Track of the Cat (1954)

18 07 2009

This is not one of Wellman’s very best efforts, but easily one of his most curious. It’s some sort of weird Dreyer-Bigger Than Life hybrid oozing with a style that attempts to overcome its rather one-dimensionally “profound” narrative regarding Robert Mitchum hunting a black panther. It is undeniably a striking film, especially from a visual standpoint and even though it doesn’t amount to a masterpiece, it is one of the most fascinating Hollywood pictures of the 1950s. If nothing else, I can admire this film for its cynical characters and Wellman’s own uncompromising visual experiment.

For a good twenty minutes or so, Wellman dwells in the brutal atmosphere of the Bridges family. Ma Bridges (Beulah Bondi) is, to say the least, not afraid of voicing her opinion. She is quick to criticize her youngest son, Harold (Tab Hunter) for his plans to marry Gwen Williams, played by Diana Lynn. Meanwhile, Harold’s two older brothers, Curt (Mitchum) and Arthur (William Hopper) are suiting up for the outdoors. Curt plans to dispose of the black panther that has been troubling the Bridges’ livestock.

Right from the get go, Mitchum makes it obvious that he is extremely dedicated to catching and killing the panther that has been terrorizing his family. His dedication is met with indifference from Harold and skepticism from his mother. His father has already drunk himself into stupor (despite the fact that it is early in the morning) but his other brother, Arthur, tags along. Mitchum’s performance does cross the line into the absurd at times, but if anything, it only enhances the already unique and bizarre tone of a picture. It plays out like a more hammy (and more American) depiction of a Carl Dreyer drama.

Wellman’s usual formal brilliance doesn’t hurt in this particular case. The backstory of this particular film is that he designed the sets for black and white, but shot the film itself in color. There’s a few shades of bright colors – the red of Mitchum’s coat is the most significant (and the one most often discussed) but that once again, makes the film that much more fascinating. It parades itself around as some sort of novelty experiment, but it really is a joy to watch. The drama that unfolds is completely overdone, but it seems so irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. It doesn’t seem like a conscious decision on Wellman (or anybody else’s) part but again, it just makes the film so bizarre.

Wellman is, in my mind, the most technically advanced director of Hollywood’s best era so it should come as no surprise that one of the most technically innovative features in the history of mainstream cinema bears his name. It is a very Wellman-esque picture even though the man himself never became bogged down by a set of themes, or even a particular aesthetic. He is often described as versatile, and it is films like this one that provide the basis of that statement. I feel I’ve made it clear that I don’t think as highly of this film as say, Yellow Sky or Wild Boys of the Road, but I think it is both very cool and very impressive that it was made.



One response

18 07 2009
Ed Howard

As flawed as this film is in all the ways you point out, I really loved it. It’s so odd, so completely unlike anything else Hollywood was coming out with at the time, even though it does sample liberally from the palettes of melodramas and Westerns for its visual and narrative tropes. It’s stagey, and yet also visually inventive, with a stark sensibility to the outdoor shots; and good point about the very Dreyer-like artificiality of the interior sets. And I’ll never forget that funeral sequence, filmed from a vantage point inside the open grave, looking up! Great stuff. It’s a truly bizarre and original film, and that alone makes it worth seeing, even if it all doesn’t exactly hold together.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: