CAT CHASER (1982) by Elmore Leonard

Leonard-Cat-Chaser-hbToday Patti Abbott is celebrating the work of Elmore Leonard over at her fab Pattinase blog. I am chipping in with this review of his Miami-based thriller from 1982. George Moran is an ex-marine, once married into society but now divorced, who now runs a hotel. His combat past comes back to bite him in the derrière when he goes back to Santo Domingo and falls for the right woman – who unfortunately is already married to the wrong guy.

As the book was filmed in 1989, and co-written by Leonard no less, I also offer the following as part of the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog. Click here to read all the participant’s reviews.

“It doesn’t bother you,” Nolen Tyner said, “you call this place the Coconut Palms there isn’t a single palm tree out there? Isn’t that false advertising?”

After building up a solid reputation as an author of Westerns in the 1950s and 60s –  including the novel Hombre and such short stories as 3:10 to Yuma and ‘The Captives’ (aka The Tall T), all of which were later turned into exceptional films – in the 1970s Leonard re-established himself as a crime writer. He initially set his stories in Detroit but increasingly moved down south to Miami, which from the 80s onwards became the main setting for his work. First Gold Coast (to be reviewed here soon-ish) and then Cat Chaser marked his relocation to Florida, both featuring similar stories of men who fall in love with women married to powerful gangsters with plots pivoting on their marriage prenup. But then most of Leonard’s plots from this point onwards are often variations on a basic situation where the Darwinian imperative is flexed as various characters try to get their hands on a stash of valuables. With Leonard it’s never really the plot that you come for, though he would deny any special authorial technique anyway – as he once set down in his Ten Rules of Writing:

 “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Leonard-Cat-Chaser-RivagesAs with Chandler and Simenon, the distinctive Leonard tang is derived from his deadpan humour and an often under-appreciated skill in conveying time and place with great economy. This is particularly true of Cat Chaser, which not only has hints of the Floridian drug wars to come but incorporates anxiety over the influx of Cuban and Haitian refugees while also providing glimpses of Santo Domingo during the US occupation in the 60s. Moran was once married to a prosperous woman and worked for her father in real estate – back in those days he already knew he didn’t really fit in and had fleetingly met fellow Detroit native Mary, the American wife of General De Boya, who fled the Dominican Republic twenty years before.

“I don’t know what I want as far as a career goes; but the best thing is to be rich and not worry about it”

Moran got divorced, grew a beard, got kicked out of the golf club  and started a new business as a hotelier running the Coconut Palms. It is here that his past starts to catch up with him, first in the unlikely shape of drunken ex-actor Nolen Tyner who inveigles himself into Moran’s affections after the two realise they both fought in Santo Domingo at the same time. Nolan it turns out is actually there to keep an eye on Anita, De Boya’s sister, who is having regular trysts at the Palms with a piano player. This is eventually brought to an end when Jiggs, one of De Boya’s men, comes to take her home again though in a nice twist it turns out that she engineered this as a way of getting rid of a lover she had grown tired of. With memories of his past coming to the surface so regularly, Moran decides to head back to where it all started, when he was in the ‘Cat Chaser’ platoon and the target for a local sniper named Luci Palma. he even puts an ad in the local paper:

CAT CHASER is looking for the girl who once ran over rooftops and tried to kill him. Call the Hotel Ambassador

Leonard-Cat-Chaser-pbMoran is looking for his past in the Dominican Republic and to his surprise finds the unhappily married Mary – and the two fall in love, finally acting on impulses that they had been suppressing for years. At the same time he becomes the target of Rafi, a con man who tries to pass himself off as the revolutionary Moran took a shot at in the war before being taken prisoner. He says he can find the real Luci, but she is really just a symbol of Moran’s youth. Back in Miami, Mary and George continue their affair, which becomes the object of interest for various parties, mostly manipulated by Jiggs through Nolan, who are after the millions of dollars that de Boya is said to keep hidden in his mansion. Then Rafi turns up with a girl who says she is Luci’s sister…

“He keep his money under the mattress now?”

