The terms art house or experimental film don’t often get used when westerns are being discussed. While there are of course countless examples of highly artistic westerns, it’s rarely the kind of self-conscious artistry that those labels suggest. There’s also the matter of audience expectation to take into account; when the genre was at its peak the fans were largely thought to want the kind of movie that didn’t veer too far from the traditional. In order to produce an art piece, particularly within a genre widely regarded as being bound by convention, you need a filmmaker who has confidence, clout, skill and vision. Although a combination of such qualities may be rare it is not unknown, and William Wellman was a director who fulfilled the criteria. His production of Track of the Cat (1954) was a daring attempt to fuse the western and the art house movie. Back when it was made, the film was not considered a success yet looked at now, over half a century later, it can perhaps be appreciated better.
Generally, mainstream audiences like to be clear about what they’re watching, and part of the problem with Track of the Cat is the difficulty in categorizing it. Sure it’s a western, but it can also be approached as an allegorical morality tale, a psychological dissection of a dysfunctional family, or even a horror story. At various points the movie is all of the above and this diversity can have a disconcerting effect on the viewer who comes at it unprepared. The plot itself is straightforward, simple and springs no major surprises. It concerns the Bridges, a ranching family living an isolated, insular existence with a seething mix of conflicting emotions buried beneath the apparent domesticity. The arrival of a guest, the fiancée of the youngest son Harold (Tab Hunter), coincides with the early snows and the appearance of a panther that threatens to devastate the herd. However, it’s suggested that this cat may be no normal beast, the superstitious bent of an ancient Indian (Carl Switzer) has planted the seed in everyone’s mind that this animal is the representation of a greater evil – all the evil in the world in fact. And so the two older sons, Arthur (William Hopper) and Curt (Robert Mitchum), take it upon themselves to weather the elements and head off to track down the cat and slay it once and for all. From this point on the film cuts between scenes of this near classical doomed quest and those back at the Bridges’ ranch, where the heightening emotional tension mirrors the increasing physical dangers out on the mountain. Whether one views it as a masterstroke or a failing – personally, I tend towards the former – the titular cat is never seen on-screen. Instead, it exists as a kind of psychological bogeyman, a malign presence stalking the dark corners of the characters’ awareness. Peeling back the layers, I think it’s possible to draw a parallel between the panther and Harold’s fiancée, Gwen (Diana Lynn), as both appear on the scene simultaneously and both represent a threat to the status quo. The Bridges’ world, like the snowbound landscape they occupy, is a barren one: the relationship between Ma and Pa Bridges is a loveless one where each merely tolerates the others foibles, that of Arthur and his wife (Teresa Wright) is only superficially better – a telling comment early on informs us that they will remain childless – and likely to decline, and Curt is nothing but a domineering bully. This leaves only Harold, the repressed and half-forgotten son who has yet to become jaded and bitter. The arrival of Gwen and the cat has the potential to tear asunder the entrenched negativity of the Bridges. Both embody a kind of primal energy that, in their contrasting ways, will violently transform this stale and moribund family.
Track of the Cat was the second time William Wellman filmed one of Walt Van Tilburg Clark’s books (the first being The Ox-Bow Incident a decade before) and he once again produced a notable and memorable piece of work. According to Lee Server’s biography of Mitchum, when Jack Warner learned that the colour movie he was backing had next to no colour in it he was not best pleased. Wellman’s response was simple and to the point: ” If he doesn’t like it he can go shit in his hat.” It could of course be argued that Wellman’s radical decision to shoot a colour movie using almost exclusively black and white imagery was not much more than a stylistic affectation, an exercise in aesthetics if you like. However, I believe there’s more to it than that; the colour, or lack of it, used by Wellman, and cameraman William H Clothier, goes a long way towards defining the nature of the characters and their relationships. Black and white infers absolutes, clearly defined parameters. Bearing in mind that the domestic setup is traditionally the province of females, the fact that the decor of the homestead consists of just these two colours reflects the inflexible and puritanical outlook of Ma Bridges (Beulah Bondi). The Bridges inhabit a world where any kind of personal manoeuvrability is severely limited. There are only two notable exceptions to this stark, spartan colour scheme: the red jacket worn by Curt and the yellow blouse of Gwen. Both these colours are indicative of energy, but while Curt’s red conveys the notion of power and aggression, Gwen’s yellow implies warmth and happiness. I think it’s also worth pointing out that when Curt exchanges his jacket for that of his dead brother after the cat’s attack he undergoes a kind of transformation. Now shorn of the symbol of strength and vitality, he dons the cow hide tunic and gradually assumes the characteristics of the prey rather than the predator.
Mitchum managed to capture this character shift very subtly in his performance. There’s a world of difference between the brash, swaggering bully of the first half of the picture and the paranoid, haunted shell of a man he becomes, yet he achieves this switch in a wholly natural and seamless fashion. The role of Curt is very unsympathetic (foreshadowing his work on Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear) but he pulls it off and, in the process, provides evidence of just how versatile and talented he really was. I couldn’t say that any member of the cast struck a false note and everyone involved performed more than competently. However, I do want to single out Beulah Bondi’s turn as the forbidding matriarch. This self-righteous and moralizing figure is the linchpin of the family, binding them all together either in spite of or because of her intolerance. Although there is a terrible quality to this woman, it’s hard not to feel some twinge of pity as she sits in that cold room, waking one dead son, fearing for the life of another and watching the slow disintegration of all she holds dear.
Despite being released theatrically by Warner Brothers, Track of the Cat was made by John Wayne’s production company Batjac and so was put out on DVD a few years back by Paramount in the US, and subsequently elsewhere. The anamorphic scope transfer is good enough, though not perfect. The movie really could use a clean up, but there isn’t anything that acts as a distraction or spoils the enjoyment of the movie. Apart from the main feature itself, where the disc really scores is in the extras department. There’s a commentary track with Tab Hunter, William Wellman Jr and Frank Thompson, a gallery and trailers. Additionally, there’s also a feature on the making of the film which has been divided up into four self-contained featurettes. The film won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it is a remarkable and unique work that deserves to be seen. Aside from the visuals, and they are quite spectacular, it’s one of those multi-layered pictures that rewards repeated viewings. I’ve seen the movie a few times now and there are still things that I’m only just noticing. Whether or not one warms to the film is ultimately down to personal preference, but it certainly refutes the notion that westerns and art house pictures don’t mix. I recommend giving it a chance at least.