Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Overlooked Movies: Track of the Cat (1954)

As many times as TRACK OF THE CAT played on TV while I was growing up, you’d think I would have seen it by now, but that’s not the case. I’m always glad to come across a Western I haven’t seen, so we watched the DVD of it not long ago.

However, as it turns out, TRACK OF THE CAT is not a normal Western at all. Since it’s based on a novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark (THE OX-BOW INCIDENT), that’s kind of to be expected. Robert Mitchum, Tab Hunter, and William Hopper (Paul Drake from PERRY MASON, his own self) play brothers who don’t get along that well as they live on an isolated ranch in the California mountains with their parents, bitter old Beulah Bondi and drunkenly ineffectual Phillip Tonge. The youngest brother, played by Hunter, has been courting a girl (Diana Lynn) his mother doesn’t approve of, and she’s come to visit. Mitchum, Hunter, and Hopper also have an old maid sister, played by Theresa Wright. There are a lot of angsty undercurrents going on, and when a panther starts attacking the family’s stock and Mitchum and Hopper go out after it, that sets off a chain of tragic events.

I haven’t read the source novel, but there’s enough doom, gloom, domestic drama, and creepy subtext in TRACK OF THE CAT that while watching it, I kept thinking, “This is like Tennessee Williams wrote a Western.” I didn’t dislike it, mind you, but it’s the kind of movie that makes you ask yourself what the hell it is you’re watching. I was expecting a taut, suspenseful yarn, a man vs. nature action story with Mitchum battling the panther, but that’s not what it is.

The snowy outdoor photography by William Clothier is excellent, and director William Wellman keeps things moving along fairly well despite the talky script. The acting is okay, especially considering there’s not really a sympathetic character in the whole movie. Wait, I take that back. Joe Sam, a crazy old Indian ranch hand, is sort of sympathetic at times, when he’s not being creepy as all get-out. The really odd thing about that is Joe Sam is played by none other than Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer from the Little Rascals, who was all of 26 years old when this movie was made. It’s some pretty masterful work under heavy make-up.

So overall, I can only give this movie a qualified recommendation. It’s well made and interesting enough that I’m glad I watched it, but heavy psychological drama isn’t really my thing. If you enjoy that sort of movie and haven’t seen TRACK OF THE CAT, it’s worth checking out.


Rick Robinson said...

There aren't any panthers in California, except maybe in a zoo. I'm guessing this was a cougar. As for the film, when I saw it over a decade ago, I didn't much care for it. It seemed it was just a vehicle for Mitchum.

Tom Johnson said...

I must have seen this movie when it first came out. All I remember is Robert Mitchum and the cougar. I don't remember any of the rest.

Rick Robinson said...

I stand corrected: there ARE Panthers in Texas. I was watching a National Geographic special last night and they were discussed.

Todd Mason said...

Well, sometimes people use the terms "panther" and "painter" for what's usually referred to as a cougar in most of the country these days. I suspect the car make helped that...more so than people tittering about women who prefer younger men.

THE TRACK OF THE CAT the film isn't up to the novel, I'd say. If you liked THE OX-BOW INCIDENT, where for that matter the film is a closer match, give the book a try sometime.