Mary has decided to leave her chilly husband, having finally realised what everyone else already seemed to know – that he is a brutal sadist who used to be the head of the secret police and was responsible for the deaths of countless people. How could she have not known? This strains credulity, as does her delays in departing to find the ‘right time’ to tell him, which ramps up the suspense as Jiggs tries to use Moran to find out where the money is actually hidden. All this delay allows de Boya enough time to discover that his wife is cheating on him and plan a horrible revenge. As various plots and double-crosses are enacted, George and Mary try to get out alive and not become pawns in a grubby chase for cash. This is all very exciting and well-staged and leads to an exciting finish that feels a bit like a Western in which two armed men face off to see who is quickest on the draw. It’s the right end to a zesty and sexy thriller that has a surprisingly sweet love story at its core.

“I’m on cutting-room floors at all the major studios. So I’m going in a different field”

Cat-Chaser-italianIn 1989 Abel Ferrara directed an adaptation of the book co-written by Leonard. It didn’t make much of a dent at the box office and had various problems with censors to tone down the sex and violence. In addition the director’s initial cut, running 157 minutes, was rejected entirely by the producers who panicked and brutally slashed the running time to only 90 minutes. They then also added a redundant voice-over (spoken, uncredited, by Reni Santoni), which really doesn’t help much in making the by now rather messy story more coherent; unfortunately this was the version seen by most people on video, though the initial VHS edition was a longer, slightly racier cut that sadly has never appeared on DVD. It remains, while clearly somewhat inconsistent, a remarkably faithful take on the book, keeping much of the dialogue and plot though expanding on the erotic element. What the film does offer is a particularly good cast with Peter Weller ideal as the dead-pan Moran still haunted by his past as a soldier (courtesy of some grainy black and white footage). Kelly McGillis is great as the sexy and fiery Mary, here pretty much drawing to a close her very brief career as a Hollywood star after the back-to-back success of Witness, Top Gun and The Accused. Her initial entrance, all dolled up and lit to look like the 80s idea of a classic film noir femme fatale (i.e. very big hair) is a bit cheesy maybe, but she’s a tough dame in the book and remains a decent character on-screen too. Frederic Forrest as the disheveled and permanently soused Nolen and Thomas Milian as de Boya are admittedly somewhat typecast but are also typically excellent in the roles none the less. It is Charles Durning however who pretty much walks away with the movie as nastier and more craven-than-expected enforcer, Jiggs. If you want to see some great actors in what feels like three-quarters of a better than average thriller, then you may well find it worth a look. It is certainly a lot more fun (and occasionally frustrating) however if you know the book beforehand.

DVD Availability: All home video editions have been 4:3 ratio which is very disappointing – the German DVD is said to be longer than most but none are very satisfactory from what I have been able to glean  – it would be nice to think that Ferrara would be able to release his own edition at some point.

Cat Chaser (1989)
Director: Abel Ferrara
Producer: Peter Davies, William Panzer
Screenplay: Elmore Leonard and James Borelli
Cinematography: Anthony B. Richmond
Art Direction: Dan Leigh
Music: Chick Corea
Cast: Peter Weller, Kelly McGillis, Tomas Milian, Charles Durning, Frederic Forrest, Kelly Jo Minter

For further information about the author and his work, visit the official website at: www.elmoreleonard.com

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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45 Responses to CAT CHASER (1982) by Elmore Leonard

  1. le0pard13 says:

    I’ve heard of the this EL book but never knew it was adapted by Abel Ferrara. I like the cast and hope someone comes to their senses brings about a decent disc release. Thanks for the heads up, Sergio.

  2. neer says:

    Interesting review but doesn’t seem to be my kind of a book. Kind of tired of sadist husbands and lovers on the run.

    • Hello Neer – I hope I didn’t make the book sound too heavy – it is often very humorous and there is very little in the way of violence on the page (a couple of pages in total, one where the wife is attacked and another in which two villains get shot) before the final standoff. Leonard is a terrific writer so I would hate to put you off as this is a wry and mellow story of two lovers approaching middle age so right away is out of the norm.

  3. Colin says:

    A mouth-watering little review Sergio. I love Leonard’s writing but I haven’t gotten round to this one. It sounds like it has a great premise and I fully intend to check this one out. Never seen the movie either.

    • Thanks Colin – it’s a shame that the movie is a bit compromised in its home video version but it is great fun and the cast is nigh-on perfect. It’s only a modest movie but definitely has an edge.

      • Colin says:

        Personally, I’m going to try and lay my mits on a copy of the book first. There’s always a chance the movie may turn up somewhere in a more attractive form later on.

        • It would be great of that were to happen, it really would. All the main participants, except Durning, are still around so it would be great if a proper special edition were to appear. Brad Stevens in his book on Ferrara has some interesting things to say about the 157-minute cut and it does apparently get screened occasionally!

