Winter in the Blood: Track of the Cat (1954) by Marek Alozie
William Wellman’s Track of the Cat (1954) is a chamber drama-cum-western about a dysfunctional family that ceaselessly tests one another as a fabled panther stalks the valley around their ranch. Making up the clan is a cripplingly pious mother, a dad clueless about all except where to find his hidden whiskey bottles, and children that have proven themselves too passive or ineffectual to help move things along – all except for Curt, the overbearing middle child who has emerged as the head of the house seemingly by force of will. He cuts an imposing figure, often throwing his weight around and cutting others down to size just because he can. When he leaves to hunt the panther, the tension he creates looms and helps to stir up issues that threaten to break the clan. The Bridges family’s fear of the cat is supplanted with their fear for what life will be like when Curt comes back, though a few days of confrontation and loss help them to look ahead to a more tenable future.
Wellman had made westerns before, including 1943’s The Ox-Bow Incident, which like this film had been adapted from a novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. That and the genre trappings are where the similarities start and end though, as Track of the Cat is an altogether moodier and artier affair, one with all the idiosyncrasies of a true auteurist piece. While the film is distinguished by its snowy vistas and NorCal mountain setting, what really sets it apart is its treatment of domestic space, how then-nascent CinemaScope technologies were applied to interiors. It seemed to arrive right at the start of a time when other films would use big widescreen houses to frame roiling family dramas, such as the mid-‘50s works of Nick Ray, Vincente Minnelli and even the interiors of Max Ophüls’ swansong Lola Montès (1955). Indeed, Track of the Cat does this more modestly, but the social critique baked into the conflict is none too dissimilar from that of its contemporaries, especially in its interrogation of religion and the family unit. Wellman’s panoramic approach to staging and composition offers sensuous dramatic insights throughout. There’s nothing quite like the subtle ripple of an anamorphic lens to make a sick, shaky household seem even queasier. Later films such as Bigger Than Life (1956) would achieve a sort of expressionism in how they Scope’d the suburban American home, giving it an epic quality that seemed to match the size of all the conflict it housed – in hindsight, Wellman’s piece could be seen as a sort of precursor to this style.
Though Track of the Cat may be a melodrama first, it’s the western milieu that sells much of the story. This setting makes the family’s trials feel more dire as they’re more visibly cradled by the elements (and also because the action is in some ways driven by more provincial customs and ideas than the average ‘50s drama.) Still, after a few watches I feel that the pleasures of this film are largely formal, though the text is more than serviceable and often harmonizes with the imagery very nicely.
Besides being one of the first domestic dramas filmed in CinemaScope, it is also one of the very first westerns of that era. Up to that point, ‘Scope was usually reserved for “event films” like fantasies or musicals. It wasn’t until 1954, the year after its inception, that ‘Scope was used for westerns in such films as Broken Lance, Garden of Evil, Drum Beat and Preminger’s River of No Return, which also starred Robert Mitchum.
Mitchum’s size, grace, voice and diction were always perfect for these parts, the laconic and conflicted yet commanding alpha male. He was just as well suited to the part of Curt, which takes the role’s inherent toxicity to task some years before others in that mold would do so. This shot of him prowling in the snow is a great representation of both the film’s monochrome color palette and his own character’s trial, at odds with his own nature as well as nature itself.
To make a “black-and-white movie in color” had been a long-held ambition of Wellman’s and sure enough, the film’s stylized coloring, costuming and set design have become its most renown features. Though Wellman literally had the film bleached to help achieve this effect, there’s still an undeniable luster to it, a textural richness that you can only get from Technicolor, even at its most muted and pallid. Other than the opening scene with the Bridges boys waking up, the film’s housebound action is uniformly cast in bright light, so it’s usually not until a scene at the stable or a mountainside or a cave that we get any semblance of shadow play or chiaroscuro in the film’s lighting. It’s a choice that underscores the very stage play-like demeanor of the film, which does little to detract from its cinematic quality.
