During the 1880s, in the mountains of Northern California, the Bridges family eke out a living as cattle farmers. However, something has been making life harder of late and it's not the blanket of snow and freezing weather which accompanies it, it's an animal. This creature is believed by the Bridges to be a large panther, and is picking off their cattle so something must be done. So it is that early this morning their Indian helper Joe Sam (Carl Switzer) awakens the three brothers and tells them that it is time to get up, although the racist and unfriendly Curt (Robert Mitchum) is in no mood for him...
Walter Van Tilburg Clark's novel Track of the Cat is something of a cult work, and apparently director William A. Wellman thought he could translate some of its essence into a tense western featuring one of the most dysfunctional families of the fifties, a decade that saw its fair share of such things on the big screen as if wondering how strong such units were in the days of Eisenhower. Although the Bridges don't resort to killing each other, their poisonous relationships are summed up in the symbolic cat of the title which proves them unworthy of each other's love and of nature's respect.
The cat is essentially nature turning against them, and perhaps their society in general if you wish to carry the metaphor to strain towards breaking point. Curiously, the Joe Sam character, who should by all accounts should be to some extent allied to the panther, never gets his own back after the abuse he suffers at the hands of the white folks, and even more curiously, he played by the grown up Alfalfa from the Our Gang comedies under a terrible old age makeup job that makes him resemble Freddy Krueger in a white wig. But no matter, as there is enough subtextual turmoil to go around.
The main bone of contention, aside from the killer moggy which we never see (even in the scenes it appears in), is that the youngest son, Harold (Tab Hunter) is planning to marry his sweetheart Gwen (Diana Lynn) much against the wishes of his hatchet-faced mother (Beulah Bondi), ostensibly for reasons like she is two years older and sexually promiscuous, but actually because Mrs Bridges does not want to be left alone in her old age. She has persuaded her two eldest sons, Curtis and Arthur (William Hopper), to stay along with their old maid sister Grace (Teresa Wright looking thirty years older than she did in Shadow of a Doubt), but with a certain cat around, the situation becomes more pressing.
Mainly this is down to the fact that when Arthur and Curtis are out in the wilds of the mountains Arthur is surprised by the panther and killed by it. An enraged Curtis puts the body on his horse and gets the animal to return home while he hunts down whatever killed his brother - it is built up in our minds to such an extent that it could be some vengeful spirit out there, as if from a horror movie. Meanwhile, the bickering back at the farmhouse intensifies as the other characters drive each other up the wall in Mrs Bridges' efforts to keep her brood together, something that the elements, the flora and fauna and Gwen seem to have more sway over. Claustrophobic even when the characters are outside, what really sabotages Track of the Cat is its acres of deadly serious dialogue which make the film mistake heavyhandedness for gravity. It's visually interesting for being as close to black and white as a colour film could be, but otherwise hard going. Music by Roy Webb.