William A. Wellman
1 Hr., 42 Mins.
Track of the Cat
rack of the Cat, from 1954, was photographed in Warnercolor. Aside from the gasping red of a poncho worn by leading actor Robert Mitchum, and a canary-yellow button-up sported by actress Diana Lynn, though, there is little-to-no color to be ogled here. This was a loaded choice on the part of the movie’s director, William A. Wellman. Going into production, he thought it would be interesting,
as an experiment, to shoot a color film as if it were a black-and-white movie, using pigmentation sparsely as a way to milk emotional suspense. (The choice would be prominently replicated, in one instance, by Peter Bogdanovich via the divisive 1975 musical film At Last Long Love.) In Track of the Cat, which is an anxious family drama, the visual choice is not only remarkable, one of the most intriguing (and successfully risky) photographic choices of the era. It also ramps up the already-vibrating tension of the storyline, which is as antsy as it is allegorical.
The film is set at the turn of the 20th century, at a secluded, snowed-in ranch in Northern California. The property belongs to the Bridges family, who lives unhappily together (not helped by the fact that the four children are adults, and gloomy ones at that). The day-to-day lives of this codependent clan probably come with much tedium. So it makes sense that Track of the Cat, which is based on a novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, begins just as conflict has risen. A cat — apparently a black panther — has been discovered slinking about the hills, sure to start killing livestock soon. Hired Native American hand Joe Sam (Carl Switzer) tells his employers, worryingly, that this is a black panther from an ancient legend, a spirit intent on reprimanding those who have stolen native land.
Sons Curt and Arthur (Mitchum and William Hopper) decide it best that they brave the blizzard outside and hunt down the beast. The rest of the family, including optimistic youngest kid Harold (Tab Hunter), Harold’s two-years-older fiancée Gwen (Lynn), crabby spinster daughter Grace (Teresa Wright), bigoted matriarch Ma (Beulah Bondi), and chatty patriarch Pa (Philip Tonge) stay behind, aggravating the discord.
The movie is structurally a cinch. Mitchum and Hopper take care of the action, with everyone else navigating their neuroses and thorny relationships. Mitchum and Bondi are the key characters. They're despots who, apart from physical isolation, are the source of almost everyone in this family’s misery. Screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides constructs scene after scene of family strain unwinding, with the actors, all near-pulsating in their unease (with the exception of Hunter, who seems uncomfortable here), living up to the constructed agitation. Sometimes the drama can feel a bit stagebound, considering how little it changes setting, and sometimes the film can feel long as a result of its outstretched simplicity.
But to watch these people try their damnedest not to come to blows for the length of a feature makes it fascinating enough to parse through. The panther, which is never seen and does not exist in California, extends itself as a great embodiment of both collective guilt and the repression from which no one in this family can much easily escape. B+