From the way he wrestles awake to his so-called, “Prescription” for the cat, Curt’s brash manner is signaled from the start. His ornery, balls-first nature is contrasted with the gentler, more thoughtful way that brother Arthur (William Hopper) walks in the world, though it’s not so much a “Goofus and Gallant” situation as it is one of diametric opposites who are similarly respected. Curt may be more recognizably heeded by their parents (Beulah Bondi and Philip Tonge) but Arthur is the oldest and the smartest. Arthur is repeatedly regarded as the one who was fundamentally different from the other Bridges and who brought values into the house that couldn’t have otherwise emerged from their poisoned clan. He’s adored by sister Grace (Teresa Wright), who shares his thoughtfulness and inclination towards art but is less self-assured and appears more visibly stressed than any of the children. The youngest is Harold (Tab Hunter), who is characterized by his ineffectuality more than anything resembling actual character. He intends to marry Gwen (Diana Lynn), a visitor on the ranch who brings a much needed outsider’s perspective and a foreign amount of color with her pale yellow shirt; the only other color that exists as boldly outside of the film’s black-white-grey color scheme is Curt’s red coat, which loudly marks his kingpin status. Even more of an outsider is Joe Sam (Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer), an ex-brave who has been a hired hand on the Bridges’ ranch for an unspecified number of his near-hundred years. He annually predicts the “Painter”, which Harold says, “stands for the whole business of being run out by the whites.” Like the painter, Joe Sam functions as a symbol of reckoning; his own sad history and the way in which he has been “othered” is a reflection of the family’s faults, which they resent him for making them face.
Though the grief Harold gets seems to be informed by outmoded notions of masculinity, it’s really about his inability to seize any sort of agency. Naturally, this shortcoming is written off as an inability to be a man; just as anything seemingly out of sorts with Grace is blamed on her spinster-ism or anything wrong with Joe Sam is attributed to his race, the Bridges are an example of people who often choose the simplest, most apparent and most ignorant answer for things.
Grace sees through it all and is too tired, as the subtext of Curt’s toxic hold over the family is brought to the fore in an outburst against him. It is one of two scenes in which she nearly combusts with rage as she drags the family’s skeletons into the light. She’s especially hard on Ma, how she indirectly shames Harold for not growing up and also shames him for wanting to leave. She does everything she can to assert some motherly hold over him while chiding him for the timidness that she helped to give rise to. “This house is rotten with the gods you’ve made,” bemoaning how the family has allowed itself to be manipulated by Curt, who seeks to reshape the ranch in his own image.
The casting of Teresa Wright as Mitchum’s disapproving sister is in stark contrast to the roles they played in Raoul Walsh’s Pursued (1947), where they were adoptive siblings that are enamored of one another. It is one of two instances in which the audience may be asked to consider an actor’s history in terms of the role they’re playing. The other comes later in the form of a cross-stitching that reads “Honor Thy Mother and Father”, which Pa then pulls one of his bottles out from behind. This seems to be the film’s own dark joke at the older Bridges’ expense, as well as a sidelong reference to an opening card in McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), a beautiful family saga in which Beulah Bondi played a similarly fraying family’s aging mother.
Harold’s struggle to attain some semblance of identity and respect as the youngest is not unlike Theron’s struggle in Minnelli’s Home from The Hill (1960), another Mitchum-helmed family drama within the western milieu, one less about the conflict between men than the war at home. Both family sagas are squarely focused on the actions of their sons as they relate to the sins of their folks. Another later analogue for Track of the Cat would be Mario Bava’s The Whip and The Body (1963), not least because both are near-monochromatic Technicolor classics that feature toxic and strangely patriarchal older sons named Curt whose presence haunts the family.
As everyone else wrings their hands inside, Curt spends most of the film out hunting the cat. His search eventually brings him to a cave where in a very allegorical twist, he finds that instead of food he has brought along Art’s book of Keats. This seems to remark upon not only Curt’s need for spiritual nourishment but the film’s own way of privileging the artful and emotionally intelligent over the crude and the carnal. This does not necessarily give it an edge, as one could reasonably argue that Track of the Cat is neither a wholly successful western nor melodrama. It is not quite as populist, sensuous or action-packed as any of the most sterling examples of either genre, yet the very fact of its existence helped to establish a formal precedent for some of the very best films of the 1950s. It is an unassuming watershed with a strange and quiet legacy.