Burt Reynolds is Jay Grobart, a former army captain who has spent some time in jail for shooting the man who raped and murdered his wife, an Indian woman named Cat Dancing (hence the odd title). After his release, he takes to robbing trains with three of his friends, Dawes, Billy and Charlie. Sarah Miles is Catherine Crocker, a highborn Lady who accidently witnesses their latest robbery. Jay wants to take her horse, but Dawes and Billy are also interested in the lady. When they flee into the mountains, they're persecuted by Lapchance, a railway detective, and lady Catherine's husband William ...
I had always avoided this movie, because of the negative reviews, so I was surprised to see a genuinely enjoyable western. Okay, it runs for nearly two hours, at least half an hour too long, and there are a few issues with the script, but Reynolds and Miles are a nice, unlikely couple and Jack Warden and Bo Hopkins are an interesting pair of sex-crazed baddies, both trying to get their filthy hands on Mrs. Crocker. There's no too much action, but those sparse action moments are remarkably cruel and violent, notably a protracted fistfight between Reynolds and Warden.
Reynolds' performance in Deliverance (1972) had brought him critical acclaim and a semi-nude Cosmopolitan centerfold had turned him into a sex symbol. Expectations were high but the film was not born under a lucky star. Screenwriter Eleanor Perry, a well-known feminist, claimed that others (among them Robert Bolt, Mrs. Miles' husband) had rewritten her script and ruined the character of Catherine Crocker. The movie also got some negative publicity because of a scandal: Miles' business manager (and possible lover) had been found dead in his hotel room and both she and Reynolds had to testify in the ensuing investigation (*1). "Talking about Cat Dancing brings me pain," Reynolds later said. "So I'd rather not talk about it."
The movie was praised for its breathtaking location photography and some critics liked the romantic spin, but others thought the script too easily turned Catherine Crocker from an independent woman who runs away from her abusive husband, into a docile woman who falls for her kidnapper. The about face may be a bit too sudden and smooth, but note that Catherine remains the dominant character: she picks Groper to become the father of her child, he does not take her by force. Reynolds bemused reticence in front of the rather talkative and resolute lady is sympathetic. The storytelling is a bit sluggish at times, but the script keeps you guessing how things will end. We only learn in the course of the movie where Reynolds needs the money from the robberies for and there's at least one - quite shocking - revelation in relation to his character that will surprise most viewers.
Director: Richard C. Sarafian - Cast: Burt Reynolds (Jay Grobart), Sarah Miles (Catherine Crocker), Jack Warden (Dawes), Lee J. Cobb (Lapchance), Bo Hopkins (Billy), George Hamilton (William Crocker), Jay Varela (Charlie), James Hampton, Jay Silverheels - Music: John Williams - Screenplay: Eleanor Perry, based on a novel by Marilyn Durham
* Jay Silverheels, who appears in the film's finale, is best known for his role as Tonto, the faithful companion of The Lone Ranger
* The action scenes were coordinated by Hal Needham, a personal friend of Burt Reynolds and his regular stunt double. The two struck a rich vein a couple of years later when Reynolds offered Needham to direct his own screenplay called Smokey and the Bandit. The rest is history
(*1) A contemporary newspaper article on the case: * http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1973/03/15/page/10/article/actress-at-whiting-inquest