Friday Editor’s Pick: Track of the Cat (1954)

by on February 18, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick


Playing Fri Feb 24 at 3:10, 7:15* at Film Forum [Program & Tix]

 

One of Classic Hollywood’s greatest oddities, and it surely takes the big screen to bloom.
 
William A. Wellman, the subject of Film Forum’s three-week retrospective, lays all his cards on the table for this one. Says Wellman scholar Frank Thompson (who has been popping into Film Forum for a few intros) in the DVD commentary, “It’s hard to think of another director of this time who would’ve made this picture, and made it in this way. This is just not part of what the popular culture of 1954 was looking for, and yet he believed in it and he went for it.”
 
Film historian Foster Hirsch, who is currently working on a book on 1950s Hollywood cinema, will be on hand to introduce the evening show and help make sense of this western from another planet.
 

Ronnie Scheib, for the Chicago Reader:

Mythological westerns, even good ones, are a dime a dozen, but metaphysical westerns are a rare breed. [A screening] provides an opportunity to see William Wellman’s supremely odd 1954 allegorical oater—a one-of-a-kind mix of solid Hollywood classicism and overt, nearly avant-garde experimentation—the only way it should be seen: in CinemaScope and unfaded color. Wellman and cinematographer William Clothier set out to make a “black-and-white film shot in color,” one rife with abstract expressionist images such as the solitary red slash of Robert Mitchum’s hunting jacket in a horizontal stretch of white snow, black trees, and gray mist. The film represents an artistic crossroad both for Wellman (here revisiting novelist Walter Van Tilburg Clark a decade after his famous adaptation of Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident) and his motley collaborators. Mitchum’s feared, family-tyrannizing male seems like a dress rehearsal for his tour de force stepdaddy performance in The Night of the Hunter a year later. Screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides’s use of the blatant symbolism of the cat—”black ‘painter’ whole world,” to quote the homestead’s century-old resident Indian—prefigures the apocalyptic “great whatsit” of his 1955 screenwriting masterwork, Kiss Me Deadly. In Track of the Cat‘s claustrophobic interior set, a dysfunctional family straight out of O’Neill crowds the frame, declaiming a litany of recriminations and denials, fueled by frustration, scripture, booze, and poetry; outside, in a snowy, silent, unarticulated vastness, a black panther prowls around like some landlocked Moby Dick. Wellman’s ongoing fascination with what’s just offscreen infuses each space with the unknowable echo of the other, making for one hell of a moody, strange, and unforgettable hybrid.

 

 
Tom Milne for Time Out (London):

A magnificently dark, brooding Western – Wellman’s second adaptation of a Walter Van Tilburg Clark novel (he also wrote The Ox-Bow Incident) – set during the 1880s on a small, isolated ranch in the Californian mountains, where the depredations of a mountain lion bring simmering family resentments to a head. The god-fearing puritanism of the matriarch (Bondi) has turned sour in her favourite son (Mitchum), brought up to ignore feelings and simply grab what he wants; another son (Hopper), a gentle soul, is mystically in tune with nature; the rest of the family have retreated into a variety of repressions and resentments. Scorning the idea that the marauding beast might be the ‘black painter’ of legend (spirit of the agelessly old, dispossessed Indian kept about the place as a handyman, Hopper suggests), Mitchum sets out to hunt and kill it. A little perfunctory compared to the novel, where the hunt turns into a dark night of the soul as the hunter gradually realises he has become the hunted, these scenes nevertheless have an extraordinary charge (and weird beauty, with the snowy landscapes shot by William H Clothier in black-and-white on colour stock), reinforcing the subtextual theme that the virgin land is at last exacting revenge on the pioneer who raped it.

 
David Thomson as quotes in Pacific Film Archive program notes:

Track of the Cat is an outstanding example of the new darkness, and like Monte Hellman’s The Shooting it is an ‘art Western’. Director William Wellman wanted a color film restricted to black, white, brown and gray, with just flashes of primary color. Set in the snowbound northwest, this is a family haunting in which the available hero (Robert Mitchum) is warped by his need to be heroic, brave and true. The mythic panther he seeks is his alternative to a developed, mature life of the emotions, and it is one more instance of the drive that prefers death to duty and development. Very beautiful, very moody and sincerely pretentious, Track of the Cat is a Western as if imagined by Ibsen.

