If there’s anything evil in this book, it’s man. There are two cats. There’s the real cat, there’s mysterious phantom cat that haunts the situation. Hope comes, diminishes, and departs, comes, diminishes, and departs. Fear destroys Curt, he kills himself. He refuses to accept the cat as a natural part of nature.
–Jackson Benson, author, “A New Kind of Western: The Writing of Walter Van Tilburg Clark”
It’s hard to think of another director of this time who would’ve made this picture, and made it in this way. This is just not part of what the popular culture of 1954 was looking for, and yet he believed in it and he went for it.
–Frank Thompson, commentary
According to Tab Hunter, John Wayne was nowhere to be found on the Track of the Cat set. That, Hunter says, was a good thing, indicating that he, as the film’s producer, trusted his director. “That’s the problem in filmmaking today,” Hunter says on the DVD’s commentary track. “You get a hearty beef stew, and before you know it, they put so much water in it you’ve got a bowl of chicken broth.” He’s frustrated as well by current financing according to star power, and the lack of chances taken by today’s directors. “What happened to ‘Hey, you wanna do that picture? I believe in you, go for it.'”
With Track of the Cat, William Wellman went for it. Experimental and character-driven, it wraps a gripping story of a family battling social prejudice in a narrative about human destruction of the natural world. As Hunter notes, it’s a sharp contrast to the decade’s “la-la-la-la” Doris Day musicals. Rugged Curt (Robert Mitchum) is the primary agent of destruction. After discovering his brother killed by a cougar, Curt sets out to take care of the beast, slashing his way through the snow-covered hills around his family farm. Eventually, however, Curt’s aggressiveness leads to his downfall.
Environment, the movie suggests, must be cultivated, respected, and understood, and not just in the wild. As Curt loses his battle outdoors, his family barely survives similar struggles indoors. Ma Bridges (Beulah Bondi) can barely hide her affection for Curt above his brothers, intellectual Arthur (William Hopper) and wimpy Harold (Hunter). She manipulates her sons in a manner almost sporting, and openly rejects Harold’s girlfriend Gwen (Diana Lynn), whom she regards as an interloper. Pa Bridges (Philip Tonge), too, is a picture of dysfunction, doting on pretty Gwen while drinking himself stupid. Even as the family appears trapped with each other, their survival instincts eventually kick in, drawing them into desperate conflict. Throughout, Wellman creates tension with creepy backlighting, color (the only color images in the film are Curt’s red coat and Gwen’s yellow shirt), and composition, with every frame precise as a portrait.
Paramount’s superb special edition DVD provides insight into Wellman’s objectives. The DVD includes a wonderful selection of featurettes. “Remembering William Wellman” pays tribute to his daring, arguing that Track of the Cat is essentially a filmed stage play, and details the filmmakers’ interest in learning about cougars, to portray the all-important “cat” accurately.
Most compelling, however, is the commentary track, featuring Hunter along with William Wellman Jr. and film historian Frank Thompson. They all agree that filmmaking was more adventurous back then. Thompson says,
It’s another thing about [Wellman], and could be said about other members of his generation, they really lived life before they started making movies. Wellman was a flyer, they were cowboys, they were racecar drivers, they were in the army, they all lived lives and had experiences that they brought to their films. Today, people go to film school and make films. It’s just a different kind of experience.
In support of all the nostalgia, Wellman Jr. reads a letter from his father regarding the picture’s failure. “Never have I seen such beauty, a naked kind of beauty,” he writes, while also making clear his disappointment in reactions to the film, as audiences did not recognize its experimentalism. “It was a flop artistically, financially, and Wellman-ly,” he writes. “Neither the critics nor the audiences paid any attention to the unusual color, or rather the lack of color, the non-Easter card type of color we had striven for and succeeded in getting.”
Wellman’s letter also indicates his disappointment that he was unable to show the cougar. Initially, he hoped that maintaining its mystery would cause greater fear in viewers, whose imaginations would produce an effect “much more powerful.” Upon reflection, however, Wellman considers this idea “sophomoric”: “The audience’s imagination failed to imagine and my arthritis became my black cougar and the son of a bitch has been prowling through my system ever since.”
But Wellman was right to keep the cat out the picture, as Curt’s struggle is as much in his mind as it is outside. According to the featurette “A New Kind of Western: The Writing of Walter Van Tilburg Clark,” a reader of the book responded, “All I knew when I put it down was that I had lived a great experience.” Wellman’s film works similarly. It traps the viewer inside the cabin with the family one minute, then out in the snow the next, watching the windows and waiting.