A bleak, moody, slow, somewhat pretentious, but nonetheless fascinating filmic experiment in style from director Wellman and cinematographer Clothier. Adapted from a novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark (author of THE OX-BOW INCIDENT, which Wellman had brought to the screen), the story is a stark psychological drama set on a snowbound ranch in northern California...read more
A bleak, moody, slow, somewhat pretentious, but nonetheless fascinating filmic experiment in style from director Wellman and cinematographer Clothier. Adapted from a novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark (author of THE OX-BOW INCIDENT, which Wellman had brought to the screen), the story is a
stark psychological drama set on a snowbound ranch in northern California and involves only a handful of characters. To emphasize the bleak nature of the story, Wellman had Clothier photograph the film in color, but the set, clothing, horses, and props were either black or white. Only the flesh
tone of the performers, the blue sky, Mitchum's red mackinaw, and actress Lynn's yellow blouse show color. Trapped by the heavy snow is the Bridges family, which is firmly in the warped grasp of matriarch Bondi. Bondi's cold, domineering manner has driven her weakling husband Tonge to the bottle;
her daughter, Wright, to bitter spinsterhood; while her sons Mitchum, Hopper, and Hunter range from arrogance (Mitchum) to quiet sensitivity (Hopper). Also on hand is Lynn, a young neighbor girl who is anxious to marry Hunter. Feeling that he has sacrificed the most for the family ranch, Mitchum
lets it be known that he intends to control the family, including the affections of Lynn. Contrasted with the dangers inside the house is an external threat: a vicious black panther that has been killing the family's cattle. Mitchum and Hopper venture out to kill the beast, but Hopper is killed
after Mitchum leaves to get more rations. The family is beside itself with grief, and Wright coldy bemoans the fact that it was Hopper who was killed and not Mitchum. Sensing that the panther is a threat to his authority over the family, Mitchum immediately departs on a quest to kill the hated
animal. After a silence of several days, the youngest brother, Hunter, goes off in search of Mitchum. Hunter finds his brother's horse and a supply of rations and learns that Mitchum had lost his food, panicked, and headed toward the ranch on foot. In blind desperation, Mitchum plunged headlong
over a cliff to his death. Hunter takes up the quest for the panther, and in a final confrontation he manages to find and kill the animal. Having proven himself, Hunter confidently returns to claim Lynn as his own.
The panther is never seen in the film and remains a dark, shadowy representation of the evil that resides in the family. Mitchum is consumed and destroyed by the dark impulses that the cat represents, as if he were killed chasing himself. Hunter survives and is made whole by his ability to face
the evil and to destroy it before it destroys him. While Wellman's and Clothier's experiments with color and CinemaScope composition are admirable and interesting, the film suffers from its ponderous pace and heavy use of symbolism. Mitchum and Bondi give outstanding performances, despite the fact
that Bondi and director Wellman clashed frequently on the set. Perhaps the strangest performance is that of former "Little Rascal" Switzer, who plays a 100-year-old Indian. Wellman was able to make this bizarre film based on the tremendous success of his previous film, THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY,
starring John Wayne. Wayne's company had produced the film, and the star was so thrilled with the critical and financial success of THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY that he told Wellman he could "film the phone book" if he wanted to at his expense. Taking the Duke at his word, Wellman resurrected his
long-standing wish to shoot a color film in black and white using only sparse highlights of color. Though TRACK OF THE CAT befuddled most critics of the day and Wellman later stated in his autobiography that it was "...a flop artistically, financially and Wellmanly," the film remains an
interesting, if flawed, curio well worth attention.
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