Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
As studios and independents reach further into the vaults, they bring up increasingly interesting oddball genre pictures. William Wellman and A.I. Bezzerides' Track of the Cat is one of the strangest westerns ever made, a highly stylized, creepy chamber drama that manages to find claustrophobia in wide open spaces and a twisted motive for every character. After 1001 western dramas about healthy families forging a new west, it's refreshing to see a clan that's dysfunctional right to the core.
Track of the Cat is a noted theatrical flop made by serious pros trying for something completely different. They got it. Released as part of the Batjac collection owned by the John Wayne family, this is the last movie on Earth we'd expect to be produced by The Duke.
A black cougar is menacing livestock and people at the remote Bridges ranch, high in snow covered mountain country. But the Bridges family's interior conflicts are far worse. Alcoholic Pa (Philip Tonge) humiliates everyone with his embarrassing behavior. Ma (Beulah Bondi) is bitter and vindictive and has unbalanced the family politics by favoring the eldest son, Curt (Robert Mitchum). Curt presumes to be in charge and presumes that the family ranch is his alone; he's also crude to women and makes insulting observations about his brothers. Book-smart and sensitive Arthur (William Hopper) tries to keep the peace while Harold, the youngest (Tab Hunter) never stands up for his rights. Curt is so forward with Harold's girlfriend Gwen Williams (Diana Lynn) that Pa thinks she's Curt's girl, and Ma can always coerce Harold into doing what she says. Daughter Grace Bridges (Teresa Wright) can't stand the ugliness of the situation, and urges Harold to defy both Curt and his domineering mother.
William Wellman made the box office success The High and the Mighty for the Wayne-Fellows Company, and Track of the Cat was either part of his initial deal or a reward for good work. This expensive show in CinemaScope, Warner Color and stereophonic sound is a return to the western world of Walter Van Tilburg Clark that had already given Wellman critical success in The Ox-Bow Incident.
Track of the Cat sounds like a highly commercial project. Robert Mitchum goes after a big cat threatening a mountain family in an isolated, snowbound landscape. Apart from some eerily atmospheric tracking scenes set in the snow, most of the film is like a stage play in a large interior set representing the Bridges ranch.
Writer A.I. Bezzerides gets a solid opportunity to vent his spleen on the subject of the American Family; his adaptation of the Van Tilburg Clark book dissects the rotten Bridges clan while highlighting the book's fantastic interpretation of the killer black cat. The somewhat stage-bound dramatics in the cabin chart two or three days with a group of people who just don't belong together. Pa lives in the past and avoids reality. Curt dominates his more passive brothers. Mother hates Harold's girl Gwen just for being there, Pa is too friendly with her and Harold seems incapable of expressing a personal opinion. Arthur talks around issues without taking a stand either.
It's now common to call a film stylized if the director likes blue light or prefers a certain kind of lens; Track of the Cat is as stylized a Western as the science fiction thriller Invaders from Mars. We know something's up when the film opens with black titles on white snow with dark trees. Almost everything in the film is black, white, or gray, both indoors and out. Other colors are heavily subdued. After awhile, everything starts to look like a bad dream. The exceptions stand out in shocking relief: Robert Mitchum wears a bright red coat, and Diana Lynn has a dress with a lot of yellow in it. Everyone else looks leeched out, bloodless.
The movie is not obsessed with odd angles but the burial scene is as weird as the one in Our Town. It's mostly shot from inside the grave, masking a large part of the frame in icy black.
The dialogue is not stylized but events definitely are. The Indian Joe Sam (an unrecognizable Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer from the Our Gang comedies!) introduces a theme of Indian spirit worship that clashes with Ma's repressive Christian faith. Joe Sam has a tendency to appear and disappear without warning. Arthur carves little cougars from wood, and various other Indian signs spring up indicating that the killer cat may be demonic in nature. The cat creates a fear that is certainly real ... but the structure of the story encourages us to interpret it as some kind of psychic force created by the hatred in the house. Whatever the cat is, it's never pictured on screen. Viewers expecting a conventional story may feel cheated.
