Track of the Cat (1954):

The titular feline is a wild cougar, and following an off-screen rampage Carl ("Alfalfa") Switzer, done up as a weathered shaman, shuffles through the artificial snow and into the ranch; he wakes William Hopper, who punches the air and grumbles until he hears the bovine moans outside, the ritual is repeated twice more for Tab Hunter and Robert Mitchum. The mix of rapid cutting and depth of field enhances the strangeness, solidifying the experimentation of the opening titles (black lettering over wintry expanses, filmed like "black and white in color") and introducing a closed-off world within a closed-off world, both of them far from "the amenities of civilization." The setting is blizzard country, where a family bulges with tension -- matriarch Beulah Bondi is heavy with brimstone, Mitchum is the ruthless heir, Hopper and Hunter are his brothers, Teresa Wright is prematurely spinsterish and Diana Lynn is Hunter's gal. The panther feasting on the cattle seems fueled by the tensions, Mitchum grabs rifle and crimson coat and heads out for the metaphorical hunt, with Keats' words ("When I had fears that I may cease to be...") in his pocket for a bonfire. A Walter Van Tilburg Clark novel is a useful vessel for William Wellman's expressionism, particularly if adapted by A.I. Bezzerides: The symmetry of Mitchum riding in long shot is thrown off by the diagonal of a slanted tree, Hopper dies off a boring character and is reincarnated as a series of arresting visual effects, his body laid in bed behind a dark oak headboard and then into the earth via an extended low-angle. Jonathan Rosenbaum correctly sensed Dreyer in the mix, though Wellman's august treatment feels closer to a lacerating gloss on Eugene O'Neill's tragic lugubriousness, with the dilapidated patriarch's (Philip Tonge) whiskey bottle stashed behind a "Home Sweet Home" plaque; the severities of Friendly Persuasion, Floating Weeds, Day of the Outlaw can also be traced. An astonishing work of disintegration, like 7 Women, contractually concluding with the ingenue's maturation while lingering on Mitchum breaking down in the cold, or Bondi slumped in her rocking-chair ("I've been trying to pray. But it don't come out right."). Cinematography by William Clothier.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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