- Director William Wellman (Wings, The Public Enemy, The Ox-Box Incident) sets out to make a black and white film- but in color. Track of the Cat attempts this and succeeds. This is Wellman’s greatest work.
- Shot in the National Park in Washington State using CinemaScope
- The film’s titles start this dedication to a specific color design aesthetic. Wellman uses black colored titles against the white snow backdrop.
- This is Robert Mitchum’s snow western film- and one of his films sporting a beard. This is Mitchum in his prime- this is after Out of the Past and just one year before The Night of the Hunter.
- Mitchum plays Curt Bridges. The film has a dominant matriarch “Ma” (Beulah Bondi) and two other brothers (Tab Hunter, William Hopper) and a sister (Teresa Wright- I almost did not recognize her here more than a decade after Shadow of a Doubt). The house of the Bridges’ is completely black and white- the entire kitchen, the bedroom, the barn. And throughout the film only Mitchum’s bright red coat does not have that color design (and even that coat has a big black stripe through the middle). The Bridges run a ranch and have money. This is Shakespearian with the family power struggle. It also deserves comparisons to Dreyer’s minimalism in composition design. There is a black cat-a panther or “painter” as said often in the film on the loose at the ranch. The cat is hunting cattle and the sons go out to stop it.
- The barn is black, the horse is black. Wellman and cinematographer William Clothier even make the evergreens look black. The set decorator Ralph Hurst deserves praise as well for making their home look like a western version of Patrick Bateman’s Manhattan apartment in American Psycho set one hundred years before.
- This is wildly ambitious visually- it is shocking to see something so avant-garde in a bigger budget 1950s Hollywood western. This is the same year as Johnny Guitar and deserves comparison as an artistic achievement.
- Mitchum is marvelous as the relentlessly cruel and crude Curt. There is a masculinity study going on here and no actor better in 1954 than Mitchum for this role. He could use some help with the rest of the cast though. Tab Hunter as Harold especially is very weak (and not just because his character is supposed to be a little weak).
- The beautiful black and white bedroom quilt is on display at the 45-minute mark. At the 49-minute mark the mother is watching their eldest son in bed. In this shot Wellman uses sublime staging- the black bed frame obstructs part of the view as the mother wears a black shawl. This is Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964).
- At the 61-minute mark another shot of the bed from behind again with the frame obstructed.
- Cutaways to the black (green trees shaded to black) and white (snow) mountain.
- At the 78-minute mark Wellman uses a low angle up from the grave to capture a composition of the family.
- There are two films going on- one is Mitchum tracking the panther reading Keats in real terror – and the family power struggle back at the black and white homestead.
- At the 81-miute mark the youngest son Harold (Hunter) opens the door. The mother is in the foreground in the rocking chair far behind the bed post (obstructing the frame) with Wright and Diana Lynn (as Gwen Williams) in the far background in the open door.
- Back to the headboard obstructing the frame at the 95-minute mark- but this time it is Curt (Mitchum).
- Wellman’s choice never to show the cat is genius- this is more than twenty years before Jaws.
- “The End” in black and white titles again to conclude the film.
- Doing some research after the film I came across this here – Jonathan Rosenbaum is a big admirer https://chicagoreader.com/film/track-of-the-cat-2/
- A Must-See film- one of the more underrated films made in Hollywood in this era.
I think I brought up Wellman a while ago as a candidate for your top 250 directors list since he had three HRs, but you said he would still probably miss out. How much does this film change your opinion on him?
@DeclanG- It will be interesting to see how it shakes out. Track of the Cat may change the conversation
My Wellman ranking:
1. Track of the Cat MS
2. The Ox-Bow Incident HR (almost HR/MS)
3. The Public Enemy HR
4. Wings HR
5. A Star is Born R
I agree with @DeclanG, Wellman is certainly a very strong candidate- style minus, but strong filmography.
@Drake-The link in this page is not working. https://jonathanrosenbaum.net/2020/05/4th-10-key-moments-submitted-11407/
@Malith – Thanks- not sure it is exactly the same but found a new link to some of Rosenbaum’s thoughts on the movie