 

 

Jonathan Rosenbaum, also for the Chicago Reader:

One of the strangest films ever to have come out of Hollywood. Wellman designed most of the film in black and white but shot it in color as well as CinemaScope (William H. Clothier’s cinematography is stunning), yielding a drama of the 1880s that alternates between stylized, claustrophobic sets and spacious locations The title beast—a murderous black panther who’s never seen, hunted by Mitchum—might or might not be a curse against the people who stole the land. John Keats provides Mitchum’s chilling epitaph.

 

And Rosenbaum again for DVD Beaver:

The strangest thing of all about this singular art western by a hard-nosed veteran is that John Wayne produced it. Reportedly, after Wellman made Wayne a fortune by directing him in The High and the Mighty, Wayne said, in effect, “Anything you want, Bill,” and Wellman chose to film a first-draft adaptation by A.I. Bezzerides (Kiss Me Deadly) of a symbolic William van Tilburg Clark novel set in Nevada, filmed in color and ‘Scope but designed mainly in black and white. A claustrophobic tale of a snowbound, neurotically dysfunctional family whose bickering siblings include Robert Mitchum, Teresa Wright, and Tab Hunter, and whose parents are an alcoholic and a prude, it could be described as the American Ordet–and it includes a Dreyerlike funeral partially shot from the viewpoint of the corpse in the ground. One wonders what Wayne might have thought when he saw this wonderful picture. But the bottom line in this case is that it’s great not because it’s eccentric but in spite of the fact that it is.

 

 

Wellman explains the method behind his madness, in his great memoir A Short Time for Insanity:

Most motion picture directors are a little screwy. I know that fliers are, and I have been both, so draw your own conclusions. Now, to add to my illness–there goes that horrible word again–the green hornets, and a hatred for inactivity, and it’s a wonder they haven’t rolled the wagon up and put me in a straitjacket, and deposited me in a padded cell. I guess I’m still alright though; I haven’t screamed. I’ve given vent to every other sound you can imagine, but that one I’m holding back until I become a vegetable. What kind of a vegetable? Not a potato or a lettuce or a carrot. An onion, that’s it. That seems to suit me better. Strong to stomach, has a pungent odor, and makes you cry bogus tears.
 
For years, I have wanted to make a black and white picture in color. Reread that sentence again. Now reread the above paragraph. Now we understand each other.
 
The secret was to get a story that had little color. I found that story in Track of the Cat. It was a very intimate story with only a handful of characters. Practically the whole story took place in or around a ranch house, in the winter with snow on the ground.This was it. The ranch house was painted off-white, the snow was white, the cattle and horses black and white or a combination of the two. The big pine trees I shot from the shady side so they photographed black. The characters were all clothed in black and white. The only splash of color was the red mackinaw that Mitchum wore and a little flimsy yellow scard that Diana Lynn wore. Bill Clothier, than whom there is no better, was my cameraman. He shared my enthusiasm, and the result photographically was fantastic. Never have I seen such beauty, a naked kind of beauty. Bill and I saw the first print back from the lab. We sat there together, drooling. We had it at last. It was a flower, a portrait of vision, a dream come true – it was a flop artisically, financially, and Wellmanly. Most color pictures remind me of scrambled eggs, only they don’t use eggs – just paints. All the colors of the rainbow, scrambled. Track of the Cat had all but four colors: black, white, a red mackinaw, and a yellow silk scarf. The audiences’ imagination failed to imagine, and my arthritis became my black panther and the son of a bitch has been prowling through my system ever since.

