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, those of Arthur and his spinster sister (Teresa Wright) are only superficially better – a telling comment early on informs us that both will remain childless – and the family 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.
26 thoughts on “Track of the Cat”
Excellent review, Colin. I remember well seeing this one as a kid on television and being drawn to it one Saturday afternoon. Never could put my finger to why I appreciated it, being so unlike the westerns of my childhood I cherished. I believe you’ve explained to me with this fine post.
Wonderful piece of writing, Colin. Many thanks.
p.s., I have to share with you one tidbit on your recent change to the WordPress platform. At work, while I could pick up on new content via my RSS reader, I never could comment on your site till I returned home. For some reason, the content filters at my job would block the old filmjournal.net domain. Now, I don’t have that limit… of course, I’m aways working hard, don’t ‘ya know ;-).
Thanks very much for that Michael.
And I’m glad to hear the new site is more accessible – I had heard there were some issues with the old domain in that regard.
Excellent post Colin – this is a movie that i remember having quite an effect on me in my teens (seem to turn up a lot on Italian TV for some reason, unlike most of the other Wellman Batjac productions like ISLAND IN THE SKY and THE HIGH AND MIGHTY which i only caught up with on DVD decades later).Like NIGHT OF THE HUNTER it showcases Mitchum’s extraordinary range as actor (and major star, let’s not forget that) but also has such a weird and intangible feel that it remains a fascinating film even when you view it again. In ‘Soilid, Dad, Crazy’, Damien Love’s book on Mitchum, he calls it “… a haunted universe fit for monster” and it does feel a bit like a Lewton film to me, in the best possible way.
A superb and really in depth analysis – congrats.
Thanks for the comments, and the compliments too, Sergio.
It’s such a complex movie that I found myself shying away from posting about it for a long time, and every time I approached it I seemed to find something else worthy of mention. In short, it’s the kind of film where you struggle to distill your thoughts on it into a medium sized post and keep them reasonably coherent.
Performances like he gave here (and in Night of the Hunter, Cape Fear, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Farewell My Lovely, to name just a handful) make you wonder why Mitchum ever gained the reputaion for being something of a sleepwalker. Apart from his star quality, there was power, depth and real emotion in the man’s acting.
I completely agree – the more I read about Mitchum and the more of his films I see he just keeps going up in my personal estimation. Of course there are some duds along the way, but even in a playful nothing of a movie like Huston’s lark of a mystery THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER he is probably the only one of the masked actors to give a real performance (of course, it turns out that Douglas and most of the other stars, with the exception of Tony Curtis, were all doubled apart from the ‘reveal’ scenes, but still …).
I think a good deal of the misconception stems from Mitchum’s own fondness for appearing flippant and making facetious comments about himself during interviews and the like – that and some of the lousy movies he appeared in from time to time. His best on-screen work tells a different story though. If you look at him in the original Cape Fear and compare his performance to De Niro’s scenery chewing in the remake he comes out on top IMO – there was the necessary menace of course, but subtlety too.
PS That Italian poster you have certainly suggests a ‘Moby Dick’ association (the title traslates as ‘The Beast’ of course and Mitchum is decidedly in an Ahab-like pose it seems to me!
You’re quite right – that hadn’t occurred to me. You see, I said there’s always something else to pick up on with this film.
Like you, this is a picture I’ve held back on writing about — always fear there’s something key that I haven’t noticed yet.
In my research on it, I’ve found Wellman’s comments fascinating. He says he carried that black-and-white-in-color idea around for years and saw this as a chance to finally do it. He also says that he and William Clothier cried when they saw the finished film — and that no one at Warner Brothers ever noticed a thing. He doesn’t say what John Wayne thought.
There are a number of movies I’ve thought long and hard about taking on; some I have got round to, and felt reasonably satisfied that I covered the most important stuff, but others stil deter me. Mind you, it has to be said that the more challenging the film, the more fun there is to be had from trying to tease out an interpretation. It can be tiring though if you concentrate on the tough ones all the time.