          • Colin says:

            You never know – unexpected things like this happen all the time.

          • Well, now I’m all set up for it’s unexpected appearance as a Criterion release! OK, that’s very, very unlikely – but at some point they’ll create a new master for HD broadcast and then maybe we’ll be in with a shot! The book’s great though – if you can’t get a copy easily I’ll send you mine if you like.

          • Colin says:

            That’s extraordinarily kind of you, but I’ve just ordered a used copy (also including Labrava and Split Images) for the princely sum of £2.81.

          • That is actually cheaper than the postage from here would be! Well done you (I remember liking La Brava a lot though it’s been ages).

          • Colin says:

            Yeah, I spotted a hard cover omnibus fulfilled by Amazon and felt it would be rude not to take advantage!

          • Rude? It would be a bloody scandal!

  4. mikeripley says:

    One of the best endings to a crime novel ever!

  5. I gave up on Leonard after reading his Ten Rules of Writing (rigid and arrogant), but your review prompts me to revisit. I’ll start with the movie. Thanks.

    • Cheers David. Well, Leonard probably got a bit over-praised in the 80s and I suspect the adage that one should trust the work and not its author is often true – but this is a great book and would recommend it unreservedly.

  6. I read CAT CHASER when it was first published and loved it. I didn’t know about the movie version. I’ll try to track it down. Like you, I’d like to see the uncut 157 minute version.

    • Well, we can dream right? Apparently it does get shown at festivals where Ferrara lends his own copy, though it was a rough cut – still, if you look at how many versions of BLADE RUNNER there have been we might get lucky!

      • Todd Mason says:

        Leonard does fare best in film, I’d suggest, when in the hands of someone as stylizing as he tends to be…Ferrara probably as good a fit as Tarantino or the TALL T crew. Perhaps an Eclipse box of Ferrara is in the offing, at least.

        You’re nudging me into further thoughts here, Sergio…though it’s interesting (to me at least) that Leonard is one of those who has stated that Chandler is overpraised…another is Hunter/McBain…

        • I take your point Todd and ‘over-praised’ is a strange term. Genre writers in the 80s like Leonard, Mosley and Block suddenly got made respectable when discovered by Time and the like got improved book sales but there was a fairly quick backlash in some cases. Did this affect the book quality, though? Leonard is fairly self-effacing about his work and many are not fans at all, thinking for instance that the likes of Charles Willeford were doing similar things much better with none of the recognition. Hunter/McBain is past caring but probably felt he wasn’t given enough credit as anything other than a decent craftsman. I think he’s better than that sometimes but this doesn’t have to blind us to his faults (sentimentality, a rather limited view of women at times). Chandler I would disagree about always – a great writer who genuinely changed people’s perceptions about the genre he contributed to – very few writers can say that and he doesn’t remain important just out of sheer laziness, though that can happen too, without question.

          • Todd Mason says:

            Ignorant log-rollers in the likes of TIME will always be with us (Jonathan Franzen isn’t in the top ten-thousand writers of this or any time), but it is strange who is cleaved to and who isn’t at the best of times…and certainly Lombino/Hunter’s path was a very agitated one (though he was perhaps taken more seriously than you realize in his Hunter-signed novels from very early on…as well as perhaps more seriously than he deserved, for those works).

          • Well, I was thinking more of the ones he published under the McBain byline admittedly but the commercial imperative in Hunter is probably too evident not to make one limit the degree of seriousness one should bestow critically. Way too harsh on Franzen though Todd – I really liked Corrections a lot, though it’s my sole excursion I’ll admit – I take it you did not?

  7. John says:

    I think Leonard’s “Ten Rules for Writing” are the Gospel truth. I wish they were enforced by editors and literary agents of all ages, genders, races, and religious beliefs. (Well, I can dream, can’t I?)

    I’m in the same camp as neer. CAT CHASER just isn’t for me. I usually pass on books about drug wars and hit men and organized crime. But I’d probably watch the movie even in its botched format. I liked BAD LIEUTENANT –mostly for Harvey Keitel.

    • John, let me say that in the desire to leave plot details ambiguous I have probably given a misleading impression – this book is not even remotely about the drug wars and there is no organised crime – it is an ultra typical Leonard book and I think you’d probably like it a lot. But I am definitely getting Forty Lashes – which just goes to prove, you are clearly much more persuasive than I – bravo!

