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Scarecrow on Seattle: TRACK OF THE CAT

For the past few years, Scarecrow Video has been contributing reviews of movies made in the Pacific Northwest to the Seattle Office of Film + Music's e-newsletter (you may have seen some of them when we had our Scarecrow on Seattle rental section up last year). We're now proud to be able to share these reviews on our site as well.






Track of the Cat (1954)

     The best way to describe this week’s Scarecrow on Seattle (and environs) entry might be “a fascinating failure.” Track of the Cat, starring Robert Mitchum, Tab Hunter, Beulah Bondi, and Teresa Wright, was filmed on Mount Rainier under difficult, unpredictable weather conditions. It is presumed that Rainier is a stand-in for the Rocky Mountains, as the only time the script mentions an actual, nearby location, it’s the city of Aspen. Why director William Wellman brought cast and crew up Mount Rainier is anyone’s guess. Producer John Wayne docked a boat here, so one could imagine that it was his idea to pay tribute to its beauty. Or Wellman could have fallen in love with it while up here in 1935 shooting Call of the Wild. In fact, he enlisted ace Western cinematographer William H. Clothier, whose mastery of color Western landscapes nabbed him two Oscars, to shoot the film. But Wellman had long wanted to make a black and white film in color, so they sucked nearly all of the color out of the film when designing the sets and costumes. Aside from Robert Mitchum’s blazing red coat and the green pine trees that dot Rainier, nearly everything is black, white, or grey.

     The story, or stories (as there are two semi-related plots) involve a family straight out of a Tennessee Williams play – an over-the-top alcoholic patriarch who either demeans or paws at every woman within three feet of him, a brooding, bitter matriarch, three lusty brothers, and a sister who’s so close with the middle brother that I initially thought she was his wife. One story involves the brothers jockeying for attention from their parents and the one, female, non-family member amidst deep-seated resentment and failed expectations, all while cooped up during a snowstorm. The other involves the tracking of the titular cat, a demonic black panther who legend says appears at first snow. The panther attacks the family’s cattle, and the hunt is on. Wellman cuts back and forth between the hunt and the family potboiler seemingly at random, as evidenced by the radical change and interruption of music cues. Noir specialist A.I. Bezzerides (On Dangerous Ground, Kiss Me Deadly) wrote the script, though it’s clear he didn’t get a chance to give it his usual economic, hard-boiled spin. The story goes that Wellman took it before he was done and shot the first draft. There is one part that isn’t at all clumsy or random—an artfully shot funeral scene filmed from inside the grave, suggesting an influence by Dreyer’s Vampyr. But then it’s right back to the weirdness. Did I mention Alfalfa? Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer plays a heavily made-up Joe-Sam, a mysterious Native American who may be well over 100-years-old. He’s a part-servant to the family, is horribly treated by most of them, and is said to be the living embodiment of the panther’s spirit.

     Normally, I love odd films full of great talent. Films like Johnny Guitar, Rancho Notorious, or hell, even Breakfast of Champions have more than enough inspiration to make me love them regardless of, or even because of their oddness. In the case of Track of the Cat, I truly wish that was the case. Still, if you want to hang out on Mount Rainier with Robert Mitchum and Tab Hunter, this is the film for you.—Mark Steiner


You'll find Track of the Cat for rent on William Wellman's shelf in our Directors section.


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