I’ve seen that comment about Wellman and Clothier being in tears over the way the movie looked, not altogether surprising given how striking it all is. I’ve also read his comment where he expressed regret for not actually showing the cat on screen, suggesting that this may have been one of the reasons why it didn’t go over better with contemporary audiences. I don’t know, he may have had a point. However, looking at the film today, I’m glad he didn’t. I’m convinced that the fact we never see the panther adds to the supernatural and semi-mythical quality of the beast. As Sergio mentioned in an earlier comment, it lends the film a little of the ambiguity that Val Lewton brought to his work; the dread of the unknown and unseen, the horrors that only our own imagination can conjure, often being infinitely more powerful and resonant than the obvious thrust in our faces.
A thoughtful consideration, Colin, and I related to everything you said, especially re that whole Western/Art Film duality. Its reputation seems to be more on the upswing in recent years and it deserves this kind of attention. That said, I’ve had a more mixed and variable reaction to it over the years than to most films.
Seeing it in 1954 when I was pretty young I actually found it very striking even if some aspects were a little over by head. I found the color on black and white idea really imaginative and interesting and worked in the film and I still do. But this single element points the way to possible extreme reactions to TRACK OF THE CAT, the first being that it’s a beautifully and consciously deliberated work of art and the second that it loses all the spontaneity and flow of a good genre film.
When I came back to it as an adult (and perhaps possibly affected by a faded print, which actually can have an even worse effect on a film with subtle color than on most color films), my opinion of it went way down. I hadn’t really come to appreciate Wellman (I do now, even if he is very uneven) and felt I hadn’t ever seen a more pretentious mainstream movie out of American cinema–it did seem to court that Eugene O’Neill thing, too much. And I might add that while I haven’t read Clark’s novel, I did read THE OX-BOW INCIDENT when I was younger and always looked forward to catching up with Wellman’s movie of it but was disappointed when I did–as dramatic as the movie is, the novel is much richer and deeper.
In any event, later saw TRACK OF THE CAT again with good color and reversed my opinion, feeling it was a success, managed all of its levels intelligently, enjoyed the metaphors, the characters and the mood and appreciated that it was an unusual movie. But coming back to it one more time a year or so ago, I was relatively let down–still interests me but I was less engaged by it. Let’s say for me maybe not a masterpiece but still worthwhile and in some ways stimulating. Trying something so different and even partly realizing it counts for a lot.
I hope you don’t mind my pointing out that there is an error in your description of the story. Teresa Wright does not play a wife to William Hopper. She is the sister of the three brothers and has never married. She is especially close to and loving of Hopper, almost in a wifely way, perhaps transferring to him the affection she would have had for a husband (by contrast she hates the brother played by Mitchum), so this little mistake is interesting in bringing out an emotionally incestuous undercurrent in her feeling for Hopper.
Wellman holds a pretty good place in the Western when everything is taken together, with WESTWARD THE WOMEN his masterpiece in the genre for me, closely followed by YELLOW SKY.
Thanks for that detailed response Blake. I can quite understand your mixed reaction to the movie; in truth, I think any quality movie will provoke a variety of reactions, even within the same viewer, over time. Maturity and changing perspectives, even print quality as you say, play a part in altering how anything affects us.
There is indeed a measured, self-conscious quality to the movie that can be taken as pretension. I haven’t read Clark’s book myself, so I can’t say how much of that is down to the source material and how much is Wellman’s contribution. The Eugene O’Neill aspect is certainly there, and I guess it can appear a little forced. The decision to shoot the movie in the way he did is obviously a stylistic experiment, but I feel the use (and absence) of colour makes it more than just a hollow affectation. There is an attempt to achieve something artistic, a think piece if you like, and even if it’s not wholly successful I also believe that having the guts to forge ahead with the project says a lot for Wellman as a director.
