This film is nearly two different films. You have the tracking of the cat, who has been made out to be the villain. As Mitchum so magically puts it, “Why you don’t think I could handle a Black Painter all by myself do you?… (sly grin) an ordinary yellow one maybe, but not a black one.” or perhaps, “If he’s Black, he’ll be for art. If he’s Yellow, I left him my gun.”
This film is about more than just the tracking of the cat, it has this undertone of racism that just might be a masquerade on the segration issues of that time. They playfully stamp the color card on the panther repeatedly in the opening scenes- never saying it’s a panther, just that it’s dangerous, black, doesn’t give up, and keeps coming at you even when you shoot at it haha. When the Blacklisting is heavy, let the masquerade begin.
Just think about that red jacket that Mitchum wears… the whole film is like one giant puzzle filled with puns. “… They took an awful licking, and after that they scattered all over the country, Joe Sam took his family- well, just his wife and daughter left by then, they went up in the mountains around Shasta, that’s where the Black Painter got started. They were camped up in the woods in the high country, his wife and daughter went down to the creek to get some water, and he heard them screaming, he got down as fast as he could, and saw the cat going off through the willows, it happened during the first snow, Arthur thinks that the cat is Joe Sam’s personal spirit, stands for the whole business of being run out by the White’s.”
“The Black Painter is the cause of all the trouble in the world; he’s the evil in everybody.”
Robert Mitchum gives one of the most incredible performances I have ever seen, he plays it with such an eerie and sardonic grin, it’s as if he is always looking down on us and making sure we never take him too seriously.
I’d be interested to hear from other fans of this brilliant forgotten classic- not just about the undertones, but about the scope of the film in general- it’s a very thick film- it deserves to be dissected.
I skimmed through the OP, and the following passage caught my eye: “…but about the scope of the film in general- it’s a very thick film- it deserves to be dissected.” I completely agree with that. There’s a lot going on in this film—symbolism and psychological aspects of relationships between the family members. If I rated the film based on my current understanding of the film, it wouldn’t be so high (60/100), but I think I’ve just scratched the surface in terms of the subtext, hidden symbols and implicit message. I would really love it if someone has really analyzed the film deeply and can explain some of the aspects I don’t quite understand.
Here are some questions and comments off the top of my head:
>Do the brothers represent something? Curt is strong and a bully. Art seems more sensitive (intellectual?)—yet Curt seems to respect or even fear him (I think Grace says this at one point). Then we have Harold, who is timid and afraid of asserting himself.
>What is the nature of the relationship between Ma and Curt? Curt and the father? Is there a parallel being set up between Grace and Gwen? There’s so much going on between the characters.
>The black cat felt like the equivalent of the white whale in Moby Dick, but I’m not sure if that’s accurate. It seems clear that it represents something and isn’t just a plot point. Pursuing the cat seems to represent something as well, but I’m not sure what, and I’m not sure how it relates to the family and the relationships between them.
>What about the role and significance of Joe Sam, the elderly Native American character? The wood-carving of the cat seems really important, too, but, again, I don’t really have a clue.
>What do people make of the way Curt dies? Does he die from panic, and if so what does that mean? I felt almost as if the family’s bonfire caused his death more than Curt’s fear, but I’m not sure.
Being more formal rather than thematic in my approach, this film is one of my favorites because of its stately and luminous Cinemascope photography, its muted colors (with the exception of Robert Mitchum’s blazing red coat), and its offbeat mise-en-scene (the funeral scene is a case in point) all adding up to make Track of the Cat more than just a Western or melodrama genre piece but also an atmospheric classic just right for a cold winter’s night.
Makes for a perfect double feature with Nicholas Ray’s greatest film On Dangerous Ground, a melancholy winter mood piece also written by Bezzerides.
Any thoughts on what you think this film is really about? To me, the subtext and themes are more important than the surface story and drama. Would you agree with that?
“The strangest thing of all about this singular art western by a hard-nosed veteran (whose other westerns include The Ox-Bow Incident, Yellow Sky, Westward the Women, and Across the Wide Missouri) is that John Wayne produced it. Reportedly, after Wellman made Wayne a fortune by directing him in The High and the Mighty, Wayne said, in effect, “Anything you want, Bill,” and Wellman chose to film a first-draft adaptation by A.I. Bezzerides (Kiss Me Deadly) of a symbolic William van Tilburg Clark novel set in Nevada, filmed in color and ‘Scope but designed mainly in black and white. A claustrophobic tale of a snowbound, neurotically dysfunctional family whose bickering siblings include Robert Mitchum, Teresa Wright, and Tab Hunter, and whose parents are an alcoholic and a prude, it could be described as the American Ordet—and it includes a Dreyerlike funeral partially shot from the viewpoint of the corpse in the ground. One wonders what Wayne might have thought when he saw this wonderful picture. But the bottom line in this case is that it’s great not because it’s eccentric but in spite of the fact that it is.”
According to Rosenbaum, the Ordet comparison comes from Bertrand Tavernier, by the way. Tavernier :
“Track of the Cat remains a truly bizarre movie. The narrative thread is reminiscent of Yellow Sky (but with more of a Dreyer touch) or the outlandishness of Ford’s 7 Women. Writer A.I. Bezzerides’s reservations are understandable: out of enthusiasm, Wellman allegedly shot the first draft of the screenplay without waiting for rewrites. The dialogue is verbose and heavy-handed at times, while at others one wishes some elements were more developed. A little more action and drama wouldn’t have hurt the subject’s ambitions (slaughtered Indians are supposedly reincarnated as a mountain lion).
Wellman’s refusal to show the cougar, even as a mere shadow, is unduly dogmatic, and fails where Tourneur so elegantly succeeded in Cat People. The director acknowledged his mistake but added that he would have had to show the cat devouring Mitchum—not an easy task. The option he chose, however, weakens the construction (he didn’t show the dead animal): the scene where Tab Hunter kills the cougar looks more like an editing trick to mask a filming error than an aesthetic choice, and thus loses much of its power. The repetitive shots of the mountain, instead of enhancing the atmosphere, end up calling attention to the lack of variety in the choice of locations.
As often happens with Wellman, however, the flaws have a way of turning into virtues—or at least the distinction between the two becomes fluid. The static talkiness of the beginning (Lee Server in his Mitchum biography calls it “summer stock O’Neill”) becomes fascinating and truly daring at times. At any rate, Wellman happily tramples on all the rules of Hollywood narrative—identification, emphasis on action, rapport between the audience and the main character. The result is not necessarily successful, but the toughness of the endeavor and the director’s obvious personal commitment are admirable and enthralling. The family Wellman and Bezzerides present us with is evil in an everyday, nontragic way. They are mean and petty, full of envy, frightening Puritanism, jealousy, possessiveness, machismo. The mother is atrocious in her very banality. The father’s alcoholism is neither picturesque nor joyful but pathetic. As for the Tab Hunter character, he is a terribly passive hero (a trait worsened by the actor, who is wretchedly directed here).
There are astonishing lines of dialogue, such as the father’s comparison of women to clothespins (“All my life, I’ve lived with a clothespin”) or when Mitchum, admirably rigorous and never trying to tone down his character’s harshness, reads and then burns a volume of Keats’s poems. The film is extraordinarily formalist, and not only in its sparse use of color. The narrative gains power from the stark yet self-conscious severity of the setups, which also makes the studio shots more palatable. All the shots around the coffin during the wake (here, again, Wellman, who always favors subtracting, conceals the body) are quite amazing and make up for the heavy-handed repetitions, such as the fumbling for bottles of booze.
I hope the above makes you want to see more Wellman films. I do, and that’s all that counts, for one must write primarily for oneself. This article has helped me realize how limited my knowledge of Wellman was. One must have the courage to reexamine one’s memories and not feel sorry for oneself. I suspect Wellman never did. His rebellion may have been confused, romantic, sometimes ineffectual. Yet it was necessary and, with all the limitations I have tried to delineate, useful. Incidentally, it was also magnificent."
Rosenbaum: A claustrophobic tale of a snowbound, neurotically dysfunctional family whose bickering siblings include Robert Mitchum, Teresa Wright, and Tab Hunter, and whose parents are an alcoholic and a prude, it could be described as the American Ordet—…
I don’t get this. What’s the connection with Ordet? Is he referring to the filmmaking?
“Track of the Cat remains a truly bizarre movie.
I don’t know if I would say truly bizarre, but I can understand this remark at the same time. I think I feel this way because the film operates in a cryptic fashion (or at least it feels cryptic at this point)’ the text seems to be hidden code for the subtext.
Wellman’s refusal to show the cougar, even as a mere shadow, is unduly dogmatic, and fails where Tourneur so elegantly succeeded in Cat People.
Yeah, I think there’s some validity to this.
The static talkiness of the beginning (Lee Server in his Mitchum biography calls it “summer stock O’Neill”) becomes fascinating and truly daring at times.
I don’t know if I agree with that. The “talkiness” makes the film feel too theatrical and artificial at times.
At any rate, Wellman happily tramples on all the rules of Hollywood narrative—identification, emphasis on action, rapport between the audience and the main character. The result is not necessarily successful, but the toughness of the endeavor and the director’s obvious personal commitment are admirable and enthralling.
The family Wellman and Bezzerides present us with is evil in an everyday, nontragic way. They are mean and petty, full of envy, frightening Puritanism, jealousy, possessiveness, machismo. The mother is atrocious in her very banality. The father’s alcoholism is neither picturesque nor joyful but pathetic. As for the Tab Hunter character, he is a terribly passive hero (a trait worsened by the actor, who is wretchedly directed here).
OK, but I’m wondering what the significance of all of this is. (On a side note, I thought the father’s alcoholism was used for comedic effect at times.)
or when Mitchum, admirably rigorous and never trying to tone down his character’s harshness, reads and then burns a volume of Keats’s poems.
This also felt symbolically significant.
I like the comments, but I wish Rosebaum and Tavernier would go further and get to what this film was about.
“What’s the connection with Ordet?”
They’re partly talking about style, yes, but also it somewhat a matter of metaphysical outlook too—- talking about style—-how much of it is limited to conversations in a confined space, but the parts the seems particularly Dreyeresque to me are after Arthur’s been killed the body is placed on that bed in the house
and later the burial scene, where you get shots from the point of view of inside the grave:
It’s reminiscent not only of similar things in Ordet:
but also a little like this, which he did earlier in Vampyr:
Dang . . . unable to edit posts
OK, I can see the formal connections, but what do those scenes mean? And if you have any ideas about what you think Track of the Cat is really about, I’d love to hear it.
I don’t think it’s a puzzle, Jazz. Beyond the self-evident story stuff, I think the film’s color palette (it’s essentially shot black & white-in-color, right?) is meant to suggest a sort of limited world view possessed by the Bridges family, and the panther, I think, is a sort of manifest psychological projections of the families various internal and interpersonal conflicts. I have heard that apparently the author of the novel the film is based on intended the panther as evocative of the bomb and the sort of generalize threat of the Cold War. I also have a friend who swears that the point of the film is that Joe Sam in the panther, an interpretation I don’t quite buy, but the psychological dynamic of the film does seem to have a certain “return of the repressed” feel to it, as if somehow it’s nature return to overwhelming this homestead that’s been imposed upon it by people who don’t belong there.
