|Track of the Cat (1954)
Run time: Approved | 102 min | Drama, Western
Director: William A. Wellman
Writers: A.I. Bezzerides, Walter Van Tilburg Clark
Stars: Robert Mitchum, Teresa Wright, Diana Lynn
An intriguing combination of Eugene O’Neill family saga and Western, magnificently shot in a snow-covered landscape by William Clothier as “a black and white film in colour” that anticipates John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye and Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice.
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A lot of people were disappointed by "track of the cat" .Some expected a western ,hadn't Wellmann made a masterpiece of this kind with "the ox-bow incident"?And more were disappointed by Mitchum's part.
I do think that "track of the cat" is an underrated work;almost unique,it's very hard to compare it with another film.Roughly,it's the story a family under the thumb of a tough guy ,Curt(Mitchum) and his holier-than-thou mother(Bondi).Two members of this family are different:Curd's sister(Wright) who remained a spinster and tries to rebel against the others .She tries to make her younger brother,Harold,marry a girl ,Gwen ,who knows better :Harold is a shy sexually repressed young man who's looked upon as a sissy by Curd.
What's really bewildering is that,after half an hour,Mitchum and the rest of the family go separate ways.He 's on the trail of a wildcat he absolutely wants to kill.While he's away,Gwen tries to urge Harold to leave home ,the unity of the family begins to fragment at the edges.
More than the splendid landscapes where Mitchum dressed in red wanders and lights his fire with the pages of a book of Keats poems(in an almost contemporary work ,Bunuel's "la mort en ce jardin" ,they light a fire with pages of the good book after all!),Arthur's funeral is the highlight of the movie :filmed in "subjective camera" (seen ,so to speak ,thru the dead's eyes) ,it shows the living in front of the gaping hole.Editing is often wonderful and succeeds in connecting the two apparently separate stories.The mystery touch is increased by the old Indian's presence ,who seems to know all the secrets of those hostile mountains.
"Track of the Cat" has been in limbo for years for several reasons. One, John Wayne's son, Michael, in charge of Batjac productions, refused to let it be distributed on DVD or otherwise until recently (Michael is now deceased but his widow worked out a deal with Paramount). Two, the film was not all that successful when first released. Only the drawing power of Robert Mitchum and other cast members sold what tickets were purchased by the movie goers of the day. Three, it was basically a pet project for director William A. Wellman who had fallen in love with the book by "The Ox-Bow Incident" writer, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, a few years before and had dreams of putting it on the big screen in glorious black and white color. He wished to experiment with color technique by having his cinematographer (who turned out to be William H. Clothier) use mainly black and white settings including the clothing and furnishings, with a few exceptions such as Robert Mitchum's bright red coat, the brightness of fire, etc. Producer John Wayne was so happy with Wellman's success with such box office hits as "The High and the Mighty" that he let him have his way. The result is a masterful work unlike anything else the viewer is likely to see on the big screen. The new process of Cinemascope captures the white canvas of the countryside covered with new fallen snow wondrously.
The interior shots tend to be cramped and the dialog talky reminding the viewer of a stage play. The exterior scenes are truly magnificent and add much to the texture of the story about a dysfunctional, isolated family, the Bridges (as in bridges to cross), preyed upon by a ferocious black panther, or so the Native American hired hand, Joe Sam (Our Gang's Alfalfa), says. The panther, whatever color the viewer decides it to be, is symbolic of the turmoil and apprehension that has become part of the clan as a result of rivalry for domination within the group. The panther becomes an obsession that brings out the truth and ultimately decides the family's fate.
Robert Mitchum, in a different type role, plays the oldest son, Curt, an egomaniac, selfish to the core, but with the heart of a coward. Still, the family looks to him for leadership. He tells everyone that he is going to put a bullet between the panther's eyes. The second son, Arthur, played with élan by William Hopper of Perry Mason fame, is kindhearted though meek, loving poetry with no desire to be a leader. He wishes to let the panther be. The youngest son, Harold, played by teen idol, Tab Hunter, is young, innocent, and in love with a neighbor, Gwen Williams (Diana Lynn), who is spending time at the Bridges' farm to be close to Harold during the inclement weather. The self-proclaimed matriarch who tries to ramrod the family with threats, guilt trips, and Bible citations, is Ma Bridges (Beulah Bondi). She has so far successfully kept her brood under her control and away from nubile bliss, including the only daughter, Grace (Teresa Wright), now a spinster. Harold threatens to tear Ma's house down by marrying Gwen whom Ma naturally despises with a determination to rid the family of this interloper and intruder. Pa Bridges (Philip Tonge) has become a drunken milquetoast and somewhat of a dirty old man, especially around Gwen, as a result of years of badgering and nagging by Ma. The story involves the two oldest sons hunting the countryside for the panther preying on their cattle. Yet the panther is the catalyst that connects the dots to reveal the truth that leads to a new beginning for the Bridges.
