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.
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 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.