TRACK OF THE CAT

(1954)
With Robert Mitchum, Tab Hunter, Beulah Bondi, Teresa Wright, Diana Lynn, Philip Tonge, William Hopper, Carl Switzer
Directed by William A. Wellman
Reviewed by JL

Smile when you call me offputting!     Director Bill Wellman defied categorization, which was not necessarily a good thing.  Howard Hawks may have made great films in just about every category (comedy, drama, Western, action-adventure, detective noir, musicals), but such trademarks as staccato-paced dialogue, detailed background action, rugged men paired with tough women, and high-powered energy always defined them as Hawks films.  Wellman on the other hand may have an impressive list of multi-category classic films to his credit (THE PUBLIC ENEMY, A STAR IS BORN, NOTHING SACRED, THE OX-BOW INCIDENT, et al), but there are no consistent qualities among them that define a "Wellman film."  True, that's the way he liked it ("The best director is the director whose hand prints are not on the film," he once said), but it was the lack of definable personal qualities that often caused his films to fall short of their potential.  If a director brings nothing to the table other than a desire to tell the writer's story in a straightforward manner, the results tend to seem tentative and lacking in the passion that results from personal investment.  This is why Wellman's admission that "For every good picture, I made five or six stinkers" is an accurate assessment of his career.

     TRACK OF THE CAT is a great film in spite of Wellman's reserved approach, but one can't help but think that a director like John Ford, Orson Welles, or even Charles Laughton, would have used this material to create a singular and personal masterpiece.  The film's source, a novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, featured characters even more bizarre and quirky than those in the film (if such a thing is possible), as well as lengthy scenes of page-turning suspense that Wellman tends to rush through without milking them for all their worth.  Although Wellman makes some impressive visual choices (more on this below), the film nevertheless approaches its offbeat material too cautiously.

       What makes TRACK OF THE CAT work is its combination of unconventional storyline and a cast of characters more pathetic and self-absorbed than any this side of Eugene O'Neill.  It's the story of the Bridges family, under the possessive control of a Bible-thumping matriarch (Beulah Bondi) whose apparent mission in life is to ensure misery and stagnation for all family members.  Pa Bridges (Philip Tonge) might have been a wise and benevolent patriarch at one time, but his daily consumption of two quarts of whiskey has rendered him a worthless buffoon.  The Alpha Male head of the clan is middle son Curt (Robert Mitchum), who is often at odds with his nature-and-poetry loving older brother Arthur (William Hopper), weak-willed kid brother Harold (Tab Hunter), and his embittered, spinsterish sister Grace (Teresa Wright).  The most pleasant times shared by the Bridges are those rare occasions when five minutes pass without someone trying to chastise or humiliate someone else.  Fortunately for the rest of the world, they live in almost total isolation in their snowbound Rocky Mountain habitat.

     When it is suspected than an elusive wildcat has been killing and mutilating cattle on the family ranch, Curt and Arthur embark on a quest for the beast, with the obsessive Curt pledging repeatedly to shoot it "right between the eyes."  When the cat kills Arthur (not much of a spoiler as it happens early in the film), the family undergoes a profound transformation for the better, though there is lingering doubt as to their ability to coexist in the future.  Curt, meanwhile, is left alone in his pursuit of the cat, becoming increasingly frustrated (as well as hungry and cold) by his losing battle against nature.  The scenes of Curt in isolation are juxtaposed with those of the family in spiritual recovery, each serving as an effective counterpoint to the other.

     The film boasts several standout performances, including Mitchum with his customary off-putting blend of laconic disinterest and inner rage.  Teresa Wright (who receives second billing despite a smallish supporting role) effectively plays against type as the spinster sister who retreats to her music when her self-loathing threatens to overwhelm her.  The surprise in the cast is Tab Hunter, who delivers a sensitive performance that belies his reputation as a one-dimensional pretty boy.  The true standout in the cast, however, is Beulah Bondi, whose tour-de-force as Ma Bridges would have certainly earned an Oscar nomination had TRACK OF THE CAT been more successful in 1954.  It's an extraordinary portrayal of a woman with many layers of bitterness and insecurity, and Bondi accomplishes the near-impossible by engendering a bit (but only a bit, mind you) of audience sympathy towards the end.  Finally, mention must be made of Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, who is effective in an almost wordless performance as the 100-year-old Indian Joe Sam, despite having to contend with one of the worst old-age makeup jobs in screen history.

     Wellman chose to emphasize the bleakness of the material by making "a color film in black-and-white."  For much of the picture, flesh tones are the only color among the stark white backdrop of the snowy mountains and white walls of the family home.  The splashes of color, therefore, are all the more effective and startling when employed.  Mitchum's blood-red coat and the yellow dress worn by Harold's fiancee (Diana Lynn) draw attention to themselves in ways disconcerting and symbolically appropriate.  The director was criticized by some for his decision to employ an artificial-looking, sound stage-created set for the family ranch, but it underscores the surreal nature of the family's existence and contrasts effectively with the on-location scenes of Mitchum in the natural wilderness.  Also noteworthy is the scene of Arthur's burial, filmed entirely from the point of view of Arthur in his grave!

     It is because of the abundance of bizarre and fascinating characters, as well as the quirky and twisted storyline, that TRACK OF THE CAT succeeds and lingers in the mind despite the tentative and uninspired choices on Wellman's part.  There's never been a film like it before or since.  It's not the sort of picture you'd expect to have been made in 1954, and definitely not the sort of film you'd expect to have been produced by John Wayne's production company.  Unseen for more than two decades, its recent release on DVD has already spawned a cult following. - JL

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