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Sometimes even great directors stumble when they attempt bold experiments. William A. Wellman's existential Western, Track of the Cat (1954), is often crudely symbolic with a claustrophobic sense of gloom and doom. In his autobiography, Wellman judged the film "a flop artistically, financially, and Wellmanly." But that's being a little severe. This is a fascinating misfire that, if for no other reason, is worth watching for one of the more unique visual schemes in movie history. At times, the stark, color-drained imagery is genuinely haunting.
The story opens on a ranch in California, where a snowstorm has trapped the Bridges family on their ranch. The family unit is a bickering group that's controlled by cold-hearted Ma Bridges (Beulah Bondi.) The father (Philip Tonge) is an alcoholic who's been worn to a nub by his domineering wife. The daughter, Grace (Teresa Wright), is lonely and embittered, but she has nothing on the three sons, Harold (Tab Hunter), Arthur (William Hopper), and Curt (Robert Mitchum), whose bickering is constant. The introduction of a close neighbor (Diana Lynn) who has eyes for Harold only serves to bring the simmering tensions to a boiling point. When an unseen panther starts killing the cattle, the lost-and-betrayed metaphors begin piling up like kindling.
According to Tab Hunter in his autobiography, working with such a distinguished cast and director was a little intimidating at first and the actual production was often a physical ordeal. "The late-spring weather was unpredictable [at Mount Rainier], with magnificent sunshine suddenly consumed by cloudbursts, and rain turning the mountain snow to slush. Things were just as tricky when we moved to Stage 22 on the Warners lot, where exterior scenes of the family's house and barn were re-created. It's a real challenge to act cold while dressed in full winter wardrobe on a broiling set, during a heat wave, as fake snowflakes stick to your sweating face."
On the positive side was Hunter's working relationship with Wellman. "Despite his obsession with visual innovations, Wellman maintained a human touch with actors," Hunter observed. The director "was terrific at setting the tone for a scene, like a conductor who knew all the notes and how they should be played: by far the best director I'd worked with." Hunter was equally impressed with co-star Robert Mitchum who "approached work like a day laborer delivering a truckload of rocks to your backyard. 'What picture are we shooting today!' he'd crack on the drive to the location. Such coolness was actually made possible by a photographic memory - one glance at a script page, and Mitch had his lines down cold. He was the quickest study I'd ever seen."
Mitchum, as always, steals the film from his cast mates; he simply exudes menace, and you can't take your eyes off of him. But there's no denying the wacky allure of Carl Switzer, who made his name as "Alfalfa" in The Little Rascals, playing a 100 year-old Indian! Switzer's performance was well-received by critics at the time, though most of them were less enthusiastic about the film itself.
If you think Track of the Cat suffers from a weak script, you're not the only one - Wellman's screenwriter, A.I. Bezzerides felt the same way. After delivering a first draft of the screenplay to producer John Wayne (yes, that John Wayne), Bezzerides was stunned to hear that Wellman felt they were ready to start filming. "I said, 'Bill, it needs cutting. It'll take a couple of weeks.' He said, 'No, I like it. Any changes, I'll do them.' I said, 'Don't you understand? It's over-written. The scenes have to be worked on.' Wellman said, 'No, it's perfect.' He had so fallen in love with the script that he wouldn't touch a word of it. And he didn't. And oh my God, that's going too far. I'm not untouchable. But he wouldn't listen."
So, yes, there are some script problems. However, Wellman and his gifted cinematographer, William Clothier, did something very interesting while filming Track of the Cat. For several years, Wellman had been itching to shoot a picture in color while focusing almost solely on black and white images. He felt that the barren physical and emotional landscape of Track of the Cat perfectly suited his needs. Aside from a few splashes of color here and there (Mitchum's red coat, in particular, stands out as an exception), everything in the film is either black, white, or some shade of gray. Even such props as food spread out on the dinner table are pale. It's a strangely unnerving gambit by Wellman, but it pays off. Wellman later remembered the first time he viewed the rushes with Clothier: "Never have I seen such beauty, a naked kind of beauty. Bill and I saw the first print back from the lab. We sat there together drooling."
Too bad their enthusiasm wasn't shared by Jack Warner, whose studio's money was tied up in the picture. "I'm spending five hundred thousand dollars more for color and there's no color in this thing!" he reportedly shouted. Wellman's poetic response was that if Warner didn't like it, he could "go s**t in his hat." Exactly how that would have helped is unclear, but it seems unlikely that Warner took him up on it.
Director: William A. Wellman
Producers: John Wayne, Robert Fellows
Screenplay: A.I. Bezzerides (based on the novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark)
Cinematography: William H. Clothier
Editing: Fred MacDowell
Music: Roy Webb
Art Design: Alfred Ybarra
Set Design: Ralph S. Hurst
Costume Design: Gwen Wakeling
Makeup: Gordon Bau, George Bau
Principal Cast: Robert Mitchum (Curt Bridges), Teresa Wright (Grace Bridges), Diana Lynn (Gwen Williams), Tab Hunter (Hal Bridges), Beulah Bondi (Ma Bridges), Philip Tonge (Pa Bridges), William Hopper (Arthur), Carl Switzer (Joe Sam).
by Paul Tatara
Robert Mitchum: Baby,I Don't Care by Lee Server (St. Martin's Press)
Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star by Tab Hunter with Eddie Muller (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill)