The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Track of the Cat

John Wayne will always be remembered as an actor and a movie star. Fair? Yes. But during a long and distinguished career, he accomplished a lot of things behind the camera and backing movies as a producer, including starting his own production company, Batjac Productions. He starred in several of those movies -- Hondo, Island in the Sky, The High and the Mighty -- but not all of them. With Batjac backing, here's 1954's Track of the Cat.

It's the first heavy snow in the California mountains and the Bridges family preps for a heavy snowfall. Their ranch sits in an isolated valley with mountains ringing it all around, and as they prep for the weather hear the growls of an immense panther in the trees, not to mention its tracks around their cattle. One of their ranch hands speaks of a legendary black panther that's terrorized these mountains for years so could this be that animal? With their cattle at risk, brothers Curt (Robert Mitchum) and Arthur (William Hopper) pack food and supplies and bundle up to head into the wilderness to hopefully put an end to the panther. But as they head out, the rest of the Bridges family, including youngest brother, Harold (Tab Hunter), await their return back at the ranch. Under high tensions though, personal issues and long-held grudges come to the surface, threatening to tear the Bridges family apart.

The positives of 'Cat' are pretty evident. Working off a novel by author Walter Van Tilburg Clark, director William A. Wellman originally intended to shoot his film in black and color!!! Is your mind blown as much as mine? Most of the movie is shot in shades of white, gray and black. That way when we do see colors, they really do pop off the screen. The visual look of the film in general is a big success, even if there's too much use of pretty obvious indoor sets, thanks in great part to the filming locations in Washington at Mount Rainier. You know what looks like real-life mountains and not a mountain studio set? Real-life mountains! Also, composer Roy Webb turns in a solid score, a little over the top at times in telegraphing what's coming but still pretty good.

So we've got a real winner on our hands, huh? No, not really. Things play out like a Greek tragedy meets Russian classics versus Shakespearean dramas...except not that good. It is incredibly dark, which I usually eat up, but it's so heavy-handed and obvious that it loses any impact it could/should have had. That's one thing, but it also tries to be profound and existential with a message. Good and evil! What are you? Quasi-spoiler alert.....we never actually see the black panther terrorizing the mountains so we're led to believe that the panther is some sort of all-incarnate evil, right? It divides the family along very broad lines, all those bottled up emotions exploding outward in one big explosion. Then, out of nowhere we get these cutesy moments that are out of place and unnecessary. It can't find the right tone, going for an incredibly dark story Greek mythology would be proud but not getting there.

The cast itself is hamstrung by a script that writes in cliched, stereotypical and somewhat obvious parts. Mitchum makes the most of it as Curt, the brother who runs the ranch and made it what it is but he's also an intimidating bully to anyone who won't go along with him. Hopper is his complete opposite as Arthur, the good brother who reads poetry and tries to defend those bullied members of his family. Hunter looks surprised with big eyes a lot, his limited range crippling the part of Harold, the youngest brother who's had a girlfriend/friend, Gwen (Diana Lynn), move in with the Bridges. Gwen has caught the eye of Curt and basically thrown everyone for a loop. There's also the family patriarch (Philip Tonge), a preening drunk, and family matriarch (Beulah Bondi), a Bible-thumping, manipulative nut, and Grace (Teresa Wright), the only Bridges sister who hates her life, her family and everything basically. In a bizarre bit of casting, Carl Switzer -- formerly Alfalfa in The Little Rascals and wearing a ton of makeup -- plays Joe Sam, an elderly Indian supposedly over a 100 years old who works for the Bridges.

I didn't like this movie. I read about it for years and was at least mildly curious to watch it. Too much time is spent back at the Bridges ranch and not enough time with Curt out on the trail of the never-seen black panther. It tries too hard almost from the start and never really picks up any momentum over a 102-minute running time. Very disappointed.

Track of the Cat (1954): * 1/2 /****

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