      • John says:

        I was skimming this piece at work earlier today. I was very distracted and found it hard to concentrate. I’ve re-read the portion about the book and I don’t know where I got the organized crime business. No fault of your review, Sergio. I must’ve been delirious from caffeine overload or something. Now much later (with a clearer head) I’ve read Mike Ripley’s comment about the ending (which I didn’t see the first time) and I think I’m going to have to read this book some day.

        • It is very much a Leonard book of the 80s with funny-peculiar villains, a mellow if slightly impenetrable protagonist, a feisty dame and great dialogue (or should I say ‘dialog’) – I’ll be really curious to know what you make of it and the very imperfect but still pretty decent movie adaptation too.

        • neer says:

          Ha Ha Ha! This is so funny because when I read the review for the first time, I too thought it was centred round a drug cartel. Only when typing my response when I re-read the portion did I realise that the husband wasn’t a drug baron or a mafia don. I wonder how many other readers made the same mistake.:)

          And yes, Mike Ripley’s comment has piqued my interest too. So on the next trip to the library, I’ll see whether I can find the book.

  8. steve says:

    I think Leonard is a crime writer who divides opinion more than most. Personally i am a fan and his back catalogue is pretty impressive. Sometimes his novels seem to have more style than substance especially where plot is concerned but i cant fault the likes of SWAG, 52 PICK UP and FREAKY DEAKY. Also he has had a great influence on a host of other writers JAMES HALL being one of my favourites. I didnt realise CAT CHASER had been filmed. Great review as always.

    • Thanks Steve, very kind of you and thanks for the feedback. I particularly like 52 Pick-Up though I thought the film version improved on it a bit by giving the wife a bigger part.

  9. Yvette says:

    I like Leonard’s rules for writing too. Very pointed. Very logical. I’ve read some of his westerns but I’m afraid I am not the right audience for his detective stuff. I find it hard to care about these sorts of people so I am not at all interested in finding out what they’re up to. But I’m in the minority, I know. :) However I read your post with interest, Sergio. That’s because you’re a fine writer yourself.

  10. TracyK says:

    This is a great review. I am eager to try some Elmore Leonard, and If I find a copy of this, I will give it a try. If you have others you would highly recommend, I would be interested…

    • Red rag to a bull is a phrase that suddenly springs to mind TracyK – I would certainly recommend Unknown Man No. 89, 52 Pick-Up and Switch from his early Detroit crime novels and La Brava, Stick and Out of Sight from his books published after his move to Miami. Really hope you find and enjoy these – some great movies have been made of his books to including Get Shorty and Jackie Brown (from Rum Punch).

      • TracyK says:

        I have seen (and loved) Get Shorty… and also the movie version of Out of Sight. Also have seen Jackie Brown, and I liked it just a big less, although I liked a lot of the actors. Thanks for the suggestions, he has written so many books it is good to start with some recommended books first.

        I tried reading Get Shorty years ago but had problems because it was so much like the movie (at least the first part). But I will be giving it a try again.

        • TracyK says:

          I meant … just a bit less …

        • Well, I know what you mean about Get Shorty, which is very funny and very typical if his more recent work in a lighter vein, but the movie is pretty close. The current TV series Justified, based on a short story and on other material, is an interesting combination of Leonard’s talents being a modern-day western about a sheriff and criminals in about equal measure.

  11. Sergio, I haven’t read a lot of Elmore Leonard’s work and I’m hoping to read more of his westerns than crime fiction. I have read his TEN RULES OF WRITING and while it has been widely accepted, some fellow writers don’t agree with some of the rules, for instance (I think) Leonard’s insistence on plenty of dialogue and doing away with lengthy descriptions of people and places. To each his or her own style, I guess.

    Thanks for the review of CAT CHASER: I haven’t read the book or seen the film. I believe he wrote the script for many film versions of his books.

    • Leonard has worked on many screenplays and has adapted at least another of his own books that I am very fond of, John Frankenheimer’s 52 Pck-Up, which remains one of the best movies from his books. I quite agree that there are all kinds of writers and the idea of ‘rules’ can;t ever possible be anything other than a guide for works for that specific author!

  12. mikeripley says:

    Why are people taking Elmore’s “10 Rules” so seriously? I don’t think Elmore did.

  13. Pingback: 2013 Book to Movie Challenge – completed | Tipping My Fedora

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