Track of the Cat (1954)

William A. Wellman | 1hr 42min

Within the stark, black-and-white design of William A. Wellman’s snowy Western drama, vibrant colours are scarce to be found. The most striking of all is that blazing red coat which hangs on the wall of Curt Bridges’ bedroom, and the moment he puts it on, he automatically becomes the centrepiece of every scene. He is the second eldest of four siblings, and between his kind older brother Arthur, his weak-willed young brother Harold, and his spinster sister Grace, he is by far the most insolent of the lot. Perhaps the ruthlessness with which he tears into others shouldn’t be a surprise given their mother’s similarly mean streak, though hers derives more from her bible-thumping conservatism, while their drunk father wanders aimlessly through scenes detached from his surroundings.

All across the widescreen canvas of Wellman’s CinemaScope, he stages a textured web of strained family dynamics with incredible attention to detail. Just outside these claustrophobic confines though in the surrounding frozen mountains, they are haunted by the threat of a dangerous wild panther. As it lures the sons of the Bridges clan away from home and confronts them with a raw power mightier than they expect, layers of metaphors begin to emerge from its mystical presence.

Black-and-white interiors and landscapes, mirroring a common sterility. It is Robert Mitchum’s aggressive red coat which is often the brightest burst of colour.

Ranch hand Joe Sam carries his own superstitions around the creature, stemming from his Native American culture which views them as evil omens. Even the apprehension of its proximity is a deadly force too apparently – when Curt flees in terror and meets his downfall, Joe Sam identifies the source of his fear as coming from “In him.” The tension this panther generates is something which these masculine egos are simple not equipped to handle. In a stroke of inspired genius 21 years before Jaws would do the same, Wellman resists the urge to show us the animal, building greater suspense from its unseen presence than its physical form, and transforming it into an intangible embodiment of man’s inner darkness.

The hunt that Curt and Arthur embark on to put an end to this panther’s reign of terror separates them from the rest of the family early in Track of the Cat, and from there Wellman sets in a motion a pair of parallel narratives. Both are bound by the same monochrome palette, which is as fastidiously woven into the homestead’s dreary décor as it is the silhouetted trees and snowy mountains of Northern California’s alpine landscapes. Wellman himself stated that by effectively shooting a black-and-white film in colour, he was opening up the possibility to emphasise the sparse yet vivid hues which burst through the mise-en-scène. Here, he lets them manifest as an orange campfire, a box of blue matches, and of course that aforementioned crimson jacket.

Depth of field in Wellman’s blocking. This thorough commitment to building out the complex family dynamics through the dynamic visuals marks Track of the Cat as a major cinematic achievement for him.

Much like the panther, that piece of clothing becomes a masculine metaphor of a different kind, representing the virility that Curt obnoxiously wears everywhere he goes. Only when he sends it home with Arthur’s dead body does he give it up, exchanging it for his brother’s cow hide coat. Now assuming the appearance of the prey rather than the predator, his stature is greatly diminished, and we start to see this freezing mountain range absorb him into its icy caves and crevices.

With both elder brothers missing from home, an unfamiliar power vacuum opens in the Bridges family. The opportunity is right there for Harold to take charge and unify his family as its patriarch, and yet leadership does not come naturally to him. While he sat and waited over the years for Curt to offer him his share of the ranch, Curt waited for him to speak up and ask for it himself. When the judgemental Ma expresses her disdain for his sweetheart Gwen, he cannot summon the courage to mount a defence in her honour. His only real supporters here are Arthur, who is swiftly killed off by the panther by the end of the film’s first act, and Grace, who is effectively powerless yet wishes him a life better than her own.

Frames and blocking in Wellman’s photography, binding them within the bare walls of the stables and home.

Nothing can grow in the oppressive sterility of this colourless home, bound by bare weatherboard walls and unembellished furniture. Still, there is an austere, ravishing beauty to the way Wellman captures such drabness. He had previously proven his skilled hand at blocking ensembles in The Ox-Bow Incident, and yet there is an even clearer delineation between characters here as they stand upon narrow staircases, and are divided between the dark beams of the horse stables.

The stable is a highlight of Wellman’s mise-en-scène, using the beams and barriers to split up the family at their weakest.
Pa becomes a static feature of the mise-en-scène here, slumped across the kitchen table and disengaged from the conversation in the background.

The role his deep focus lens has to play in all of this certainly can’t be understated either, crafting some superb compositions that track multiple relationships at once across several layers of the frame, and even into neighbouring rooms. While conversations unfold in the kitchen, a drunken Pa slumps across the table in front of them all. As family members stand above an open grave, Wellman plants his camera right inside it at a low angle, catching each of them staggered into the background. Most impressive of all is the dark wooden bedframe that Arthur’s corpse lays on when he is brought back home, and which Ma feebly slouches behind in devastating grief, visually overcome by its giant, depressive mass.

Just one shot of many emphasising the sheer size of the bed that Arthur’s cold body rests upon, towering over Ma like large, depressive mass.
Wellman hangs on this shot for a few minutes looking up from Arthur’s open grave, rearranging the family into different formations.

It is no wonder that within this cast, those playing the thorniest characters are the ones who stand out the most. Beulah Bondi manages to draw a deep empathy out of the hypercritical Ma upon the death of her firstborn son, while Robert Mitchum steals virtually every scene as Curt, offering a brooding arrogance that corrupts everything around him. “This house is rotten with the gods you’ve made. Yours and Curt’s. With pride and money and greed,” Grace spits at her mother, defending those who have suffered under her. If Ma has been slowly draining this household of passion and love, then Curt has been thriving off the resulting misery and poured it into his ostentatious cruelty.

Track of the Cat is easily one of the more underrated Hollywood films of the era, and a very underrated performance from Mitchum. His character is far from likeable – an involving portrait of ego, colonialism, and western masculinity.

With characters as complex and quarrelsome as these, and a setting so vividly connected to its immediate family drama, it is no surprise that Track of the Cat is drawn from the work of American novelist Walter Van Tilburg Clark. Wellman seems to have a particular affinity for his literature, given that Clark similarly provided the source material for The Oxbow Incident. More specifically though, there is a shared interest between author and director in the psychological subtext of the western genre, rendered in Track of the Cat as an unassumingly spiritual consideration of colonial masculinity. The darkness that lurks in hearts of these emotionally inept men cannot be overcome by those trying to dominate their environment, but by the courage of those looking to break the harmful cycles of their own imprisonment. As the towering flames of a bonfire break up the stark, white landscape of Wellman’s very final shot too following this sweet victory, there may be no greater assurance that brighter days lie in the Bridges family’s future.

A formally fitting final shot, breaking up the white of the snowy landscape with the bright bonfire in the distance.

Track of the Cat is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.


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