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Track of the Cat

Track of the Cat(1954)

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William Wellman's elusive Track of the Cat, the veteran director's 1954 visual experiment in filming a color movie in which almost all the "colors" are black or white, turns out to be just that: an experiment. One of the long-unavailable 1950s releases from John Wayne's Batjac Productions that have recently been resurfacing from Paramount Home Entertainment, the combination of its unusual visuals and its drama about a family at war with itself are enough to keep Track of the Cat mildly interesting, though it hardly ranks with The Ox-Bow Incident and Yellow Sky as a gripping Wellman western.

Like Ox-Bow, Track of the Cat adapts a novel by Walter Van Tilberg Clark. But unlike the focused morality play of the first, Track of the Cat offers a trickier plot for Wellman and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides to convey. The ranch of the Bridges family is where things start, when the early-morning stirrings of the livestock alert brothers Curt (Robert Mitchum), Art (William Hopper) and Hal (Tab Hunter) to the likelihood that a wildcat, perhaps even the black panther that legend says comes out at first snow, is around. The brothers have different personalities: Curt is aggressive and selfish, and has taken leadership of the ranch upon himself; Art, the oldest, is thoughtful and learned; and Hal, the youngest, is passive, letting Art stick up for him when necessary. The family also includes a crabby mom (Beulah Bondi) who backs up Curt at every turn, a drunkard dad (Philip Tonge) and a spinster daughter (Teresa Wright).

Curt is gung ho to hunt down the cat, and Art heads out with him, finding some of the panther's victims and getting on its trail. This leads to one of the few instances in which Wellman uses other colors besides black and white dramatically. That's when Curt and Art separate and, during that time, the panther kills Art. When Curt wants to send a horse back to the ranch with Art's corpse strapped to it, he has to switch jackets with Art (the horse is spooked by the wildcat scene on Art's), putting his red jacket on the dead man. When the horse returns home, certain family members are relieved to see it's Curt who's died and not Art, and then horrified to learn the truth.

But the plot sets up a generally unsatisfying situation. First of all, Art isn't very well developed before he's dead. If he's supposed to be a thoughtful alternative to crass Curt, then what are his alternatives? He never suggests another viable tack to take against the panther, and you have little sense of how life at the Bridges' ranch would be with Art in charge instead of Curt. Even more importantly, for a Mitchum movie, there's not a whole lot of Mitchum. After the first half-hour, he's out in the snowy mountains, while the family and Hal's girlfriend Gwen (Diana Lynn), whose yellow scarf is the movie's other recurring splash of color, are socked in at the ranch. The main action is the bickering in the ranch house, where the death of Art and the reign of Curt are debated and the need for Hal to assert himself is impressed upon him by both his sister and his girlfriend. Although the bonus features suggest Curt's hunting of the wildcat fills much of the book, in the movie it mainly provides cutaways, albeit important ones. But much more time is spent on the family's slaying of its metaphorical beasts than on the hunt for the real beast. You want more of the Mitchum scenes, not only because they feature Mitchum (and he plays the role of Curt so unabashedly brutally), but because they're in striking real-life locations, while the rest of the movie is studio-bound (scenes outside the ranch house feature credibility-eroding multiple shadows going in several different directions).

All of which prevents Track of the Cat from being a satisfying story instead of just an interesting experiment. But, as cinematography goes, this is one amazing movie. William Clothier (Seven Men from Now, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) turns landscapes into eye-popping wonderlands and, despite the sometimes chintzy studio "exteriors," he and Wellman also give us a very dramatically-composed shot looking up from Art's grave in the studio-filmed portions, once as Hal digs it and again as the family gathers for a makeshift funeral and the coffin is lowered into it. These shots have the grim melancholy the movie goes for, but doesn't always achieve.

If the movie offers a mixed bag, so do its DVD's bonuses. After all, if a movie has a gimmick, shouldn't there be a featurette covering that gimmick? You would think so, but even though Wellman's experiment at black-and-white-in-color comes up several times, there's no real in-depth look at it. Isn't that more important than including a featurette on wildcats and another on the horse Mitchum rides (even if the movie-horse expert interviewed is his daughter)? Did someone miss the point here? Other featurettes on Wellman (excerpting Mitchum interview footage from 1996's rousing documentary Wild Bill) and Clark are more worthy, though the one that most obviously should be here, about the cinematography, is absent.

For more information about Track of the Cat, visit Paramount Home Video. To order Track of the Cat, go to TCM Shopping.

by Paul Sherman