 

 
Farran Nehme Smith, The Self-Styled Siren, names it one of the “Great Vintage Movie Depictions of the Dead of Winter:”

No one appreciated it. Perhaps that was true at the time of release, but viewing this movie more than 60 years later, the beauty of the palette is the first thing you notice. Appearances by the killer panther of the title are handled in a way that’s reminiscent of Cat People. A boldly austere movie that well deserves a revisit.

 

Even Bosley Crowther admitted some awe, in The New York Times:

There’s no denying the obvious: Mr. Wellman has an oddly potent tale in this item derived by A. I. Bezzerides from a novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. And at several points in his presentation the black enormity of the selfishness of man comes into the center of the picture like a gust of the winter outside.

These moments are usually when Miss Bondi as the pinch-lipped mother takes command and browbeats her brood of frightened weaklings by the very force of her hard, demanding will. Then a feeling of tragic frustration seeps out of the CinemaScope screen, and the shadow of an O’Neill character flickers on the fringe.

 

 

Fernando F. Croce for Cinepassion:

The mix of rapid cutting and depth of field enhances the strangeness, solidifying the experimentation of the opening titles (black lettering over wintry expanses, filmed like “black and white in color”) and introducing a closed-off world within a closed-off world, both of them far from “the amenities of civilization.” The setting is blizzard country, where a family bulges with tension — matriarch Beulah Bondi is heavy with brimstone, Mitchum is the ruthless heir, Hopper and Hunter are his brothers, Teresa Wright is prematurely spinsterish and Diana Lynn is Hunter’s gal. The panther feasting on the cattle seems fueled by the tensions, Mitchum grabs rifle and crimson coat and heads out for the metaphorical hunt, with Keats’ words (“When I had fears that I may cease to be…”) in his pocket for a bonfire. A Walter Van Tilburg Clark novel is a useful vessel for William Wellman’s expressionism, particularly if adapted by A.I. Bezzerides: The symmetry of Mitchum riding in long shot is thrown off by the diagonal of a slanted tree, Hopper dies off a boring character and is reincarnated as a series of arresting visual effects, his body laid in bed behind a dark oak headboard and then into the earth via an extended low-angle. The severities of Friendly Persuasion, Floating Weeds, Day of the Outlaw can also be traced. An astonishing work of disintegration, like 7 Women, contractually concluding with the ingenue’s maturation while lingering on Mitchum breaking down in the cold, or Bondi slumped in her rocking-chair (“I’ve been trying to pray. But it don’t come out right.”)

 

 

Bertrand Tavernier for Film Comment:

Track of the Cat remains a truly bizarre movie. The narrative thread is reminiscent of Yellow Sky (but with more of a Dreyer touch) or the outlandishness of Ford’s 7 Women. W
 
As often happens with Wellman, the flaws have a way of turning into virtues—or at least the distinction between the two becomes fluid. The static talkiness of the beginning (Lee Server in his Mitchum biography calls it “summer stock O’Neill”) becomes fascinating and truly daring at times. At any rate, Wellman happily tramples on all the rules of Hollywood narrative—identification, emphasis on action, rapport between the audience and the main character. The result is not necessarily successful, but the toughness of the endeavor and the director’s obvious personal commitment are admirable and enthralling. The family Wellman and Bezzerides present us with is evil in an everyday, nontragic way. They are mean and petty, full of envy, frightening Puritanism, jealousy, possessiveness, machismo. The mother is atrocious in her very banality. The father’s alcoholism is neither picturesque nor joyful but pathetic. As for the Tab Hunter character, he is a terribly passive hero (a trait worsened by the actor, who is wretchedly directed here).
 
There are astonishing lines of dialogue, such as the father’s comparison of women to clothespins (“All my life, I’ve lived with a clothespin”) or when Mitchum, admirably rigorous and never trying to tone down his character’s harshness, reads and then burns a volume of Keats’s poems. The film is extraordinarily formalist, and not only in its sparse use of color. The narrative gains power from the stark yet self-conscious severity of the setups, which also makes the studio shots more palatable. All the shots around the coffin during the wake (here, again, Wellman, who always favors subtracting, conceals the body) are quite amazing.

