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William A. Wellman
Robert Mitchum….Curt Bridges
Teresa Wright….Grace Bridges
Diana Lynn….Gwen Williams
Tab Hunter…Harold Bridges
Beulah Bondi….Ma Bridges
Philip Tonge….Pa Bridges
William Hopper….Arthur Bridges
Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer….Joe Sam
This movie qualifies as an overlooked Western because my father never watched it as part of his Saturday afternoon “shoot ’em ups” while the rest of the family raked the backyard. He liked the traditional Westerns with the stranger coming to town, Apache raids, posse action and lots of gunplay. You think you’d get that with Robert Mitchum’s star power behind the six shooter. But this isn’t merely cowboys and Indians rampaging around the screen. Track of the Cat is best described as what if Eugene O’Neill decided to adapt Long Day’s Journey Into Night into a Western.
This is a remote tale of the Bridges family. They live in the high country on a ranch without a neighbor in sight. The first big winter storm has covered their land. We learn quickly that this is not a family that you want to be snowbound with . They are so dysfunctional that Dr. Phil could get a month’s worth of network specials out of them. The father is a hard drinking lush with hidden booze bottles in every nook of the house. The mother is a controlling beast. The sister is doomed to her fate as a spinster. Curt, the eldest brother wants to control everything. Arthur the middle brother takes nature in its course. And then there’s the youngest brother Harold, who is seen as weak even though he’s fixing to marry Gwen. Of course there’s competition for Gwen with Curt trying to seduce her by being a badass and the father being a dirty old man. Will Gwen survive trapped in the ranch with the Bridges? Will she want to the gene pool of this insane family to flow through her?
Now this would be enough tension for any other film, but things get further shaken up when Joe Sam, an ancient Indian living on the ranch, swears that a black panther has attacked the cattle. Curt and Arthur saddle up and ride into the snow drifts in order to stop their herd from getting thinned out. Their hunt turns bad, but I’m not going to give away anything because you really need to see this.
It’s strange to think that in the middle of 1950s, director William A. Wellman made an art house Western. He sticks with a black and white color scheme even though the film is in color. Everything in the ranch is either white washed or black. On location, the trees come out as black against the snow. Mitchum rides a black horse although early on his sticks out with his red and black coat. It’s like watching an experimental theater piece. We see characters searching for grey in a black and white world. Who could imagine a film of this type being backed by John Wayne’s production company?
This was the second time that Wellman filmed a novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. They first came together with the equally unconventional Western The Ox-Bow Incident. Why isn’t this a tandem that’s talked about in the same tones as Carol Reed and Graham Greene?
What hooked me into the film was a chance to see Alfalfa working with Mitchum. Alfalfa is far from his Little Rascals days. It’s hard to tell how old he really looks since he’s made up to be an Indian that’s waiting for Willard Scott to wish him a happy 100th. There’s no freckles or cowlick to make him stick out. Damn shame him and Mitchum didn’t duet on a calypso song. But this is not a light hearted Western with singing cowboys. This is not a family that sings “Home on the Range.”
Track of the Cat is one of those rare Westerns that doesn’t just blur into the plot-a-matic scripts. Mitchum nails the cocky older brother role. His pursuit of the big cat should be legendary. The action back at the ranch doesn’t let up either as Bridges turn on each other use Gwen as either a weapon or refuge. And the ending of the film is far from a traditional Oater with a ride off into the sunset. This was not my father’s Saturday afternoon shoot ’em up. And thank goodness.
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE: 9/10
TOTAL POINTS: 45/50
FINAL SCORE: 9/10
The film is presented in Anamorphic Widescreen 2.55:1 so it’s extra thin on the screen. The film looks great for it’s age.
This film is presented in English 2.0 Surround and 4.0 Surround. There’s a commentary track featuring William Wellman Jr., Tab Hunter and Frank Thompson, a film historian. There’s only English subtitles.
Remembering William Wellman (11:24): This is a great mini-biography on the director who gave us Wings, the first Oscar winning picture. There’s great vintage interview footage of Mitchum talking about working with Wellman. It deals with how a man known for commercial films could create unconventional ones like Track of the Cat.
A New Kind of Western: The Writing of Walter Van Tilburg Clark (15:12): It’s nice to see the author of the book get a little respect on DVD. They show what motivated Clark to write the novel. My favorite part was hearing about how he lost out on a professorship at the University of Indiana because they didn’t think he’d wear a suit and tie on campus.
Black Diamond (7:57): A documentary about the horse that played Kentuck. The main speaker is Trina Mitchum (Robert’s daughter) who has written Hollywood Hoofbeats, a biography on hooved beasts that didn’t become agents.
Tracking The Cat (6:38): This features a woman from Susan Morse Founder of Keeping Track,” They show a few nice photos she’s taken from her following mountain lions in the West.