Thursday, July 13, 2006
TRACK OF THE CAT
Prairie Mary up in the mountains about October, 1962.
“Track of the Cat” is both a classic Walter Van Tilburg Clark book and a classic Western movie. When the movie came out in 1954, I was a freshman in high school, a point at which many people are open to the world and morally sensitized. The impact of the black-and-white in color movie -- all snow outside and white beadboard inside, except for a blood-red blanket-wool jacket worn by Robert Mitchum -- was so strong that it has stayed with me ever since and still shows up in dreams.
The tale is simple: a black cougar (a mutative melanoma sport -- not a black jungle leopard) has been preying on the cattle. The mystical Indian hired hand and the oldest son have a connection with it and carvings of it. The middle son, Mitchum, is aggressive, competent, and determined to just go kill the cat. The youngest son, Tab Hunter, has a prospective bride visiting him but is coming off as weak, incompetent. How tough is too tough? As the movie goes on, the old mother, Beulah Bondi, asks this question. The oldest son is killed by the cat -- not tough enough. Mitchum is killed by exceeding his own limits -- too tough. The youngest son, with a little help from his friends, reaches equilibrium. But the cat survives.
I had an uncle like the Mitchum character, which may be the reason his character struck so deep. This ranching uncle (He was actually a farmer but high prestige farmers are often called “ranchers.”) was effective and made money, but he also made enemies and oppressed his own family. It took me a long time to realize my subconscious had tied Mitchum, this uncle, the character in the movie, and Bob Scriver all together. To mention this is to open the door to the West in my head. Bob’s idea of how and when to hunt was to go up into the East Front of the Rockies after a snow, a landscape not that different from the slopes of Mt. Rainier where “Track of the Cat” was shot.
I don’t know why Beulah Bondi struck me so hard. Partly I wanted to be like her -- strong and in control -- and that’s probably why I emphasize my old-lady-hood now. I find myself wearing black and saying cynical things as she did in this movie. (People don’t appreciate it -- maybe they should see the movie.) The two girls (there’s a sister) strike me as ninnies. The Shakespearean comic relief drunken father is discardable. I’ve also welcomed the recent popularity of white beadboard and have plans to install more wainscotings of the stuff all over my little house.
Walter Van Tilburg Clark taught at the University of Montana until Leslie Fiedler ran him out -- not personally, but because Fiedler was so rude, confrontive and determined to shock that Clark, a gentleman, didn’t care to stay. (A.B. Guthrie Jr. told me this, just before his wife towed him away from the gossip.) I did know Clark’s son a little when he was the librarian at the Montana Historical Society. Likewise, he was a gentleman.
The DVD of “Track of the Cat” has interviews with Tab Hunter, who had a ranch in the Flathead Valley before he died, and I was glad to see that at the point of the interview he seemed far more of a real movie star, not just a pretty face. The director, William Wellman, comes in for a lot of discussion, for which I was glad. Mitchum as well as Hunter is full of praise for him. Even the Mitchum character’s horse, played by “Black Diamond,” gets some discussion. It’s the horses rather than the cows that are of interest in Westerns. (Even pigs get more respect than cows!)
It is proposed that “Track of the Cat” was actually an “art house” film and probably it was in the sense of being conscious of images and philosophy, not just following an exciting plot. Clark had given them something deep and wide to work with and Wellman took full advantage. I was not the only one to be affected.
One of Wellman’s decisions, which he later questioned himself, was never showing the cat itself. One sees consequences and tracks (made by special shoes worn by Wellman’s young son) but must imagine the cat itself.
There was another movie, a horror movie, that I had seen when I was younger, on a double bill with the original “King Kong.” It was about a black panther in a small Mexican town. A mother in a little house on the edge of the town needs a loaf of bread and wants her daughter to go buy it, but it’s after dark and the daughter doesn’t want to go because of the panther. The mother forces her out and locks the door. In a few minutes the girl is back, screaming that the panther is after her. The mother thinks she’s making it up and won’t let her in.
Blood trickles under the door.
That’s the panther I wanted Mitchum to kill. Nowadays, maybe I’m enough Beulah Bondi to just kill it myself.