 

 
Andrew Tracy for CinemaScope:

Wellman’s most abstract, experimental, and paradoxically claustrophobic work to date. Cat’s widescreen, WarnerColored weirdness automatically makes it a magnet for cult celebration.The internally imbalanced tone is as blatant a contrast as the breathtaking snowbound vistas set against the patent studio sets of the Bridges ranch, or Mitchum’s flaming red coat (bisected with a heavy black bar) against the greys and blacks in which the rest of the cast are garbed—this being Wellman’s famous black-and-white film in colour. It’s this very disparity which makes the film appealing to the connoisseurs of the cast-off, for whom a sustained and fully achieved work like Ox-Bow would be anathema.
 
Yet if Cat cannot be taken completely seriously, its highlights are so remarkable that it brinks on the revelation of a genuine vision from within Wellman’s subterranean impulses. Rosenbaum has compared the film to Ordet (1955), although the scabrous family confrontations and drunkenly repetitive incantations—taking place largely within the main room of the ranch house and filmed by Wellman with a combination of expressive angles and deliberately stagebound theatricality—bears more than a passing resemblance to Eugene O’Neill. However, the Dreyer analogy is certainly not far off the mark. The omnipresent spectre of death hovering over the damned Bridges clan prompts some striking visual strategies. When the slain middle son Arthur’s (William Russell) torn body is placed upon the grand double bed, Wellman repeatedly shoots the other characters from behind the dark oak headboard, the solid wall of blackness it creates imposing itself like an iron shroud over their bleak and bitter lives; an overhead shot of Arthur’s black coffin being carried over the pure white snow is complemented by the ostentatious low-angle shot from within his perfectly rectilinear grave (shades of 1932’s Vampyr?), a crucifix climactically driven into place under the grey cyclorama sky. These unprecedented techniques are accompanied by more familiar Wellman motifs, though here employed in more explicitly symbolic form. The titular predator, who goes unglimpsed throughout the film, springs from a lineage of the unseen in Wellman’s work: the bodies of the hanged in Ox-Bow; the elided showdown in Yellow Sky; the mostly absent enemy in Battleground. The wintry setting naturally evokes both Battleground and Island in the Sky, though with a far more dramatic emphasis placed upon the microscopic presence of humans within a vast and uncaring landscape.

 

 
And Alt Screen contributor Cullen Gallagher on the other half of Film Forum’s double bill, Westward the Women, for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

“Only two things in this world that scares me,” confesses Robert Taylor at the start of Westward the Women, “and a good woman is both of them!” As the veteran wagon guide Buck, he will have to confront both of his worst fears in a big way when he is hired by California territory settler Roy Whitman to lead 140 women from Chicago half-way across the country to his settlement, where a community of men are waiting eagerly for wives. This initial impetus for the story seemingly objectifies women to a social commodity — the men need wives to have children, and Whitman’s town relies on this cycle of life in order to prosper. But it is exactly this objectification that the narrative continually rejects and fights against throughout the movie. Much to Buck’s chagrin, his female “passengers” repeatedly transgress stringent gender binding, embracing this westward expansion as both a social and personal journey as well. For this band of women, Manifest Destiny is more than a geographical crusade — it’s about redefining oneself outside the strictures of society.
 

Perhaps the most affecting example of Wellman’s highly physical directing is the child birth sequence, in which all the women work together to lift the delivery wagon after it’s wheel has broken off. The entire birth occurs off-screen, all the while Wellman’s camera concentrates on the tense, sweating faces of the women — strained by the weight of the wagon, anxious to hear the first cries of a newborn baby. This collective image of strength, determination, and motherhood shows the complexity of what it meant — what it took — to be a real Woman of the West. There is no dichotomous divide between feminine and masculine arenas; women aren’t confined to the home, and men aren’t the sole arbiters of action. Patience, Danon, Maggie — these women don’t wait for the men to do the lifting, the shooting, the riding, and they sure as hell don’t let them do the birthing. Out West, you do what you need to survive. And having walked halfway across the country, they’ve proved that they’re more than any simple gender definition: they are survivors.

 

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