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July 30, 2006

Two Westerns by William Wellman


Yellow Sky
William A. Wellman - 1948
20th Century Fox Region 1 DVD


Track of the Cat
William A. Wellman - 1954
Paramount Region 1 DVD

On the basis of Yellow Sky and Track of the Cat, one could argue that William Wellman was a closet formalist. Certainly not a consistent filmmaker in his visual compositions like Ozu or Dreyer, but there are moments where the care within the frame are obvious. This care about purely visual concerns is what distinguishes Track of the Cat, one of the few times Wellman made a film with almost total freedom. With the exception of the characters' skin and Robert Mitchum's red jacket, the film was deliberately made to appear shot in black and white.

Yellow Sky and Track of the Cat are linked by both being films about a small group of people in an isolated setting. Nature proves to be almost overwhelming. Yellow Sky begins with Gregory Peck and his outlaw gang riding, then walking, eventually crawling across almost sixty miles of desert, a vast area that appears white on the screen. In Track of the Cat, Robert Mitchum rides through snow covered mountains with trees providing some sense of perspective and space, and fog disguising the same area. House and home are the same in the two films, providing refuge, if not full protection, from the anarchy of nature and the outside world.

William Wellman could also be said to explore the nature of masculinity. In Yellow Sky, Peck's gang stops at a saloon where they longingly admire a woman in the painting behind the bar. The lone woman in the film, Anne Baxter, becomes an object of the men's desire, pursued in manners both courtly and crude. Richard Widmark, with the fitting name of Dude, uses his gentlemanly dress to disguise his venality. John Russell attempts to force himself on Baxter. Peck even blames the way the men act on Baxter, who through most of the film goes by the nickname of Mike. The desire for female company is one of several manifestations of a kind of animal hunger by gang members. During the bar scene, the oversized Walrus fills his canteen with whiskey only to find himself wanting to trade it for much needed water while crossing the desert. Throughout the film, Peck and Widmark are at odds about the gold in an abandoned mine, with Widmark finally undone by his greed.

Track of the Cat is a relatively experimental film for a Hollywood production. Not only did Wellman work with an extremely limited choice of colors, but he also never shows the cat, actually a mountain cougar, from the title. That decision may have been based on Wellman's respect for the novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. Filming an actual cougar or panther would reduce the story to its most literal elements, while Wellman was hoping to create a filmic equivalent to Clark's psychological terror and symbolism. In Track of the Cat, the house may be a refuge from nature, but the conflicted family within, particularly matriarch Beulah Bondi, are people one wants to escape from. Considering the destruction of the family, the ending of Track of the Cat is too pat for the previous scenes of death and conflict. The effect is one of a director who has the opportunity to make his most meaningful, personal statement on film, only to ultimately show distrust either of the audience, or even worse, distrust of himself.

Posted by peter at July 30, 2006 03:21 PM