Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: We pay our respects to unconventional families, and the movies that feature them.
Living with a stifling family can be a drag, but what if they’re the only people around for miles and miles? William Wellman’s psycho-western Track Of The Cat sets up such a maddening scenario. The Bridges family holes up on their cattle ranch atop a mountainous peak covered in heavy snow. Even if they were to flee, there’s one big problem: an ominous, deadly black panther, waiting for its prey.
The “pain-tur,” as the family calls it, never appears on screen, serving a metaphorical role for the Eugene O’Neil-esque melodrama inside the house. Robert Mitchum, in a boorish role that predates his iconic turn in The Night Of The Hunter, stars as Curt, who despite being the middle brother has assumed the patriarchy of the winter desert and demands a hunt for the beast. Older brother Arthur (William Hopper) ambivalently obeys, while the spineless Harold (Tab Hunter) wants to escape, claiming the portion of the property that’s rightfully his so he can get married to his sweetheart Gwen (Diana Lynn).
The script, written by Kiss Me Deadly scribe A.I. Bezzerides, juggles intense melodrama and silent poeticism; the extreme Cinema-Scope images oppressively cramp the characters within the frame with often very little movement. Outside the house, each brother is dwarfed by the harsh landscape, their confrontation with the invisible panther (a.k.a. their inner selves) captured in exciting sequences that recall Val Lewton’s Cat People. Wellman described his feature as a chance to make a “black-and-white film shot in color,” and the green of the trees feels like it’s been painted over. Only Mitchum’s symbolic red coat stands out. It’s his feeble attempt to distinguish himself outside of nature, only to succumb to it. Track Of The Cat resolves its contradictory parts perhaps too clearly, but for films that capture the intensity of vexing families, few hit the force of Wellman’s best moments.
Availability: Track Of The Cat is available on DVD from Netflix or your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital services.