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Saturday, January 5, 2013

TRACK OF THE CAT (1954)

Cinematographer William Clothier worked closely with vet helmer William Wellman to create an unusual look for this early CinemaScope Western, using a largely black & white palette, but shooting in the rich hues of WarnerColor. It’s now common to pull back on color saturation for effect, especially since studios frown on shooting in real b&w, but the effect here is quite different as the select splashes of color (a red jacket against the white snow, a hushed fire against black trees, a glass of tan whiskey against cream-colored walls) show up in rich & vivid dyes against largely monochromatic backdrops. If only the dramatic elements were as compelling. Striking as the location work is, most of the film skips the spectacular Prince Rainier mountains for soundstage work, a farmhouse & grounds Belasco might have coveted for B’way. The story follows Robert Mitchum and his brothers as they hunt in the snowy woods for a (mythical?) black cougar who’s endangering the livestock. But meanwhile . . . back at the farm, the dysfunctional family dynamics play out like a quasi-Greek tragedy. It might be a mid-career play by Eugene O’Neill, but without the genius that makes them such awkward marvels. Here, they’re only awkward, with no one working in their comfort zone. Not necessarily a bad thing, except that Beulah Bondi’s Ma & Mitchum’s favored son stumble over long, unplayable soliloquies; Teresa Wright is wasted as a spinsterish Cassandra with a harmonium (the role effectively ended her film career); Philip Tonge grieves by pursuing a running gag of hide-the-bottle; which leaves Tab Hunter, of all people, to make a go of things all on his own as the cowardly kid brother who finds his footing. Wellman simply hasn’t a clue how to play or stage these things, especially in the new WideScreen format, and each return from location realism to soundstage artifice lands with the fresh thud of a manufactured snow drift.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Mitchum & Wright had better luck in PURSUED/’47, a Raoul Walsh Western with a strange Freudian slant.

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