To track his cat, all Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger has to do is look for the trail of kitty litter and hairballs. The trail usually ends wherever said cat would be least welcome, such as curled up in Rob's newly washed laundry.
When I have fears that I may cease to be
William A. Wellman had just been nominated for best director for The High and the Mighty. John Wayne was pretty hot and looking to produce a Wellman film. Wellman had been waiting for the chance to film Van Tilburg Clark's cerebral Track of the Cat. He'd also been wanting to experiment with a "color" black-and-white film. This confluence of creative urges led to an experimental film that suited its makers, though not necessarily the expectations of its audience.
When I reviewed Pursued (1947), I was looking forward to seeing Robert Mitchum and Teresa Wright embroiled in a noirish, psychological western. That film's artifice and melodrama were alienating. Fortunately, Track of the Cat delivers on that promise.
Facts of the Case
Introducing…The Bridges Clan! Throw these merry characters together in a snowbound ranch in the Colorado frontier and you get one sunny tale:
• Curt (Robert Mitchum, Pursued (1947)): The unquestioned authority figure in the family, middle son Curt is mean-spirited, closed-minded, ruthless, and swollen with testosterone. Be it the family ranch, his brother's girlfriend, or the black panther, Curt will get what he wants or die trying. He and Ma get along fine.
• Ma (Beulah Bondi, It's a Wonderful Life): Ma harasses and harangues everyone into compliance. Her twisted will is the rule of the homestead, even if she needs to distort the words of the Lord to get it. Ma wants none of her children to marry, nor to get along. Apparently, she wants her lineage to die off alone after decades of cruelty and pain.
• Harold (Tab Hunter, Damn Yankees!): The youngest son is the last hope of salvation for the Bridges. He wants to get busy with the neighbor girl and start his own ranch. He just needs to borrow a pair of brass ones so he can spit his hidden desires out past his tied tongue.
• Grace (Teresa Wright, Mrs. Miniver): The reluctant spinster and sole female counterpoint to Ma, Grace is as downtrodden as women can get—except that she yells at everyone else just fine.
• Arthur (William Hopper, Rebel Without a Cause): The namby-pamby, poetry-loving, ineffectual diplomat and eldest son. He is nice, calm, and quiet—which drives Ma nuts.
• Pa (Philip Tonge, Miracle on 34th Street): As ineffectual a patriarch as ever there was, Pa continually drowns himself in booze, fondles the womenfolk, and generally makes an ass of himself during the half hour he is awake every day.
The outsiders are:
• Joe Sam (Carl Switzer, Alfalfa from Our Gang): A Native American hired hand who is old, very superstitious, and very, very stereotypical.
• The Black Panther (as himself): This unseen menace slays men and steer with allegorical abandon.
Track of the Cat is a singular film. Though its darkness, sexual undercurrents, and allegorical dismemberment of the human psyche are compelling, the story left most audience members scratching their heads. Jingoistic John Wayne produced it, so where is the gung-ho? Robert Mitchum had established his laconic style, so his piercing, misanthropic, tortured performance probably shocked everyone. And what's with the weird cinematography?
In the Quarter Deck chapter of Moby Dick, Melville wrote:
With his framework set, Wellman essentially throws everything out the window. People in this film use the words of the Bible like daggers and whips. Psychosexuality and self-indulgence take the place of healthy family love. The camera enters a grave and films the survivors bickering with one another from below. In Wellman's film, a match being blown out becomes a portentous omen of failure and death. Saddling a horse becomes aggression against your fellow man. Sitting down to breakfast is fraught with mortal peril, a rain of furious barbs laced with venom. No comfortable mainstay of cinema is safe; no harbor exists.
It takes a while to glean what is happening in this movie. That stretch of time is delicious, a merry confusion of curtailed expectations and dramatic struggle. Who are these people? What is their perverse social structure? This confusion morphs into understanding, which corresponds with a darker turn of emotional expression in the movie. Track of the Cat is usually one step ahead, imperceptibly upping the ante.
Like many dark films of the era, this one fumbles the final act. It isn't exactly a happy ending, but it is much neater than the preceding film. It is just upbeat enough not to fit, although there isn't anything logically flawed or inconsistent about it. The ending is simply a shift in tone from what came before, though that too may be part of the allegory. When man faces and destroys the malevolent entity that plagues him, maybe things do instantly become brighter. I don't know; I've yet to slay my white whale.
