When I brought up this film last year in one of the threads, I mentioned that I had first seen it as a child on a day off school, and that it was a bit of an odd thing for an eight or nine year old to sit through. It’s not particularly action-packed, but is actually rather talky. My guess is that I was pulled into the plot by the sense of tension and fear that is created in the opening sequences, as well as by the slight hint of the supernatural, which made it a little creepy. Was it a real panther or some devil that was harassing the family? A couple scenes stayed with me for a very long time, well into adulthood, until I finally saw the movie again in the late 90’s when it came out on VHS.
The plot is fairly straightforward. The dysfunctional Bridges family finds themselves snowbound on their mountain cattle ranch by an early unseasonal blizzard. Along with the family is present the youngest brother Harold’s fiancée, Gwen Williams, and the old Indian hired man, Joe Sam. The family is cowed by the crude and domineering middle brother Curt (Robert Mitchum), with the passive assistance of their bitter, Pharasaical mother and alcoholic father. Eldest brother Arthur (William Hopper) is noble and a peacemaker, but ultimately too non-confrontational, while Harold (Tab Hunter) is viewed as still wet behind the ears, and hasn’t yet learned to stand up for himself. Sister Grace (Teresa Wright) is a sad thirty-something spinster.
The story starts with Joe Sam waking Arthur to tell him that something’s at their herd, possibly a panther. The old Indian has a superstitious fear of the first snowfall of the year, believing that it brings along with it a ghostly black panther, the same one that killed his family years ago. Arthur is sympathetic to the old Indian’s fears, but the bully Curt ridicules them both. Curt and Arthur decide to go out in the snowstorm to try and kill the panther, leaving the rest of the family to bicker while awaiting their return. The film cuts back and forth between the squabbles in the ranch house and the tracking of the cat, with the absence of the two brothers causing additional tension. Without giving too much away, it can be said that a number of events occur which bring much of the tense familial undercurrent to the surface.
While some critics have described Track of the Cat as an offbeat Western, at least a few have viewed it as an art film masquerading as one. It’s based on the novel of the same title by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, whose earlier novel The Ox-Bow Incident had been successful filmed by director William Wellman in 1943. With Track… however, Wellman had in mind something a bit more experimental. He had for a long time wanted to film a black-and-white film in color. The idea was to use muted colors for almost everything, saving any bright ones only for dramatic effect. This is especially noticeable in the outdoor scenes - - the pine trees are all more gray than green, and the only colors that stand out are such things as Curt’s red coat, spots of blood in the snow, and the blue matches used to start a fire.
The “art film” notion goes deeper than that, however. The film is dark and tense, not in the manner of a noir picture, but more like a European tragedy. The family dynamics are portrayed in a mature and realistic manner, playing almost like a stage drama, while the hunt sequences have a haunting element of awe and mystery uncommon in American movies of the time. These two things make for a fascinating mix.
The cast has only eight members, and they are uniformly good, with Mitchum, Hopper, and the great Beulah Bondi (“Ma Bridges”) being standouts. An unrecognizable Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer from the Our Gang comedies plays Joe Sam. The film does feature the more demonstrative acting style of pre-Method Hollywood, but it’s largely free of histrionics and over-drama.
There’s little doubt that director Wellman and the producers conceived this movie as somewhat of an experiment. It was apparently a box office flop, and contemporary critics were divided. It has gained a certain amount of respect in later years, however, as more recent critics tend to be appreciative of the stylized look, the smart, tough script, and the intelligent handling of deeper than usual psychological themes. It’s strange to think that as a nine-year-old some 45 years ago, I was ahead of the curve. Then again, I was an odd kid.
(Further note: If you like the film, by all means read the novel, which is excellent. The central section, with Curt lost in the snowstorm and trying to find his way home, all the while trying to resist his growing fears, rehearsing his memories, etc., is a 100 page tour-de-force, and an absolutely masterful piece of psychological writing.)
—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years. He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.