TRACK OF THE CAT (William A. Wellman, 1954)

The same year as The High and the Mighty, an expensive, enormously popular, and deadly-dull film for which he was Oscar-nominated, “Wild Bill” Wellman also directed the spare, stunning Track of the Cat, like his magnificent The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) from a novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. The financial success of one film enabled Wellman to make the very strange, very beautiful other..
     Set on an isolated ranch in mountainous northern California in the 1880s (Alfred Ybarra’s art direction is unsurpassed in Hollywood cinema), the film depicts the dried-up, twisted lives of a selfish family whose cattle have become the prey of an unseen wild cat: possibly the black panther of horrific legend. Devouring and self-devouring, the unhappiest members of the Bridges clan epitomize greed, chauvinism and grim dissatisfaction. (One of the four grown offspring, Arthur, though, clandestinely reads Keats.) The “black panther” projects outward the cause of the family’s miserable nature—a reflection of the anti-Communist hysteria during the McCarthy era, when the film was made.
     Visually, Wellman’s film is nearly as remarkable as something by Ford or Welles. Although the film is in color, most of the imagery, spooky and mesmerizing, leans on grays, black and white. Outdoors, scenes in darkness seem haunted; indoors, substance and shadow merge. Indeed, a mortal chill helps define—or, rather, undefine—some of the film’s most extraordinary compositions, such as the subjective shot from the vantage of a newly dug grave into which a coffin is about to be lowered. Those standing above the grave, looking down, are ghosts of the night, while the coffin’s occupant, like the panther, is unseen. The symmetry of the shot intensifies its mysteriousness. William Clothier contributes amazing cinematography.
     Beulah Bondi is unforgettable as the fanatically religious matriarch.

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