Not a puzzle so much as a film that requires interpretation—e.g., it’s using a lot of symbolism or the subtext is important. Your interpretation of the panther is an example of what I mean. I’m not sure what the panther signifies, but I’m pretty sure it’s not just a panther. I’m also pretty sure it relates to the family—probably the family dynamics, as you said. I mean, if you just take the film on face value—what happens in the plot—the film isn’t so interesting. The panther and the characters themselves aren’t really the point of interest in my view, but they represent some theme or ideas—which are really at the focal point of the film. What those ideas/themes are and how that characters and plot points represent them is what I think needs to be “figured out.” Do you agree with that?
I do think the panther represents fear or evil—but of a more generalized sort (not fear of the A bomb). But then there are the explicit references to Joe Sam…well, the panther does kill his family, so maybe the panther represents the type of family dynamics that can destroy a family? That just came to me now and I sort of like that because Harold is the one that kills the cat—and maybe that signifies that the family will now be better off—as he replaces Curt. The again, Curt was a patriarchal bully, so I wondered if this signified Harold becoming that type of person…that doesn’t seem quite right. My first interpretation of Harold’s killing of the panther was that it represented a right of passage into manhood. In a rather heavy-handed way, the film indicates that Harold’s problem is that he doesn’t stand up to himself—especially to Curt—and he’s still a boy because of that. So killing the panther signifies he’s become a man. I’m not sure that’s entirely correct, though, or if it is, I’m not sure the film did a great job of establishing this last point. As I recall, killing the cat didn’t really require a lot of courage.
>Or maybe the panther represents an unhealthy masculine power. Curt’s obsessed with killing the panther—ostensibly because it’s killing the livestock. Taking control of the valley and the livestock has been Curt’s claim to fame, as it were. It’s gives him status—it might be the reason the mother favors him and why everyone else fears him or feels beaten by him in some way. It certainly seems to be the reason Curt has everyone under his thumb. They’re beholden to him because he’s done these things. But this power, represented by the panther, ends up killing Curt. Curt fears he’s being attacked and in his panic he runs back home (safety/womb) and falls off the cliff.
This might also tie in with Arthur’s death. Arthur seems to be more of the effete intellectual—his book on Keats—Curt tearing up Arthur’s book on Keats to keep him alive might symbolize this out-of-control masculinity—brute strength destroys the civilized and intellectual in the name of survival. The panther as masculinity gone amuck kills Arthur. This might explain the film’s emphasis—through the type of formal shots you posted above—of Arthur’s death. Arthur represents the more civilized and intellectual—and Curt/panther has destroyed that—and maybe this also represents the unhealthy state of the family. (I wonder if the father is more like Arthur and his response is to turn to drink. This might explain the filmmaker’s decision to make the father British as it makes him seem like a weakling, intellectual type.) I think this also explains the shots of the mother sitting in the room alone with Arthur. It’s her regret for favoring and indulging Curt (brute masculinity over intellectual/civilized approach). It sort of explains the antagonism and separation between the mother and father—and Grace as well (who’s on the father’s side; but she’s basically crushed).
Could Gwen represent a more civilizing force? That doesn’t sound right. But I think we should understand the three female characters as a group (just as we should understand the male characters as a group). Does the mother represent a kind of femininity that has been poisoned because it has favored this out-of-control masculinity? (She slaps Grace when Grace challenges Curt earlier in the film.)? There might be something to that. The mother does feel threatened by Gwen’s presence. The father is overjoyed by Gwen’s presence—and there definitely seems to be a sexual thing going on. (Is the portrayal of the mother—in relation to Gwen—a kind of attack on feminism—portraying strong woman as “sexless” and unattractive?)
But what makes some of this reading problematic is that Gwen seems to want Harold to be more masculine, not less. (I’ll have to think about this more; gotta run now.)
By the way, do you agree with the need for the type of interpreting I’m trying to do here (regardless if you agree with my specific interpretations)? The film isn’t a puzzle, but it’s highly symbolic.
man i agree with matt here.
when looking at symbolic/allegorical readings of films, the biggest question to ask is : does this reading enrich the experience of watching this film for me, or does it limit it? even if a lot of this symbolism is coded into the work (certainly more through the original Von Tilburg Clark novel than the film) i think the ostensibly simpler explanation from matt is far more resonant, and closer to explaining this very odd film as a viewer.