Van Tilburg Clark (aided by Bezzerides) sees the humans in terms of weakness instead of strength. Ma and Pa are concerned with irrelevancies while the younger generation is strained by infighting. Daughter Grace has eaten herself hollow with grief over the family rancor. We're used to seeing Robert Mitchum as an abrasive character but Curt's bullying, insinuating behavior toward the others is especially disturbing; he acts as if he could take the nervous Gwen for his own at any time. Ironically, Curt starts to crack up out in the wild almost as soon as he changes coats with a dead man. The bright red coat goes back to the farm on a corpse, leading to an unpleasant scene in which the family presumes it is Curt that has been killed.
Out in the snow, Curt quickly falls prey to his fear of the near-supernatural cat and winds up in a fix similar to one of Jack London's unlucky heroes caught out in the wild. As it turns out, Curt is mentally no stronger than the brothers that he so enjoys criticizing. 1
The serious cast, hand picked by Wellman, attack their roles as if they were written by Eugene O'Neill. All of them play against type. Beulah Bondi's hateful character is nothing like her previous image as James Stewart's mom in It's a Wonderful Life. Philip Tonge is a sloppy drunk but gets the film's only laughs by being able to find hidden liquor bottles, apparently through ESP. Teresa Wright doesn't smile once, and half the time looks capable of committing suicide. Diana Lynn (so delightful as the younger sister in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek) tries everything she can to force Harold to break with his mother. Tab Hunter is the least expressive of the bunch. The role requires him to be passively paralyzed, but his eventual triumph fails to lift the film's spirits. The movie is an interesting experience but it is obvious why it left many audiences cold -- Track of the Cat will appeal to fans seeking the unusual.
Paramount and Batjac's DVD of Track of the Cat is a beautiful enhanced widescreen transfer with impressive color, in fine shape. William Clothier's cinematography is dark and rich and the production design is certainly unique. No other film looks quite like this -- the drained color design is more complex than, say, the B&W look for the Ascot scene in My Fair Lady. Something psychological is working in this scheme.
The stereo track highlights Roy Webb's interesting score, which at some points is reminiscent of his creepy music for The Seventh Victim. The feature has been given a commentary by William Wellman, Jr., Tab Hunter and author Frank Thompson. Wellman celebrates his dad, Hunter says a lot of pleasantries and we never get very deep into what the movie is really about -- a dark, misanthropic story from a pair of angry writers!
The extras are an interesting set of docus that seem to have been done a number of years ago. William Wellman gave Robert Mitchum a big boost in his film The Story of G.I. Joe and the actor seems pleased to come on camera to express his admiration. Another featurette analyzes Walter Van Tilburg Clark's source book, even quoting the author's correspondence. The demon cat is apparently meant to be a metaphor for the bomb and other political threats that weigh upon the post-war world.
The featurette "Black Diamond" turns out to be a short piece on the talented movie horse ridden by Mitchum. Mitchum's daughter narrates and eventually steers the short into a support item for the ASPCA. A final short piece about high-mountain cats is hosted by a naturalist. Since the movie doesn't even visualize its cougar, seeing and hearing about real ones doesn't seem all that relevant. A trailer and a photo gallery finish off the selection of extras. Graphics and the cover art for the DVD are excellent.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Track of the Cat rates:
Supplements: Commentary by William Wellman, Jr., Tab Hunter and Frank Thompson. Featurettes on Wellman, author Van Tilburg Clark, the horse and mountain cougars; trailer, stills
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 3, 2006
1. Jack London? Try Ambrose Bierce. Savant thanks correspondent Edward Sullivan for these literary reference notes, 6.06.06:
Hello Glenn -- Your words: "The cat creates a fear that is certainly real ... but the structure of
the story encourages us to interpret it as some kind of psychic force
created by the hatred in the house. Whatever the cat is, it's never
pictured on screen."
Holy....! When I read that, I thought immediately of Abrose Bierce's early science fiction/horror story, "The Damned Thing".
Coincidence? Apparently not, as a little net-surfing led me to a
report that Robert Morse Clark, Walter Van Tilburg Clark's son,
apparently identified Ambrose Bierce as an influence on 'Strange
Hunting' an unpublished poem by his father that informed Track of the
I saw Track of the Cat first on TV, then as part of a triple feature with Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear -- suffered from Bob Mitchum gothic overload and a bad case of the creeps for days thereafter... Ed Sullivan
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson