Sunday 24 June 2007

Track of the Cat (1954) William A Wellman

The wind is roaring out in Mount Rainier National Park (we're not told where 'the valley' is but that's where it was shot) and the first snow of the winter is falling hard. Joe Sam, a freaky Indian played by Carl Switzer, best known as Alfalfa, warns the Bridges that the cat is back, as he does every year at the same time. It's a big black panther that has taken on almost mythical standing and Curt Bridges wants badly because it's already killed his dogs. Curt is Robert Mitchum, who seems to be as in charge of things as you'd believe Mitchum to be, even though he's the middle of two sons. If he was fired up to start with, he's even more fired up when it takes four of his steers and then his elder brother too.

That's a shame for us too because elder brother Arthur is played by Hedda Hopper's son William, who found fame as Paul Drake in the Perry Mason TV series. While he doesn't take charge as the elder brother presumably ought to, he does seem to be the closest thing to a stabilising factor the family has around. The third son is Harold or Hal, still young and talked down to by almost everyone, mostly because he doesn't seem to have any guts, just like his father. His girlfriend Gwen is staying with them too, and she's a catalyst for even more bickering.

Weak, alcoholic and senile Pa is all over the girlfriend attempting to rekindle his youth, Ma seems bitter about everyone and everything, sister Grace isn't far behind and cocky tough guy Curt is down on everyone, most of all young Harold. The cast are well up to it and include some major names, not least Beulah Bondi, fifteen years after she played Jimmy Stewart's mother in Mr Smith Goes to Washington and even more since the films I've usually seen her in back in the early thirties. You can always count on her to speak her piece and she gets plenty of opportunity here.

All American Tab Hunter is excellent as Harold, looking strong but acting weak, yet with hidden depths. Grace is no less a major name than Teresa Wright and she's spot on but it's Diana Lynn as Harold's girlfriend Gwen that shines most, showing us strength in ways that the rest of the characters wouldn't have understood. In fact looking back from a day when character development almost seems like a lost art, this is a superb example of what could be done back in the days when it was still an admirable quality for a film to have. the three brothers here are very different, all strong in their own ways but those ways are such that the others wouldn't have either understood or appreciated. It's all very nicely crafted indeed.

The camerawork is very nice too, with some great use of composition and perspective. The scene at Arthur's graveside is masterfully done and while it's the most obvious example it's far from the only one. Oscar winning director William A Wellman was an old hand by this point, with only four more movies in him. His Oscar was as a screenwriter but he'd directed the first Oscar winning Best Picture, Wings. He also made such classics as The Public Enemy, the original A Star is Born and The Ox-Bow Incident. There are a lot of great films with his name on them and they are all over the map as far as genre and tone and style. It's obvious from the sampling I've had that he really knew his stuff though. And the cat doesn't matter at all, it's just a McGuffin. This is a very human story.

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