And thanks too for pointing out my error in the synopsis. I don’t know why, but I always took it for granted that Teresa Wright was playing William Hopper’s wife – I suppose I noticed their closeness and affection and simply failed to look further. Just goes to show that I ought to have been paying more attention to that relationship.
P.S. Re The Ox-Bow Incident, I’ve read the book and seen the movie and I can’t say the film was disappointment to me. I won’t argue with you about the text being richer, but I did think (although it’s been a while since I read the book) that the film was quite faithful in adapting the story.
I’d agree with you both that there’s a mannered feel to Track Of The Cat.
I kinda like it though — the picture as a whole feels a little off-kilter, which adds to the film similar to how the color scheme (or lack of one) does. (The whole stylistic thing reminds me of Rancho Notorious, with its whacked-out soundstage “exteriors.”)
It keeps you from getting really pulled into the story, perhaps, but it is worthwhile in other ways.
On The Ox-Box Incident, I love the book. Like most books, it gets inside heads in ways film simply can’t. The picture does a masterful job of taking on the book, though, and I remember seeing it the first time and feeling like I’d been punched in the stomach. I’ve always found it hard to believe Cat and Incident were made by the same director.
I really like Blake’s phrase “the spontaneity and flow of a good genre film.” I’ve tried many times to sort out why I prefer genre stuff to “regular” movies, and that comes real close.
Yes, I can understand that slight detachment brought on by a movie like Track of the Cat. It’s a kind of heightened unreality, and Rancho Notorious is another (quite different) movie that feels similar in that respect. Thanks for reminding me of it Toby; I’m planning to look at a few Lang films over the coming weeks/months, and that will be one of them.
The Ox-Bow Incident is such a powerful story with a strong central theme that, for me anyway, both book and film are satisfying. I think Wellman and his cast did very good work there, and I’m not sure how much, if at all, it could be improved upon. I agree too that we’re talking about two movies which appear to have little in common; you’d never guess that both see the same director adapting material from the same author.
I suppose genre conventions can be seen as a restrictive aspect, but there’s a positive side to them too. Their existence means that audiences are immediately aware of what they’re seeing, and filmmakers are bolstered by them too. It does allow more effort to go into ensuring that the picture in question has greater drive. When those conventions get broken or played around with it can wrong foot an audience (for a time anyway) and turn it into something more difficult or challenging – perhaps losing some of the spontaneity Blake referred to.
Re your comments and Toby’s about genres and genre conventions, working with limitations or as you say restrictions is an important part of any art. I’m with Toby on preferring “genre stuff” but not sure if we should oppose this to “regular movies”; anyone should take a look at their list of favorite movies sometime, especially in classical American cinema. Most great American movies, with relatively few exceptions, are genre movies. The artful practice of these genres is what made American cinema so great.
And that goes for TRACK OF THE CAT too, if one believes it’s great, or even just a movie to command a lot of interest–it does start within a genre. When someone knows a genre well and has succeeded in it on its own terms, as Wellman had with Westerns, I am willing to follow them when they bend it beyond what we are more familiar with. And in truth, though most Westerns are not so unusual, the great Westerns all find an individual character and something of their own, even if beginning with a familiar pattern. That’s their glory.
Colin, it was probably already evident, but I’ll stress that I agree Wellman is more to be celebrated for the guts to do the film the way he did than chastised for pretensions and self-consciousness, allowing they are there. I don’t consider myself settled on this film yet and will get back to it again at some point. It has many things I admire–especially the color. One thing occurred to me about this and that is that it especially had a tremendous effect on one scene, the introduction of Diana Lynn.
She comes into the film encountering Mitchum–and the feeling between the two is very charged, almost violent, and it’s accentuated by the sudden appearance in the same frame of the only two colors, worn by these two characters, which has telling emotional and aesthetic effect.
Re THE OX-BOW INCIDENT, it’s been years since I read the book, so I know I can’t talk about it too well myself, but my memory is just that the story is more expansive with more going on than the central lynching incident. The movie certainly was faithful to that–and the anti-lynching statement within it; it’s probably just the inevitable process of making a concise screenplay out of a novel and not a fault of the movie–they are two different mediums. But I remember enjoying how the novel made its way to the lynching artfully and without any great haste, accumulating its power.
