Thursday, July 20, 2006

It Came from Netflix! Track of the Cat (1954)

It’s hard to overstate how popular Westerns were back in the ‘50s. The film studios churned them out like crazy, from prestige, star-driven fare to zillions of low-budget, generic oaters. Moreover, the genre dominated the primetime schedules of the nearly monopolistic Big Three networks more than crime shows do now.

Filmmakers were finally starting to feel their artistic oats by then, and the ‘50s saw the first examples of the ‘adult’ (what we would call revisionist) Westerns. The first and some of the best of these resulted from a partnership between director Anthony Mann, then best known for his tough Noir crime films, and war veteran actor James Stewart. The first of these was 1950’s Winchester ’73, followed by several other such films.

An offshoot of these were the art or psychological Westerns, which were more than revisionist, and generally hostile to the values of the mainstream Western. Way ahead of the trend was 1943’s The Ox-Bow Incident, a film decrying mob violence and lynching. (Such an unusual film was probably only possible because of the support of star Henry Fonda, who made liberal films like The Grapes of Wrath back in the day when liberal films actually had something useful to say and artists took authentic risks in making them.)

The Ox-Bow Incident was directed by William Wellman from a novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. Eleven years later, Wellman returned to Clark’s work as the basis for Track of the Cat. Sadly, I must admit, I found the film a little too ‘psychological’ and too little ‘Western.’

Shot on obvious, even purposely theatrical sets, Track of the Cat revolves around the Bridges Family. It’s winter, and resentments abound. Father is a drunken letch (a rather lame running gag involves all the places he’s hid the bottles of booze his wife seeks to deny him), Mom is a bitter old Bible-Thumper, and spinsterish daughter Grace despairs of the fact that she didn’t flee the suffocating family embrace back when she had the chance.

More central to things are the three Bridges son. The leader of the family is bullying alpha male Curt (Robert Mitchum). He’s so dominating both physically and in his drive and personality — remember, we’re talking Robert Mitchum here — that even would-be rebeller Grace can’t really stand up to him. He’s the apple of his parents’ eye, moreover, leading to even more estrangement amongst the other siblings.

Arthur is the kind brother, and sporadically attempts to run interference between Curt and Grace and younger brother Harold (Tab Hunter). However, Arthur is also sort of a ‘head in the clouds’ sort, and thus ultimately an ineffectual counterweight for the more driven Curt. Harold, meanwhile, is the youngest son, and crippled by indecision. This is brought to a head by his coming marriage to Gwen, which is opposed by Mom — bitter Bible Thumper, remember? — and Curt, who refuses to cede part of the family’s holdings to Harold and dilute his own power.

Meanwhile, a panther is stalking the livestock. (Annoyingly, everyone in the film calls the panther a ‘painter.’ Even is this bit of pronunciation is accurate to the time period and setting, it’s highly obnoxious to hear throughout the film, and its seemingly employed dozens of times.) The family’s ancient Indian servant Joe Sam warns that it’s a devil cat, but naturally Curt strides forward to kill it. Three guesses how that ends up.

Sadly, the cat plot is afforded little screentime. Instead, we are mostly stuck in the claustrophobic house watching the family rip into each other. This is a film I wanted and expected to like, but frankly I found it ‘arty’ in the bad sense. What it has to say isn’t nearly as interesting or daring as the filmmakers think it to be (and I think this would have been largely true even at the time), and the effect is of watching a bad stage play that’s entirely too in love with itself.

The end ‘meaning,’ that one brother was too hot to survive, and another too cold, but the last brother was just right, seems way too little to hang an entire movie on. Moreover, modern audiences will probably find Gwen’s attempts to get the indecisive Harold to Act Like a Man (she secretly smiles with satisfaction when he starts bossing her around) either comically out of date or downright offensive.

Meanwhile, after the opening scenes top-billed Mitchum all but disappears for most of the movie. I’d be surprised is he has ten minutes of sceentime in the final three-fourths of the film. Even worse, in the end we never actually see the cat, an attempted artistic flourish that even director Wellman apparently regretted. (This according to his son, who participated in the DVD’s extras.)

There is, in fact, supposed to be a real cat. However, since we never see it, and given the rest of the film’s arty tone, some confused viewers thought it was meant to be an imaginary manifestation of Curt’s Id or some damn thing.

Aside from the artistic problems with not showing the panther, I also wonder if maybe Wellman regretted the financial impact on the film. I don’t know that this film didn’t do well at the box office, but having seen it, I’m assuming so. One can imagine a disappointed viewer telling his friends, “Well, Mitchum’s barely in the movie, and 90% of it involves people yakking at one another, and, oh, yeah, you never even see the damn panther mentioned in the title.” I can’t imagine such word of mouth had people running to buy tickets.

To be fair, many people still seem highly impressed with this film, and some even consider it a minor classic. All I can say is that it didn’t do much for me. It was the kind of movie that I grew increasingly impatient with, waiting for it to do something.

The art design is pretty interesting, and that’s not meant as a back-handed compliment. The film is shot in color but the design palette intentionally makes the movie look nearly black and white; to emphasize the dreariness of the characters’ lives, presumably. The one notable exception is Curt’s blazing red jacket, a mark of his unavoidably overbearing presence. (Is this where Spielberg got the idea for the girl’s red coat in Schindler’s List?)

However, but that’s really about the best I can say for this. If you’re a student of experiment cinematography, and maybe you our, the film is probably worth a look just on that front.

On an odd trivia note, ancient Joe Sam, under so much make-up that his face is immobile, was played by 27 year-old Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer. Yes, that ‘Alfalfa.’ He died in a bar shooting over a $50 debt just a few years after this.

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