Sunday, May 29, 2011


As a movie producer, John Wayne deserves credit for, among other things teaming up Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher and releasing William Wellman's film version of the novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, whose The Ox-Bow Incident Wellman had directed a decade earlier. Wellman had made to airborne dramas for and with Wayne, Island in the Sky and The High and the Mighty, but neither those nor anything else the furiously prolific director had made over more than a quarter-century since Wings really prepares one for the in-your-face aesthetic experimentation he unleashes here. That it bears the Wayne (or Wayne-Fellows) imprimatur is perhaps even more staggering. While one can imagine the Duke taking Randolph Scott's place in Seven Men From Now, the mind reels at the prospect of Wayne playing Robert Mitchum's role in this almost freudian "psychological" western.

On the other hand, Mitchum seems to fit the weird world Wellmen and art director Al Ybarra designed for him like a glove. Something about Mitchum seemed to inspire expressionistic excess in the Fifties; Track of the Cat is one of the few films that looks like it might have taken place on the same planet on which Charles Laughton filmed the legendary Night of the Hunter. There's a deliberate artifice to Wellman's presentation that seems still more stark and more deliberate whenever he cuts from the blatant soundstage where the Bridges family lives to the tremendous, man-dwarfing wintry mountain locations where the "black painter" lurks. Without knowing too much about the production history, I presume that the stagy look of the home scenes is absolutely intentional, highlighting the theatrical exaggeration of the snowbound family drama and contrasting the stunted, stifled fate that threatens the younger Bridges children with the gigantic landscape where Mitchum, as the eldest son, hunts the cat and strives to reaffirm his mastery.

Nurture (above) and nature (below) contrasted in Track of the Cat.

The Bridges are perhaps the most miserable family presented in a Fifties Western. We're told that they're powerful ranchers and landowners, but cooped up at home for the winter they appear petty and pathetic, with only the semi-crippled Indian Joe Sam as a servant and young Gwen Williams (Diana Lynn) as a guest for the season. The paterfamilias is a drunk. The mother is a bible-reading harpy whose only concern seems to be with preserving the ranch intact for Curtis (Mitchum) to inherit. The two younger brothers and their sister seem repressed by the attention given Curtis, while Curt himself seems resentful and spoiled at the same time, lording it over his siblings but preferring to roam the mountains. The rampage of a "painter" becomes a family crisis, as Curt's brothers in turn seek to prove themselves, the youngest, Harold (Tab Hunter) torn between duty to family and desire for Gwen, who sees clearly that he'll be crushed by family pressures if something doesn't give.

A view from the grave: Tab Hunter faces a choice between love and death.

A documentary on Clark on the disc makes the novel sound more symbolically pretentious than it probably is, but the main drama of the movie is clear enough. As a spoiled heir and aggressive hunter and enforcer -- we're told he's driven numerous squatters off the ranch -- Curt has convinced himself that he's the master of his fate and capable of anything on his own. He's become a kind of incubus on the rest of the family, the parents focusing their hopes and his siblings sacrificing theirs for his sake. He intends to prove himself again by killing the cat, and seems contemptuous of brother Arthur, even after Arthur is killed by the "painter." Having borrowed Arthur's coat, Curt finds a copy of John Keats's poetry. The most use Curt finds for the pages is as kindling. He's as stunted as his siblings in some ways, but his tragic flaw is his assumption that, however dependent he's been all along on his family, that he is a lone champion and provider. But when he loses his provisions and faces the prospect of starvation, he breaks quickly, while the surviving brother, Harold, rises against the odds to both crucial occasions of his life: standing up to his mother for Gwen's sake and taking up the hunt for the cat.

The story is a little heavyhanded, portraying Curt perhaps too literally as an incubus whose departure promises to redeem his entire surviving family. But that's the kind of thematic excess that seems to go with the visual excess of Wellman's direction in both directions, from the staginess of the home scenes to the god's-eye view of the winter landscape. Wellman testified that he meant Track to look as much like a black-and-white movie as was possible for a color film. Cannily, he accentuates what he's up to by throwing in isolated bits of blazing color like Curt's red coat or the distant glow of a watchfire. He also jolts us with unexpected moments of pure pictorialism, as when he cuts from the family bringing in Arthur's body to a screen-spanning view of the monochrome quilt on which the body will lay. Cinematographer William H. Clothier does a mighty job realizing Wellman's vision, though contemporary viewers might not have appreciated the experiment.

Black and white in color

As a Warner Bros. release, Track of the Cat would have made a fascinating (or infuriating) double feature with another exercise in stylization, Victor Saville's The Silver Chalice. While the adoption of widescreen processes and the hegemony of color drove demand for heightened realism, these films defiantly and recklessly aimed for often alienating pictorial effects. Of the two, Track maintains a steadier balance between style and substance because Wellman is just too good of a classical storyteller to let the film get out of control. In the end, however, style is what makes Track stand out among Fifties westerns. While Boetticher, Mann and Daves strove for naturalistic expressionism, Wellman took the "psychological western" label seriously and tried for the best of both worlds: the abstract aesthetic of the interior world and the turbulent romanticism of western landscape. How well it succeeds is probably a matter of taste for each viewer, but the overall power of Wellman's direction and Mitchum's performance are indisputable.


dfordoom said...

I'll definitely have to see this one.

Jonny said...

Films shot in Cinemascope at that time had a ratio of about 2.66 : 1, which is just incredible as can be seen from the screen shots. Prospect of making a black and white film in color is also a fascinating undertaking. I'll admit I had never heard of this one, but will have to get it on my list of things to see.

KC said...

I want to love this movie so much. The black and white in color scheme is beautiful in an eerie way and I love the cast. Everytime I watch it though, I feel let down. If it had a little more tension and some more juice in a few of the performances, I think it could have been a unique success instead of a somewhat interesting misstep.

Samuel Wilson said...

dfordoom: definitely do.

Jonny: Track may qualify as one of the first widescreen masterworks on a purely pictorial level. I saw it on a 32" HD set and it was dazzling.

KC: I agree about the eerieness and the letdown. Things resolve too easily at the end, as if everything bad was really the Mitchum character's fault, but it's unconvincing, not least because Wellman decided to out-Lewton Val Lewton and never showed the cat, rendering Harold's showdown with the animal pretty anticlimactic.