Sunday, June 28, 2015

Tonight's Movie: Track of the Cat (1954) at UCLA

Tonight was the closing night in UCLA's wonderful series celebrating the career of director William A. Wellman.

While I wish I'd been able to see more of the films earlier in the series, I've had really wonderful experiences over the last couple of weekends seeing ISLAND IN THE SKY (1953), WESTWARD THE WOMEN (1951), YELLOW SKY (1948), and BEAU GESTE (1939). The screenings were all the more enjoyable thanks to the warm, appreciative introductions of the director's son, William Wellman, Jr.

Tonight was a 35mm screening of TRACK OF THE CAT (1954) starring Robert Mitchum. Wellman introduced the film as "a black and white movie shot in color." He mentioned that all of his father's Westerns were "offbeat" in various ways and said TRACK OF THE CAT might have been the most offbeat of them all.

Wellman was joined by Robert Mitchum's daughter Petrine, author of HOLLYWOOD HOOFBEATS, a history of movie horses. She shared very interesting information on the talented Black Diamond, her father's horse in the movie.

William Wellman Jr. and Petrine Mitchum are seen here signing books before the movie.

I knew going in that the movie would be as Wellman described it, "offbeat," but I felt seeing it at UCLA would be the best way to try the movie. Seeing this CinemaScope film on UCLA's big screen was definitely the way to watch it.

I was curious about the film since it was a Wellman Western costarring Mitchum and Teresa Wright, who had also teamed in Raoul Walsh's PURSUED (1947). While in PURSUED Mitchum and Wright are an adoptive brother and sister who fall in love and marry, in TRACK OF THE CAT they are simply siblings who don't like each other. But then, very few people in the movie like each other!

While there were moments of interest and I was glad I saw it, this was definitely one of those movies which more than once left me wondering "What on earth were they thinking?" It's a talky, overly theatrical, and soundstage-bound depiction of a highly dysfunctional family.

Pa Bridges (Philip Tonge) is an alcoholic married to a controlling, bitter woman (Beulah Bondi). None of their four children have married, despite getting along in years; Curt (Mitchum) is the nasty boss of his siblings, Arthur (William Hopper) is a more mellow and artistic sort, and Grace (Wright) is an "old maid" who spends much of her time hiding in her room.

Hal (Tab Hunter) is the only one who seems to have any hope for the future, as he's been keeping company with Gwen (Diana Lynn). Gwen is interested in marrying him but wants Hal to stand up for himself. Hal's mother tries to drive Gwen away, seemingly preferring that the family go on being miserable by themselves.

Rounding out the cast is an ancient Indian played by young Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer in horrid makeup. Again, what were they thinking?!

Curt and Arthur go out to track a killer cat. The cat kills Arthur, and Curt ties him to his horse and sends the horse on home. The rest of the movie runs on parallel tracks as Curt continues to track the cat, while back at home Gwen tries to roust Hal away from his family, even as Arthur's laying out and burial is taking place. Yep, it's a pretty weird movie -- just wait till the funeral scene, shot upwards from the bottom of Arthur's burial place!

There's actually relatively little of Mitchum in the film, considering he's the star, and until she makes a couple of impassioned speeches near the end, there's not much of Teresa Wright, either.

Tab Hunter is front and center much of the movie, with Bondi yakking at him endlessly and Lynn trying to pull him away from his family, while dodging his lecherous drunk of a father. One has to think there must have been slim pickings in the area for Gwen to be willing to marry a man who came with such a family!

The movie did gain interest as it went along, though I watched it as an analytical observer and was never moved by it.

I especially enjoyed what Wellman and cinematographer William Clothier did with color, or the lack thereof; most of the wardrobes and decor, such as blankets, are black and white, but then there are a few big splashes of color, including Curt's red jacket and Gwen's yellow blouse. Matches and fire are also key items with bold color.

Unfortunately the movie has an odd hybrid look which detracts from what Wellman accomplishes with the use of color. Most of Mitchum's scenes are played outdoors, yet the exterior of the family home is firmly planted in a soundstage, which adds to the film's theatrical feel.

The screenplay of this 103-minute film was by A.I. Bezzerides, who also wrote THIEVES' HIGHWAY (1949) and ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1951), both seen last month at the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival.

The script was based on a novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. Clark also wrote the book which inspired the evening's second film, THE OX-BOW INCIDENT (1943), but I left after the first movie.

TRACK OF THE CAT is available in a Collector's Edition DVD put out by the John Wayne Estate; the film was produced by Wayne's production company, Wayne-Fellows. TRACK OF THE CAT also had a 1999 VHS release.

All in all, I was glad I saw and became familiar with the movie under the best conditions possible, but this won't go down as a favorite.

There's more great stuff ahead at UCLA, including a series honoring director Frank Borzage, opening on July 10th, and a retrospective of films by pioneering woman director Dorothy Arzner, opening July 31st. I'll have more information on each series posted here in July.


Blogger dfordoom said...

I loved the artificiality of this movie. It is an odd one though.

12:25 AM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

In the TCM segment devoted to Beulah Bondi (What a Character!), it is mentioned that this role was one of her favourites. It certainly is a juicy part for an actress. I get so mesmerized at the attempt to "make a black and white film in color" that I can almost overlook the unlikeable characters. Almost.

6:22 AM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

This is not a film I have much fondness for, sorry to say. Only seen it once, which I think will suffice.
On the other hand, you referred to a post you did last month, Laura, for "Thieves' Highway". Your review reminded me of this good movie and when, this past weekend, I had the opportunity to pick up a lovely print of it I went for it. See how very helpful these reviews are to all!

3:16 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Did reading about this film in the wellman bio affect your viewing at all?

3:25 AM  
Blogger KC said...

I would love to see this one on the big screen! It's an odd one, not really enjoyable, but it's got a weird vibe that keeps drawing me back. I think I always remember it as better than it actually is. Maybe I'm just intrigued by the look of it and that amazing cast. I enjoyed getting your thoughts on this one. Makes me wonder if there's anyone out there who loves it.

12:27 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Very interesting to get the feedback from each of you! It seems none of us has fully embraced it.

Jerry, I'm so delighted about THIEVES' HIGHWAY. That film definitely made an impression. Makes me very happy indeed when I know I've helped inspire someone to enjoy a good movie!!

Best wishes,

7:01 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Liz, I hadn't gotten to that chapter in the Wellman bio at the time I saw the movie. :)

I was very open to the film given my general admiration for Wellman but I think we all agree, including his son when he introduced it, that it's kind of an oddball film LOL.

Best wishes,

10:01 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

KC, I'd be interested to know that too, whether there's anyone who's a real fan of this film! Kind of a bummer given all the talents involved.

There are movies like that for me I keep remembering as better than they are, yet always disappoint -- SILVERADO is one.

Best wishes,

10:03 AM  

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