By Scott Ross
An exercise in color by the director William Wellman (in tandem with his superb lighting director, William H. Clothier) to create a CinemaScope/WarnerColor picture in black and white, Track of the Cat (1954) found little love on its release, and engenders little even now. That preposterous boob Bosley Crowther whinged in the New York Times that the movie had “no psychological pattern, no dramatic point,” whereas it not only has a point, and an almost dizzying psychological pattern, it in fact contains several of them. Leonard Maltin meanwhile makes reference in his capsule review to Tennessee Williams when of course the correct theatrical progenitor would be Eugene O’Neill — if not indeed Euripides. That no one at the time, including his friends and associates, got what Wellman was after in his complex visual scheme drove him nuts, and in later years he dismissed the movie as a failure artistically as well as financially. But genuine boldness in subject matter and pictorial representation is rare enough in American movies that its progenitors ought not be made to feel, even if they fall short of their ambitions, ashamed when they attempt it.
It is certainly true that the picture’s visual splendor, particularly in its nearly overwhelming, snow-blasted locations (Washington and Arizona standing in for early 1900’s Montana) tend to dwarf the drama at its center… for a while. But the dramatic focus, taken from a Walter Van Tilburg Clark novel and crisply and intelligently adapted by A.I. Bezzerides, is no less important than, or impressive as, the movie’s awe-inspiring exteriors and cunningly designed color palette. There is dialogue here I think O’Neill would not have been embarrassed to have written, and a striking critique — downright dangerous in those McCarthyite days — both of the American family and of its obsessive grip on religion, violence, hypocrisy, greed and mother-love. Nor is my having twice cited O’Neill inapt, or accidental. The Bridges share a kinship with any number of that dramatist’s families, whether genetic or, in the case of The Iceman Cometh, adoptive: The individual members are by turns envious, regretful, embittered, Oedipal, and rapacious in both the corporeal and psychic senses. They, like “the doomed Tyrones,” spend a long day’s journey into night, but past it, into day, back into night, and on to uncertain dawn.
Some, like the repellent Ma (Beulah Bondi) clutch their unrealistic optimism like a talisman, if only to cleave to an illusion of control over everyone else. Others, such as the crude and hyper-masculine Curt (Robert Mitchum) become so enraptured of their own seeming invincibility that, when hope seems brightest, they plunge, heedlessly, into ruination. Still others seek solace in bitter spinsterhood (Teresa Wright’s Grace), bibulousness (Philip Tonge’s Pa) or blighted visions (Carl Switzer’s Indian hired hand Joe Sam). And then there is the youngest, Harold (Tab Hunter), mother-emasculated and unable to speak for himself, even with the threat of losing his girl (Diana Lynn). Only the eldest brother, Arthur (William Hopper) seems to have found some measure of peace, if only in the wooden figures he whittles or the pages of the book of Keats he carries with him, a very knowing gift from his sister. Whether it was Wellman’s intent to depict so bleakly raw and despairing a family as an American paradigm I cannot guess, but in as symbol-laden an enterprise as this, nothing should be regarded as accidental.
The inciting incident bringing these disparate passions to a boil is the threat to the Bridges’ livestock from a black “painter,” a wild cat of some sort, never seen but representing the nameless, existential dread and un-articulated evil that stalks the various members of the family and their hired help. This is what I mean by symbolism; it’s more than a little heavy, and, as we never see the cat in question, finally too pat and convenient for a movie that really doesn’t need it. What eats at the Bridges is what’s taken residence in their various minds and souls; the “painter” is merely its somewhat obvious external form. It’s the sort of metaphor that can work well in a novel, a poem or even a play, but that, in a generally realistic movie, seldom feels less than pretentious. But Track of the Cat should not be judged in toto on one of its two most lugubrious flaws. (The other is Roy Webb’s excruciatingly obvious and overblown musical score.) What Wellman and Co. got right is of much greater importance than the bits they may have fluffed.
The sense of physical isolation, both at the ranch and on the trail, is so stunningly achieved that the getting back inside the house, even with its confusion of warring personalities, still feels like a refuge, however illusory; with that cast, and Bezzerides’ (or perhaps Clark’s?) deliciously ripe dialogue, the miasma on the interior is as pungent as the perils to be faced out of doors. And if Williams can be cited, by Maltin, why not Lillian Hellman? Indeed, sister Grace’s recriminatory outburst nearly echoes Regina Giddens’ incendiary “I hope you die! I hope you die soon! I’ll be waiting for you to die!” Curt is almost better off with the painter. But then, he smugly thinks he can take them both on.
