Everything in Wellman’s film is seen at its terminal stage: the family, the frontier, history itself. Set at the earliest in 1896 (the date of an inscription glimpsed in a book of Keats poems), at least three years after Frederick Jackson Turner famously declared the western limit of American expansion achieved, Track of the Cat focuses on an extended clan that plays like a grotesque parody of familial values. While Bible-spouting Mom (Beulah Bondi), along with her favorite son, the domineering Curt (a well-bearded Robert Mitchum), solidifies her power over her offspring, her husband (Philip Tonge) comically stumbles around in a perpetual drunken stupor, endlessly searching out the bottles of whisky he’s hidden in any number of spots throughout the house. Rounding out the picture are Curt’s siblings, the mystically-inclined Arthur (William Hopper), the deeply unhappy Grace (Teresa Wright) and the cowering, ineffectual youngest brother Harold (Tab Hunter), constantly ridiculed by Curt in front of his intended bride Gwen (Diana Lynn), the latter the recipient of filthy-sounding innuendos from her future brother-in-law.
While this clan’s passions either get repressed or simmer hotly in their isolated home which, for all Curt’s claims as to having built up the surrounding valley, seems situated at something like the end of history if not the world itself, a specter comes to haunt the land that may itself be a reminder of that now-conquered past. A panther has been attacking the local cattle and, after Arthur is killed by the animal, Curt embarks mid-snowstorm on a perilous journey to bring in this beast. Writing about Wellman’s later films, critic Richard Combs notes that the director’s style becomes “more introverted… his subjects tilted more interestingly toward allegory.” But Combs goes on to dismiss Track of the Cat as a “very thin abstraction,” complaining that the “cat of the title” is reduced “to a wholly unseen, metaphorical threat.” While it’s true that the “painter” (as he’s referred to in the characters' western-speak) is never glimpsed on screen and serves a largely symbolic purpose, the exact nature of that purpose is by no means a simple question. Like the white whale of Moby Dick (or the gold doubloon which Ahab offers to the man who first spots that leviathan), the cat has a different meaning for each character.
For the family’s Native American servant Joe Sam (Carl Switzer) who, after having most of his family wiped out by U.S. soldiers, suffered the loss of his wife and child at the hand of the panther, the beast represents something like pure evil or, according to Arthur, the only member of the family with whom the he speaks freely, it “stands for the whole business of being run out by the whites.” Thus having lost the battle to save his land, the American Indian is reduced to working for his vanquisher while transferring the weight of his past onto the shoulders of a semi-mystical creature. For Curt, the stakes are not so simple, but pursuing the beast single-handedly with dogged purpose, it’s clear it’s tied up with claims of patriarchal authority, a reading enforced both by a discussion with his mother about mounting the beast on the wall (where it would serve as a symbol of his masculine power) and his continued taunting of his brother’s intended Gwen about making the pelt into a blanket for her wedding bed, thus asserting his sexual privilege over the young woman and linking domestic control with dominance over primal nature.
If history – along with that bedrock of “civilized” society, the family – is at an end, then Curt would seem to be its winner while Joe Sam, reduced to spouting mystical nonsense, is its obvious loser. But for all his arrogance and his bragging about having tamed the valley, nature is not finished with Curt. Introduced wearing a blood red poncho cut through with a bold horizontal line of black, Curt trades his top for a less assertive black and white-spotted outfit that mirrors the monotone of both the wilderness and the family’s home. In making the switch, Curt seals his doom by forgetting to transfer the food from the pocket of the old garment to the new. As the days go by and his older brother inches closer to death, Harold begins to assert himself as the only viable male figure left in the household. That this assertion consists of telling his fiancée what to do rather than demurring to her wishes and then setting out on Curt’s path to kill the panther himself suggests that instead of overturning his brother’s cruel authoritarianism, he might well develop a similar bearing in order to stabilize an increasingly degenerative household.
Although it’s Harold and not Curt who ultimately shoots the panther (the action hidden by a well-placed tree) and thus asserts his right to both his familial and sexual inheritance, the victor lacks his brother’s arrogance and promises to be a more benign patriarch as he prepares to take control of the household from his increasingly impotent (and remorseful) mother. Still, at film’s end, the last symbolic vestige of threatening wilderness has been killed, the frontier has been definitively closed and the stage is set for the increasingly revisionist western of the mid-1950s to give way to the final apocalypse that brought the genre to a close in the next two decades. The wild land may be tamed, but the wilderness at the heart of man – represented via the rottenness of his deteriorating organizational modes, the family and the larger society – is primed to take center stage.