When you say you agree with Matt’s simpler reading, do you essentially mean that the film is basically showing us “a sort of limited world view possessed by the Bridges family, and the panther, I think, is a sort of manifest psychological projections of the families various internal and interpersonal conflicts?”
If so, maybe that’s sufficient for you, but it’s not for me. I mean, if I stop there, the film isn’t very interesting—I wouldn’t think it was a very good film at all. This film isn’t like an Arthur Miller play or something like Ordinary People or _Rachel Getting Married—all of which are more character and story based. The interest of all of them lie in the drama of the story and characters—versus some expression and examination of themes (although that occurs as well). Track of the Cat is very different in my opinion. The text involving the story and characters is pretty uninteresting—at least dramatically speaking. I agree with Matt’s description—but it’s just a starting point.
I think most of the stuff you said is in the right ballpark as interpretation, Jazz, though I kind of agree with NRH that you can sort of trample all the life out of a film if you try to pin too many aspects of the film down to specific symbolic meanings. You ought to allow for, as Kant called it, a certain degree of “free play” between imagination and understanding. If you don’t you’re robbing the symbolic object of part of syncretic value, as it’s meant to represent and signify at the same time, to both be the object and its secondary meaning at the same time. A symbol is meant to remain enigmatic, mystical, and not fully expressible by other means (if it can be, it’s really allegory, not symbolism).
I basically agree with what you’re saying, but do you think my interpretations are too specific? I think they’re still vague—in a good way. When I talk about the panther representing a kind of out-of-control masculinity, that’s pretty vague. (I’m not sure if that wording is quite right, either.) It can mean a variety of things, and I think it still allows the panther, as a symbol, to work on other levels as well. I see what I’m suggesting as fairly rough approximations rather than rigid and exculsive readings.
But I think we have to some rough idea of what each character (including the panther) represents or how they’re functioning in the context of the story. To not have any idea would rob the film of it’s meaning and power—from the other direction in my opinion.
Was that a response to my first question or the last point?
By the way, I also think something should be said about Arthur and his (good) relationship with Joe Sam. The carvings of the panther factor in heavily to this as well. The camera spends too much time on those carvings for it to not mean something (Curt also burns the panther in the fire, if I’m not mistaken.)
The last part. As to the first part, “too specific” is probably in the eye of the beholder. You should probably go however far you need to go to make it mean something for you. Just don’t feel like you have to resolve everything in a definite meaning.
The carved panthers, I think, is mostly a way of getting the “painter” in the film, visually, without actually having to include actual shots of a actual panther, and also a way of suggesting that it’s been “made” (psychologically) rather than simply encountered.
I was going to make a joke about the key to the film lying in intertextuality with the lyrics of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black”, but I will abstain.
I think you could take Arthur and Curt and the rest of the family and start to make a number of fundamental distinctions. Pa is an ineffectual and disengaged but basically benevalent alchoholic. Ma is bitter, domineering, dogmatic and manipulative. Arthur is associated with art, while Curt is associated with, well, curtness. Arthur is more associated with sensitivity and understanding, while Curt is more associated with aggressiveness and attempting to dominate. Together they’re a sort of Scylla and Charybdis between which Harold has to navigate.
i just get nervous when anyone says something like “but what do those scenes mean.” and i think that we get into murky territory when you say something like “the panther represents fear or evil;” it doesn’t have to represent fear or evil, it’s an actual panther that can totally eat some folks.
i think as people there is a tendency to invest objects or circumstances with weight that those objects might not normally carry – such as a panther that this family invests with all the buried resentments that have built up through their whole life – but i’m not sure that looking for an a=b correspondance really helps us understand the weight of that feeling.
interesting that you find the film uninteresting on a dramatic level – what do you think of it as a visual text?
