failed to gain mainstream recognition. Well there are some problems. Ferarra has all but disowned the film for the re-cuts that were ordered in post production and the film does show signs of conflicting interests. The early stages seem to build around a plot that abruptly ends towards the end of the first act. Sure, it guided Moran into the affair with the general’s wife but the lack of resolution or even continuation of what was clearly just a subplot is strange and off-putting. Furthermore, the film seems to lose momentum when the main plot ratchets up in complexity which is the worst time for that to happen. But still, there remains something uniquely compelling about this film. Like Reni Santoni’s narration, the film just has an abundance of personality thanks to those rich characters, that razor sharp dialogue, the wonderful performances, and Ferrara’s composed touch. It’s not one of the great thrillers but it is one of the more underrated thrillers and for that reason, we should all do our bit to raise awareness of it.