Did anyone of his time leave behind such an indelible delineation of laconic, everyday evil as Robert Mitchum? Curt Bridges is, in his quieter, slyer fashion, spiritual cousin to Cape Fear’s Max Cady and Preacher in The Night of the Hunter: Self-righteous, macho, sure of his eternal dominance over everyone around him, spoiling for a fight, angling for what we can only presume to be the rape of his younger brother’s intended. (Is this what led Maltin to invoke Williams?) The cry Mitchum unleashes as he stumbles blindly, and at his moment of triumph, into the abyss, recalls the unearthly scream he let out when Preacher was shot by Lilian Gish, with the added irony that the self-appointed tin-pot deity Curt only falls when he loses his Hemingwayesque cool and panics like an ordinary mortal. As Ma, the magnificent Bondi reminds us anew of what was lost when she was not cast as Ma Joad. There are moments when her hard-won stoicism, achieved under decades of duress, becomes her; yet in the next she displays such appalling, Medusa-like cunning, delivered with a beneficent smile any cat would envy, that it chills the blood. No wonder young Hal (not to mention besotted old Pa) folded under her gaze.
Despite its overt masculine concerns, Track of the Cat soars most often under its more subtle, feminine, power, for aside from Bondi’s presence, the picture boasts in Diana Lynn and Teresa Wright two of its era’s most intelligent and histrionically credible performers. Wright, rather curiously, went from troubled ingénue (The Little Foxes, Shadow of a Doubt) to mother roles in an astonishing short time; by 1953 she was already playing Spencer Tracy’s wife and Jean Simmons’ mother. But no matter the chronological position she occupies, her honesty as an actor cuts through all cant and pretense like a laser. Lynn, who has the rather unenviable task of persuading us she is Tab Hunter’s elder by only two years when she was (in The Major and the Minor) playing teenage adopted sister to Ginger Rogers in 1942, had a comparable wit and verisimilitude; she seems incapable of giving a slovenly performance. William Hopper limns his necessarily brief role as Arthur with gentleness and a distinct lack of self-pity that pricks him out from the other Bridges as surely as Mitchum’s blood-red jacket. Philip Tonge makes almost Fieldsian meals from the screenplay’s rich banquet of lines, and, at a mere 26, Carl (“Alfalfa”) Switzer is both figuratively and literally unrecognizable as the ancient, haunted Joe Sam. If Tab Hunter seems on the surface any less impressive, it is only because Hal is such a passive character (that dramaturgical terror of all red-blooded American male actors) that he tends to osmose into the very woodwork. That we retain an affection for him, and, finally, a respect, is surely at least a small tribute to Hunter’s own appropriateness in the role. This cast, working in concert, is so refreshingly and demonstrably great that one can easily imagine them going on the road together to perform a repertoire of Strindberg, Williams, Sophocles and — yes — O’Neill. How often can that be said of a Western?
Wellman’s mastery of his camera, evident throughout, reaches a muted crescendo during the funeral of Arthur. He holds on this grouping, seen from a corpse-eye view, for the entirety of the sequence, unsettling the viewer with the softly powerful restatement of the Keats sonnet so beloved of Arthur Bridges, “When I have fears that I may cease to be.” In this brutal natural environment, all of the Bridges are conscious of standing alone on the shore of the wide world. It’s an eloquent, beautiful, quietly devastating metaphor, sustained as only a great craftsman can manage, or desire.
It’s interesting to note that the movie credits Batjac, John Wayne’s company, as its producer. That’s as startling as almost anything else in the picture.
I have since read Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s original novel — as striking a literary experiment as its adaptation was a cinematic one — and the reading confirms that nearly every line of dialogue in the picture comes directly from the book, and what doesn’t (Arthur talking to Curt on Hal’s behalf, for example) is strongly suggested by it. What isn’t from Clark is the movie’s least interesting arc: Harold’s “becoming a man.” His trial is implied in the novel, but it’s so much a part of the lore of Western pulp that the author wisely eschews it. While the filmmakers telescope Curt’s experience in the mountains, from three long nights’ vigils to two — the last being both the most harrowing, and the most hallucinatory — by the novel’s end, when Hal and Joe Sam shoot the (decidedly not black) panther, the reader cannot help wondering whether what Curt hallucinated was entirely based on terrified fantasy. Clark, an environmentalist who would seem to have had far more in common with Arthur and Hal than with the dominionist Curt, doesn’t say so outright, but the inescapable conclusion is that the cat is mad. If so, it’s a madness that spreads to its human prey, even those kept snugly back home.
Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross