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Track of the Cat (Movie 1954): Experimental Cult Classic

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Track of the Cat Tab HunterTrack of the Cat with Tab Hunter: Though not a major critical or commercial success, William A. Wellman’s experimental 1954 cult classic features a “name” cast that includes Robert Mitchum, Teresa Wright, Diana Lynn, Beulah Bondi, and the fast-rising Tab Hunter.
  • Track of the Cat (movie 1954): William A. Wellman’s period dysfunctional family drama is notable for its small but mostly prestigious cast and for its unconventional use of color. Robert Mitchum, Teresa Wright, Diana Lynn, Tab Hunter, and Beulah Bondi star.
  • Track of the Cat synopsis: During a particularly bitter winter, two rival brothers (Robert Mitchum and Tab Hunter) set out to find a mountain lion that has endangered their family’s Northern California homestead.

Track of the Cat (movie 1954): Starring Robert Mitchum and Teresa Wright, William A. Wellman’s psychological family drama makes an uncommon use of color for dramatic effect

Ramon Novarro Beyond Paradise

Produced by (co-owner) John Wayne’s independent outlet Wayne/Fellows Productions, directed by two-time Academy Award-nominated veteran William A. Wellman (A Star Is Born, 1937; Battleground, 1949),[1] and adapted by A.I. Bezzerides from a 1949 novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark,[2] the 1954 Warner Bros. release Track of the Cat is a psychological family drama mostly set at a ranch in early 20th-century Northern California.

Already an established Hollywood star, Robert Mitchum (Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee for The Story of G.I. Joe, 1945) heads a mostly “name” cast – Teresa Wright, Diana Lynn, Beulah Bondi, Tab Hunter – in the role of Curtis Bridges, a bully who spends a combative winter with his dysfunctional clan. The film’s title refers to a mountain lion seen prowling in the hills near the family’s ranch.

Cinematographer William H. Clothier – a future two-time Oscar nominee (The Alamo, 1960; Cheyenne Autumn, 1964) who began a long association with John Wayne in the mid-1950s (The Sea Chase, The Alamo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, etc.) – shot Track of the Cat in CinemaScope and Warnercolor. In an uncommon departure from most color films, Clothier and Wellman mostly used black, white, and pale hues throughout.

A handful of vibrant exceptions – for instance, Robert Mitchum’s red jacket (nearly four decades before Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List) – were supposed to visually heighten the drama.[3]

Stellar cast

The supporting cast in Track of the Cat consists of the following:

  • Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Teresa Wright (Mrs. Miniver, 1942) as Curtis’ embittered old-maid sister Grace. Seven years earlier, Wright, at the time the bigger marquee name, had played Robert Mitchum’s romantic interest in another psychological Western, Raoul Walsh’s Pursued.
  • Up-and-coming heartthrob Tab Hunter (Island of Desire, The Steel Lady) as Curtis’ youngest brother, Harold. Hunter would join forces with William A. Wellman once again on the 1958 World War I romantic drama Lafayette Escadrille.
  • Former Paramount contract actress Diana Lynn (The Major and the Minor, My Friend Irma) as Harold’s fiancée.
  • Two-time Best Supporting Actress nominee Beulah Bondi (The Gorgeous Hussy, 1936; Of Human Hearts, 1938) – the beloved mommy, granny, and auntie in countless Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 1940s (e.g., Make Way for Tomorrow, Remember the Night) – as the Bridges matriarch and a total religious freak.
  • Veteran stage performer Philip Tonge, previously featured in several Broadway productions of Noël Coward plays (e.g., Design for Living, Blithe Spirit), as the alcoholic Bridges patriarch.
  • William Hopper – son of stage star DeWolf Hopper and powerful Hollywood gossip columnist and sometime actress Hedda Hopper (who had supporting roles in two Wellman movies, Wings and A Star Is Born) – as the kindhearted middle brother, Arthur.
  • Former Our Gang child actor Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer, hidden under heavy makeup as an elderly Native American.

‘Pretty snow scenery’

Despite – or perhaps (at least partly) because of – its stylistic ambitions, Track of the Cat failed to make much of a splash upon its release.

The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, for one, was unimpressed with Wellman’s cinematic exercise, complaining that the film “has no psychological pattern, no dramatic point. There’s a lot of pretty snow scenery in it and a lot of talk about deep emotional things. But it gets lost in following some sort of pretense.”

Yet in case Variety’s early 1956 estimates were on target, Track of the Cat, though no blockbuster, was likely no commercial bomb either, earning $2 million in domestic rentals (the distributor’s share of the box office gross).

Track of the Cat (movie 1954) cast & crew

Director: William A. Wellman.

Screenplay: A. I. Bezzerides.
From Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s 1949 novel.

Robert Mitchum … Curtis Bridges
Teresa Wright … Grace Bridges
Diana Lynn … Gwendolyn Williams
Tab Hunter … Harold “Hal” Bridges
Beulah Bondi … Ma Bridges
Philip Tonge … Pa Bridges
William Hopper … Arthur Bridges
Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer … Joe Sam

Cinematography: William H. Clothier.

Film Editing: Fred MacDowell.

Music: Roy Webb.

Producers (uncredited): John Wayne & Robert Fellows were the heads of production company Wayne/Fellows.

Art Direction: Alfred Ybarra.

Costume Design: Gwen Wakeling.

Production Company: Wayne/Fellows Productions.

Distributor: Warner Bros.

Running Time: 103 min.

Country: United States.

Track of the Cat (Movie 1954): Experimental Cult Classic” notes

Third Best Director Oscar nod

[1] William A. Wellman would be shortlisted for the third and final time in the Academy Awards’ Best Director category for the blockbuster The High and the Mighty – like Track of the Cat, a 1954 Wayne/Fellows production released through Warner Bros.

In addition, Wellman shared with Robert Carson the Best Original Story Oscar for A Star Is Born (even though its narrative was clearly based on George Cukor’s 1932 drama What Price Hollywood?, from a screen story by Adela Rogers St. Johns.)

Second Walter Van Tilburg Clark adaptation

[2] Track of the Cat marked the second time director William A. Wellman tackled an adaptation of a Walter Van Tilburg Clark book.

Clark’s anti-mob-lynching 1940 Western novel The Ox-Bow Incident was the source for the filmmaker’s well-received 1943 release of the same title, which went on to earn one single Academy Award nod – in the Best Picture category.

Red mood

[3] Six years before Track of the Cat, the color red played a key role in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Oscar-nominated British classic The Red Shoes.

Ten years after Track of the Cat, the color red would have a similar dramatic purpose in Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie.

Fast-forward to Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1994 psychological romantic drama Three Colors: Red, in which the titular hue has less a dramatic role than a mood-enhancing one.

Track of the Cat movie credits via the American Film Institute (AFI) Catalog website.

In the United States, Track of the Cat was released on DVD in June 2006.

Tab Hunter in Track of the Cat movie image: Batjac Productions | Paramount Home Entertainment.

Track of the Cat (Movie 1954): Experimental Cult Classic” last updated in May 2023.

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