William H. Clothier's implementation of Wellman's cinematographic vision makes Track of the Cat stand out. The opening shot of a man trudging a horse through snowbound mountains peppered with pines is stark and almost indistinguishable from pure black and white. Only the merest hint of bluish coloration betrays the color scheme. Color gradually seeps in, though most objects in the film are unnaturally desaturated. The exceptions are stark and telling. Curt wears a blood red overcoat with a black stripe in the center. Grace wears a yellow number that serves as the only spot of color in the Bridges household, and draws attention both figuratively and literally because of it. Flames and bright blue match heads are shockingly vibrant. These colors are almost as meaningful as the alabaster hide of Moby Dick or the brilliant gold doubloon nailed to the mast.
This palette has an unsettling effect, like Technicolor without the color. Thematically, it subtly and continually reinforces the unreality of the story and the blackness of the characters. It also has a visceral effect, muting our eye and punctuating the monotony with splashes of color. Paramount's transfer of this striking effect is disappointing. The print is clearly aged and worn, with moderate dirt and some scratches. The transfer overuses edge enhancement and has many digital artifacts. The bright colors smear into the muted backgrounds. There is some instability in the 2.55:1 frame, which gives the movie a cramped vibe. Even with these annoyances, the image retains its effectiveness.
The forbidding mood is accentuated by a score that skirts, but never quite falls into, strident melodrama. Every action takes on brooding significance, as though the family is about to be consumed in a maelstrom. The score is effective, though repetitive. I had trouble figuring out which track was superior. The Dolby Digital 4.0 track didn't appear to use the surrounds at all. However, switching to 2.0 surround made the vocals and music sound compressed and boomy. Switching back to the 4.0 track made everything expand, though it sounded less immediate. I'd side with the 4.0 track, which does envelop you even if there aren't identifiable directional effects.
The movie would fall flat on its face if not for the no-holds-barred acting. Mitchum is the first example that springs to mind. Curt is haughty and violent, maintaining a veneer of civility. Though others, notably Harold and Joe Sam, present the facts clearly and make the wise decisions, Curt either appropriates their insights as his own or disregards their sound advice as a way of reinforcing his dominance. If he represented the seven deadly sins, he'd be pride and lust. Beulah Bondi's shrewd portrayal of Ma gives the character an added veneer of menace and spite. Teresa Wright bottles up her sensual appeal and becomes a shockingly repressed victim who bursts at just the right times. Each cast member brings the right note to the table. The one character who struck a false note with me was Joe Sam. Carl Switzer is put into really bad makeup, and hunches unconvincingly. His stilted speech seems affected. Joe Sam is hard to take as seriously as the character requires, though the writing is strong enough to carry the character.
Paramount has provided a considerate, if odd, collection of extras. The commentary is more a celebration of Wellman than an actual dissection of the film. Wellman Jr. is interested in glorifying his father's notable works, while Tab Hunter has the Hollywood patter down pat. Given the dark, bitter, and symbolic nature of the film, a little more analysis would have suited the commentary (or perhaps a second commentary devoted to literary criticism would have been called for). The featurettes on Walter Van Tilburg Clark and William Wellman help rectify this omission, delving into the symbology and background of the picture. There is a little bit of back patting, but the respect seems genuine. Then there are the animal featurettes, one about the trick horse used effectively in the film, and one about panthers. The panthers featurette demystifies the main symbol somewhat, playing into the mistaken audience expectation that this movie is about hunting a panther. The photo galleries and trailers are galleries and trailers. All told, the extras package is interesting and accents the main feature nicely.
Unique films are rare, especially big-budget ones. With its radical aesthetic, twisted players, and supernatural themes, Track of the Cat is as compelling as it is unsettling. If you enjoy westerns, particularly John Wayne westerns, you might find this one too strange to suit. If you like psychosexual dramas characterized by claustrophobia, malice, and dread, get comfy. You're about to see one of the darkest families ever committed to celluloid.
May the panther stalk them until its vengeance is sated.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by: William Wellman, Jr., Tab Hunter and Frank Thompson
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