Thursday 21 July 2011

Track of the Cat [1954]

TRACK OF THE CAT is an American western that was directed by William A. Wellman and originally released by Warner Bros in November 1954.  It stars Robert Mitchum, Teresa Wright, Tab Hunter and Diana Lynn.  It tells the story of a deeply dysfunctional family whose isolated Colorado ranch is being terrorised by a panther.

Robert Mitchum was that rare thing: a brilliant actor and a brilliant movie star.  It's difficult to pin down exactly why he was so successful at both because he was neither classically good-looking nor classically trained.  It may just be that he made acting, and life itself, appear simple, straightforward and fun which must have appealed to cinema-goers in the post-WW2 period when he rose to fame.  His insouciance though masked an ability to really act, in a way that other stars, for instance Humphrey Bogart, could not.  Perhaps it's best to think of him as the blue collar Cary Grant although Mitchum certainly had a greater range.

Robert Mitchum as Curt Bridges

It's difficult to imagine Grant playing Mitchum's role in William Wellman's TRACK OF THE CAT.  Curt Bridges is a difficult man to like: he's brave, sure, but he's also boorish, manipulative and cruel.  He hunts the big cat alone out there in the snow, without much in the way of gear or provisions, but he never elicits any sympathy. 

Curt on the track of the cat

In some ways this could be regarded as one of those films popular in the post-war period which saw a move away from the standard depiction of the American hero - brave, strong, resilient - in favour of a man who was unsympathetic, morally ambiguous and yet somehow still admirable.  In other words, a more complicated character.

Sheltering in a cave, Curt finds a volume of Keats' poems
 It's no coincidence that Montgomery Clift and James Dean were the new box office idols - replacing figures from the 1930s and 40s like Bogart and Clark Gable.  In this film, that part is played by Tab Hunter who wasn't any great shakes as an actor, although decent enough in this.  Hunter, like Clift, was a conflicted homosexual whose public persona as a heartthrob was totally at odds with his private life.  In Clift's case, as a Method actor, he was sometimes able to draw upon that inner turmoil to deliver riveting performances; unfortunately Hunter wasn't so talented and so his career eventually petered out.  Happily though, Hunter lived to see homosexuality de-stigmatised and is no doubt a much happier person because of it.

Tab Hunter as Harold Bridges

Apart from Mitchum, the film is worth seeing for its striking design by Ralph Hurst and Cinemascope photography by William H. Clothier.  Apparently Wellman had the idea of making a black and white film in colour, so the sets and costumes are almost entirely monochrome.  It adds up to one of the most stylised mainstream Hollywood pictures I've seen; so controlled is the composition, photography and colour that it's reminiscent of Italian giallos, particularly those of Dario Argento.

Note the high contrast black and white with a blaze of colour

An amazing composition shot from within a grave

Only the occasional flash of colour illuminates this narrow palette: Diana Lynn's lipstick, Robert Mitchum's coat and the beacon lit to guide him home...

John Ford would have admired this shot: all the characters isolated from one another, to represent the Bridges family dysfunction.

Director William A. Wellman had been in the directing business for nearly 30 years by the time he made TRACK OF THE CAT and for some years in more minor jobs before that.  However, his isn't a name your much these days, perhaps because his most successful pictures were made a very long time ago.  WINGS [1927] was the first film to be awarded the Best Film Oscar, and THE PUBLIC ENEMY [1931] is perhaps the film most responsible for establishing James Cagney's fearsome screen persona.  He also made my favourite version of BEAU GESTE [1939], the one with Brian Donlevy as the tyrannical Sergeant Markoff.  Apparently Wellman had himself served in the Foreign Legion as a pilot.  All of these film are at least 75 years old and now that vintage black and white films are so rarely shown on television many of them are largely forgotten.

The Bridges ranch

William H. Clothier worked with Wellman nine times, first as a camera operator during the pre-WW2 era and then as a fully fledged cinematographer in the 50s.  A huge percentage of his films are westerns, including Sam Peckinpah's debut feature THE DEADLY COMPANIONS [1961] and seven John Ford pictures.  Clothier's work on TRACK OF THE CAT is really superb and even if you aren't a fan of westerns I would urge you to give it a whirl.

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