What I’ve Been Watching: Track of the Cat (1954).
Who’s Responsible: William A. Wellman (director), A.I. Bezzerides (screenplay), Robert Mitchum, Teresa Wright, and Diana Lynn (stars).
Why I Watched It: Mitchum.
Seen It Before? No, thank God.
Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 1.
Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 2.
Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 2.
And? I thought I might have seen this one before, but I realize now that I was mixing it up with Mitchum’s later Home from the Hill (1960)—in which he appeared with a young George Hamilton, rather than a young Tab Hunter here—because if I’d seen this before, it would have been burned into my memory. Of course, it does Wellman no favors that Encore Westerns squeezed his CinemaScope opus into a pan-and-scan format, but I still expect more from the director whose credits include the winner of the de facto first Best Picture Oscar for Wings (1927). And while I can’t speak for Walter Van Tilburg Clark, on whose work this was based (ditto Wellman’s 1943 classic The Ox-Bow Incident), I do know Bezzerides as the author and/or a screenwriter of Bogart faves They Drive by Night (1940) and Action in the North Atlantic (1943), plus the immortal Kiss Me Deadly (1955).
How do I hate this film? Let me count the ways. Start with the supremely dysfunctional family at its heart. The patriarch (Philip Tonge), if you want to call him that, serves no useful purpose whatsoever, doing nothing but drink and bloviate, so it’s no surprise that the true head of the family has become son Curt (Mitchum), who lords it over brothers Arthur (William Hopper) and Harold (Hunter) and sister Grace (Wright), abetted by the sanctimonious Ma (Beulah Bondi). Remember what a horrible old bat the “alternate-universe” Bondi was in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)? Now imagine that squinty-eyed performance stretched out over an entire film. Art endures with sarcasm as his shield, while Hal spends most of the movie walking around with an expression on his face that I can only describe as looking like he’s just been sodomized, hoping to achieve manhood.
Hal, you see, wants to strike out on his own, claiming his share of the family fortune and getting hitched to Gwen Williams (Lynn), currently the world’s least comfortable house guest at the Bridges ranch, which is ostensibly located near Aspen c. 1897, but I’ll turn in my BOF credentials if it isn’t firmly planted on a soundstage. The exteriors were shot on Mount Rainier, Washington, and according to Wikipedia, “Mitchum regarded shooting in the deep snow and cold as the worst filming conditions he had ever experienced”; no big surprise to the viewer, since his character is relentlessly obnoxious. Skulking around the edges of this train-wreck clan to complete the eight-person cast is an apparently mystical Indian, Joe Sam, a kind of eminence rouge played by Carl Switzer (yes, Alfalfa, about as far from IAWL as you can get), unrecognizable—so why cast him?—in old-age makeup.
The “cat”-alyst (forgive me) for change in this long-stagnant household is the threat to its cattle by the titular panther, the subject of the worst of the film’s numbingly repetitious dialogue. If you played a drinking game in which everybody took a shot each time they talked about what a nice blanket the pelt would make, or the various scenarios dependent on the color of its fur, the entire audience would be dead of alcohol poisoning before the end of the first reel. Arthur being the most normal offspring, he is of course killed off by the unseen cat in a shockingly amateurish scene, leaving Mitchum (whose own interest in Lynn is implied as subtly as this film ever gets) to emote to himself on his solo quest for revenge, which turns into a poor man’s “To Build a Fire,” and as the rest of the Bridges Bunch frets over his lengthy absence, things take their inevitable course; you do the math.