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Track of the Cat

Screening on Film
Directed by William Wellman.
With Robert Mitchum, Teresa Wright, Diana Lynn.
US, 1954, 35mm, color, 102 min.
Print source: George Eastman Museum

In his late career Wellman bravely pushed himself in new directions, especially with Westerns that boldly revisited the themes of family and masculine authority that were constants of his earliest films. Track of the Cat is perhaps the most extreme of these departures—a visually stark and unsettling film alternately set within a claustrophobic mountain home infested with a Freudian brand of cabin fever and the snow-blinded rugged landscape outside, where a lethal panther lurks. Warned of the panther’s return by an ancient Native American wise man—improbably played by The Little Rascals’ Alfafa, Carl Switzer, rival brothers Robert Mitchum and Tab Hunter set out to track their deadly prey, an extended hunt menaced by unspoken fratricidal threats. Mitchum delivers one of his most sinister and understated performances, exuding an absolute and frightening hate with almost casual ease. Also strong are Teresa Wright as his embittered sister staring with dishpan hands down a bottomless well of regret, and the underappreciated Tab Hunter as the emblem of Fifties youth culture thrown suddenly back into a Lewtonesque fable of fate and bad blood. The film’s strangely muted color palette is deliberate, carefully designed by Wellman and celebrated cinematographer William Clothier (Cheyenne Autumn, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), who set out to create a new kind of black-and-white, reserving bright hues only as expressionist punctuation against a stark field of whites, blacks and greys.

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