Robert Mitchum, whose birth centennial was this month, was the coolest of them all. He gets quite het up in two fevered movies revived at the Stanford Theatre.
Track of the Cat (1954) a late period William Wellman picture in fine CinemaScope, exemplifies the 1950s Westerns that were trying to muscle in on Eugene O’Neill’s turf. Wellman focuses on a turn-of-the century Sierra Nevada family of ranchers. The dysfunctional family is socked in by the snows on a mountaintop. Pa (Philip Tonge, absolutely dreadful) hits the bourbon, profanely quoting Song of Solomon as he leers at his potential daughter-in-law (Diana Lynn). If Tonge is preposterously theatrical, Wellman is a lot less sentimental about the frontier drunk than John Ford.
The family’s prideful mother (Beulah Bondi) has three sons that she’s about to lose one way or another. Lurking about is an aged Paiute run out of the Pyramid Lake area. This Queequeg figure understands the symbolic nature of the black ‘painter’ (panther) that’s mauling the cattleit’s not a panther, but a chicken coming home to roost. The Indian is played by Our Gang‘s Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer, who had a second career as a hunting guide.
Note the proto-Cormac McCarthy aspects to A.I. Bezzerides’ dialogue, though Wellman disavowed his movie later as a flop. Its biggest malfunction seems to be an unjoined set of halves, between the domestic drama and the location footage at the snows of Mount Rainier. At the latter, Mitchum is doing what the movie title said he would be doing: tracking a cat. Sometimes dressed in an arresting red Pendleton coat with a black slash through it, he’s eventually caught foodless and fireless in the snows. Here, the mystery of Mitchum’s almost vicious coolness is tried in harrowing solitude.
Raoul Walsh’s Pursued is a different animala noir-Western with Freudian underpinnings. Mitchum is a troubled Medal of Honor-winning vet (the Spanish-American war stands in for World War II). His half-remembered childhood trauma dogs him. What he saw when he was a kid gradually comes into focus, almost too late to save his own life. Mitchum’s simmering, lethal squint, and the low-register voice inspired actors for years to come. Here was the attractiveness of a minimalist actor who could excite or terrify through nigh complete under-reaction.
Track of the Cat/Pursued
Stanford Theatre, Palo Alto