The drama reminds one of an adaptation of a Eugene O'Neill play in some ways, especially the part dealing with the alcoholic father. Unfortunately, the film falters in the dramatic department yet somewhat compensates in the hunt for the panther. Though not a long film, making it at least fifteen minutes shorter with more action and less talk would have benefited the production greatly. The use of the panther as a symbol was inspired. As Joe Sam says toward the end when commenting on the color of the beast, "Black pant'er, whole world."
William Wellman wanted to make a film out of the novel by Van Tilburg Clark promptly after reading it in 1949; the only problem was the fact, which he realized quite well, that no producer could possibly finance such film. The only thing he could do is wait, and he waited till the opportunity knocked on his door 5 years later with the enormous success of his film The High and the Mighty, which was nominated for several Oscars including third and the last nomination for Wellman himself in the Best Director category.
Inspired by such a success, the film’s main star and producer John Wayne swore that now Wellman could film whatever he’d like to, even if it would be a phone book, and that Warner would produce and distribute it. Wellman took the chance, not offering to John Wayne the phone book though, but this story, imposing his conditions, which were basically the filming of it in Cinemascope and in a black and white-colour, which meant to photograph the film with all colours reduced almost to back and white with the exception of some of the key items in the film, such as blue matches, the colour of fire, the colour of Robert Mitchum’s coat etc.
The artistic touch of the director and fabulous work of the film’s cinematographer resulted in a breathtaking luminous beauty of dark and bright colours which created a visual detachment of the film from the reality, giving it a sort of mysterious aura with the accentuated feeling of threat and emptiness of the scenery which serves as a background on which the internal, almost an infernal emptiness and painful loneliness of the film’s main characters are reflected, the characters who are unstoppable in their quest for the black panther, in which all of their mysteries, frustrations and secret sins are incarnated, whom we hear mentioned all the time, whose roar we hear, whose murderous trail we follow along with the film’s protagonists but whom we are never really able to see and who finally appears as almost a symbolic figure-representation of the crippled internal world of the characters, which is in fact the only real palpable threat to their pitiful and fearful existence, the very thing from which Robert Mitchum’s character is running away finally falling into the cold abyss of nothingness while the other characters remain in the burning fire of their troubled and aimless lives as seen from the grave point of view in the film’s final sequence, which represents the unavoidable not-too-soon-to-come end for them.
Beginning with the snow, coming through the fire, the film leaves us where it has begun lost in an enormous threatening emptiness of the landscape still following the mysterious trail of an equally mysterious cat in the never resolved quest for outer discovery of something that has a rather inner nature. 8/10
The film deals with the stark realities of an isolated ranching family pitting itself against the forces of nature an early winter snowstorm, and the ravages of a wild panther
Mitchum's character, Curt Bridges is on the hunt and also struggling to survive If we meditate the way he measures it, we see how his mind begins more and more to wander and less and less able to focus We see him more and more aware of pain and discomfort His hope comes and diminishes and departs and then returns So there's an unceasing sense of doom in those sequences that simply were hunting
The brothers represent different approaches by man to nature Curt wants to dominate nature, wishes to control it Arthur is just the opposite He is so gentle and understanding that he can't deal with nature He doesn't have the hardness that Curt has And there's Harold who was the successful one because he has enough strength to deal with harshness of nature
The Indian is the one who believes in the cat as a myth, as a mystery and as something almost sacred Because of the legend of the cat he has Arthur carve wooden cats out every year to avert danger
Now this is a very sterile family The old man only deal with life through drink and through remembering the past The mother is a very unlikable woman She is manipulative, and she simply wants to be heard You don't see any love interests or connections except for the younger brother
Fear is very much a part of "Track of the Cat." It is the foreboding, ever-present backdrop really to the drama