"Track of the Cat" has been in limbo for years for several reasons. One, John Wayne's son, Michael, in charge of Batjac productions, refused to let it be distributed on DVD or otherwise until recently (Michael is now deceased but his widow worked out a deal with Paramount). Two, the film was not all that successful when first released. Only the drawing power of Robert Mitchum and other cast members sold what tickets were purchased by the movie goers of the day. Three, it was basically a pet project for director William A. Wellman who had fallen in love with the book by "The Ox-Bow Incident" writer, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, a few years before and had dreams of putting it on the big screen in glorious black and white color. He wished to experiment with color technique by having his cinematographer (who turned out to be William H. Clothier) use mainly black and white settings including the clothing and furnishings, with a few exceptions such as Robert Mitchum's bright red coat, the brightness of fire, etc. Producer John Wayne was so happy with Wellman's success with such box office hits as "The High and the Mighty" that he let him have his way. The result is a masterful work unlike anything else the viewer is likely to see on the big screen. The new process of Cinemascope captures the white canvas of the countryside covered with new fallen snow wondrously.
The interior shots tend to be cramped and the dialog talky reminding the viewer of a stage play. The exterior scenes are truly magnificent and add much to the texture of the story about a dysfunctional, isolated family, the Bridges (as in bridges to cross), preyed upon by a ferocious black panther, or so the Native American hired hand, Joe Sam (Our Gang's Alfalfa), says. The panther, whatever color the viewer decides it to be, is symbolic of the turmoil and apprehension that has become part of the clan as a result of rivalry for domination within the group. The panther becomes an obsession that brings out the truth and ultimately decides the family's fate.
Robert Mitchum, in a different type role, plays the oldest son, Curt, an egomaniac, selfish to the core, but with the heart of a coward. Still, the family looks to him for leadership. He tells everyone that he is going to put a bullet between the panther's eyes. The second son, Arthur, played with élan by William Hopper of Perry Mason fame, is kindhearted though meek, loving poetry with no desire to be a leader. He wishes to let the panther be. The youngest son, Harold, played by teen idol, Tab Hunter, is young, innocent, and in love with a neighbor, Gwen Williams (Diana Lynn), who is spending time at the Bridges' farm to be close to Harold during the inclement weather. The self-proclaimed matriarch who tries to ramrod the family with threats, guilt trips, and Bible citations, is Ma Bridges (Beulah Bondi). She has so far successfully kept her brood under her control and away from nubile bliss, including the only daughter, Grace (Teresa Wright), now a spinster. Harold threatens to tear Ma's house down by marrying Gwen whom Ma naturally despises with a determination to rid the family of this interloper and intruder. Pa Bridges (Philip Tonge) has become a drunken milquetoast and somewhat of a dirty old man, especially around Gwen, as a result of years of badgering and nagging by Ma. The story involves the two oldest sons hunting the countryside for the panther preying on their cattle. Yet the panther is the catalyst that connects the dots to reveal the truth that leads to a new beginning for the Bridges.
The drama reminds one of an adaptation of a Eugene O'Neill play in some ways, especially the part dealing with the alcoholic father. Unfortunately, the film falters in the dramatic department yet somewhat compensates in the hunt for the panther. Though not a long film, making it at least fifteen minutes shorter with more action and less talk would have benefited the production greatly. The use of the panther as a symbol was inspired. As Joe Sam says toward the end when commenting on the color of the beast, "Black pant'er, whole world."