Track of the Cat (1954)

Directed by William A. Wellman
Written by A.I. Bezzerides

SNOW WESTERN ALERT! One of the rarest of sub-genres makes an appearance with Track of the Cat, the snow western is not often the first thing someone thinks of when it comes to westerns. Dry, brown deserts with lawlessness and gunplay are at the top of the mind, but the wonder of the western is the ability to have numerous sub-genres. The snow western has long been a favorite of mine, as we get to venture up into the mountains and get a different look at life on the frontier during these times where modern conveniences were decades off from existence. Nowadays, people take winter vacations to the picturesque mountains to spend time in heated log cabins, luxuriating around the fireplace, or enjoying time in the hot tub after a long day of skiing, but back in the frontier days, it was a dangerous time where survival was top of mind. With harsh winter conditions snowing you into your abode for the winter, and the threat of wildlife right outside, I can’t imagine it was an easy life style. But that being said, at least the picturesque mountains and snow were still a part of the landscape.

The Bridges family have a ranch in the mountains, and winter has set in. When one morning their hired hand, Joe Sam (Carl Switzer) hears the cows mooing, a certain sign of a panther on the prowl, Curt (Robert Mitchum) and his brother Arthur (William Hopper) set out into the snow-riddled mountains to find it. Curt soon returns home for more provisions, walking in on the domestic drama at play at home as younger brother Harold (Tab Hunter) is courting Gwen (Diana Lynn), which causes friction with old maid sister Grace (Teresa Wright), Ma (Beulah Bondi) and alcoholic Pa (Philip Tonge). While Arthur is left alone in the wilderness, he is attacked and killed by the panther, leaving Curt out on his own to track down the cat, and return home to settle the stir crazy disputes at home.

For such an opportunity as this, a snow western, I must say I was let down in more than a few ways. First off is the use of both landscape and color photography. A little research suggests that Wellman wanted to make this film in black and white, and after watching it I would say he might as well have. There is no pop of color or other stunning incorporation of contrast or bold colors, other than Mitchum’s red coat. A missed chance indeed. The landscape is another missed chance. For a film about tracking a panther in the snow covered mountains, there are few shots of the majestic peaks, and to be honest, far too much time is spent inside the house following the various familial dynamics at play, downplaying the entire adventurous pursuit of the panther by Curt, at once sidelining both the picturesque mountains and the most interesting and dynamic performer in the cast, Robert Mitchum. It really is a missed opportunity in my eyes.

That being said, there is still plenty to glean from the film on the positive. First and foremost, getting the chance to see Robert Mitchum work is always a joy. I don’t think this role/performance is nearly his best, but he is a magnetic star and his on screen presence is undeniable. The domesticity of the proceeding, while not the direction I would have enjoyed a story like this to take, do have a certain intrigue and universality among them. Teresa Wright, an actress I quite like, is kind of forgettable as the old maid sister, but I enjoyed seeing the back and forth with Gwen and Harold and Ma and Pa, even if Tab Hunter is just a pretty face and not a very good actor. In the end, there’s just not enough action to carry the film from start to finish. I wanted more time with the wilderness, not nearly enough exciting happens out there, especially for a film titled Track of the Cat. I also wanted a little more in the domestic drama given that we get just enough to be intrigued, but not enough to carry the whole film. It splits its attention and as a result neither scenario is fleshed out enough to satisfaction, leaving two incomplete movies. Wellman should have either picked a lane or committed more to both.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

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