True, most pictures were, and arguably still are, genre pieces first. I can only speak for myself here, but I guess when the term “genre movie” is used it brings to mind something that stays quite firmly within the bounds of its type. That really ought not to be taken as a criticism or a derogatory comment, rather it’s a simple admission that the film’s terms of reference are clearly defined.
I think this is a fine summation. When you look at any of the real frontline westerns there’s always something that sets them slightly apart from the pack. That may be in the scripting, the cinematography, the performances, or tone and characteristics of another genre. It’s that introduction of the unfamiliar or the unexpected that gives us pause, and marks out the special films. Of course, when a film like Track of the Cat goes that bit further again it’s bound to divide opinion. I’m not sure myself that I’d go so far as to call it a great western, but it’s very different and certainly worthy.
Colin, as with your review of Wellman’s ‘Yellow Sky’, I’m late to the party, but have now belatedly seen this film and was blown away by it. This is a great review, along with the ensuing discussion – reading your thoughts makes me want to watch the film again right away. I especially like your comments about the use of colours and the way the black and white represent Ma’s narrow world view, with the red and yellow showing how Curt and Gwen want to question and strike out against that. It strikes me that Arthur’s black and white jacket, though, has a soft/fluffy look to it, maybe suggesting how he tries to soften his mother’s harshness, and perhaps when Curt puts it on he takes on some of his brother’s gentler personality.
I think Wellman is always fascinated by tough guys who at heart ‘ain’t so tough’, and Mitchum really fits that in this film – although he is a ‘swaggering bully’ at the start, as soon as you see him sitting at the breakfast table being bossed around by his mother and protesting that he is 37, there’s a feeling that the life he is actually living is at odds with that bullying image and that in some ways he is just as hemmed in and restricted as his sister Grace. Anyway, a lot to think about here – you are really on a roll here and I’m finding it hard to keep up with your reviews, but do aim to see more of the films you have been discussing!
Thanks Judy. I’m glad to hear the film worked for you; as has been noted, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
Regarding the use of colour, I don’t for a minute believe that a canny director like Wellman made this decision as a mere pose or as pretentious indulgence – although I can certainly see how it could be interpreted that way. Good point about Curt’s gradual transformation when he takes his brother’s jacket. I think you’re right; he not only loses some of his power by jettisoning his own red garment but also acquires the “weaker” traits of Arthur.
You know, reading through your post on Wellman’s The Light that Failed, I had the feeling that I’ve seen the movie before but can’t be entirely sure, certain aspects seem very familiar.
As for being on a roll, I think the move to the new site has brought on a burst of energy!
One of the very few Mitchum films that I have never seen. I really need to fix that.
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An odd film in many ways, but a compelling one.
I keep waiting for it to pop up on TCM here.
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It’s viewable online if you get tired waiting…
At last, At last, At last!!!! It is finally coming up on TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES on Oct 9th. i was starting to give up hope on this one.
I’d be curious to hear what you think of it. I like it but I also understand that it doesn’t do it for everyone.
Thanks to the Criterion Channel it is presented as part of a Robert Mitchum collection. It must be 40 years since I last saw this film but now I have seen it presented as intended, albeit not, alas in a movie theater, but as good an approximation as you can get these days. It is not, by any means, your average run of the mill ‘western’, if it is indeed a western, technically. But no matter, it is brim full of wonderful imagery and acting turns. It’s atmospheric, mystical (but…Carl Switzer? Come on..) and great, it has to be said, ‘entertainment’ in an odd way. I love it for its offbeatness, its studio settings vs the magnificence of the real outdoors…there’s a lot here to mull over. It’s different, experimental and quite brave in its attempts to BE different. Love it.
I’m happy to hear you had the opportunity to catch up with the film. I also like the positive reaction you had to it.