i just get nervous when anyone says something like “but what do those scenes mean.” and i think that we get into murky territory when you say something like “the panther represents fear or evil;”
I hear what you’re saying, but doesn’t this depend on what we think the film is trying to do; how it’s operating or functioning? This isn’t a conventional Hollywood family drama—where the story and characters are central. For example, in such a film, the meaning of the scenes are generally clear. The scenes either establish the characters, provide important backstory, show some important actions and conflicts, etc. There might be symbols and subtext, but for the most part everything important is in the text or on the “surface” of the film. I mentioned Arthur Miller—something like All My Sons, for example or Rachel Getting Married; or Ordinary People. You don’t have to really dig below the surface or interpret the film in a symbolic way—to understand and appreciate the film. (There might be interesting things in the subtext or symbols, but you really don’t need to identify those to enjoy and appreciate the films.)
This film isn’t like that in my view. If you just look at the the sequence of events and the final resolution, the film doesn’t seem very interesting. There’s a panther killing the families livestock. Two brothers go out to kill the panther. Both eventually die. The youngest brother eventually kills the panther. Then there’s the issue of the youngest brother’s future—the woman he plans and marry and where they’ll live. Just taken on this level, the resolution and the film overall aren’t very interesting to me. Do you disagree with that?
Some of the scenes don’t really make sense if the film were a conventional drama. The scenes that occur after Arthur’s death—the mother sitting by the bed, the grave, etc.—seem unnecessarily long; these scenes aren’t helping the plot or characters. They seem pregnant with meaning or functioning in some other way.
but i’m not sure that looking for an a=b correspondance really helps us understand the weight of that feeling.
I don’t know if I’m looking for that type of correspondence, but I’m looking for some framework to understand the film. For example, right now, I’m thinking the film is really an examination of power—particularly a power that seeks to dominate and control—how this power can be terrible and destructive. With this framework, I think you can understand the symbols, characters and how they relate to one another, specific scenes and maybe even the filmmaking decisions. Maybe I’m wrong about that, though.
– what do you think of it as a visual text?
Well, I think I have great difficulty reading the visual text of films in general, but the type of answers I’m seeking would go a long way to helping me understand the visual text. (I think it would be essential.)
I’m curious to hear how you read and understand the visual text.
I guess, it depends on what you mean by “definite meaning.” Do you think the interpretations offered so far have been “definite meanings?”
The carved panthers, I think, is mostly a way of getting the “painter” in the film, visually, without actually having to include actual shots of a actual panther, and also a way of suggesting that it’s been “made” (psychologically) rather than simply encountered.
Those are interesting suggestions. I do think there is some mystical/religious tie—as the carvings seem to be some talisman to ward of the panther (evil), if I remember correctly.
Heh. To bad, it wasn’t written/performed earlier.
So how can we sum up what the film is about, based on what you’re saying above? It’s about Harold becoming a man and having to become a healthy balance between “Curt” and “Art?” If that’s basically what the film is about, I don’t know if the film does a really succeeds. I think Harold would have be developed a little more—especially in relation to what the challenge you brought up. (I like the observations on the names.)
(Is your interpretation above going too far in your view? Personally, I don’t think it is.)
“Those are interesting suggestions. I do think there is some mystical/religious tie—as the carvings seem to be some talisman to ward of the panther (evil), if I remember correctly.”
That is their stated purpose within the narrative of the film, yes.
“So how can we sum up what the film is about, based on what you’re saying above? It’s about Harold becoming a man and having to become a healthy balance between “Curt” and “Art?” If that’s basically what the film is about, I don’t know if the film does a really succeeds. I think Harold would have be developed a little more—especially in relation to what the challenge you brought up. (I like the observations on the names.)”
No, it’s clearly not simply about Harold in that sense—-that’s just one of the various sets of interpersonal dynamics/conflicts that’s present in the film—-but that’s one aspect of the film that one could explore.