Last week when Warner Bros. received the lion’s share of attention for its John Ford/John Wayne box set, Paramount quietly slipped The Batjac Suspense Collection onto the shelves, so named for Wayne’s independent production company. Under the Batjac umbrella, Wayne produced many of his later star vehicles, including The Alamo and The Green Berets, but the company also made a number of films without Wayne including the four titles in this box set. It’s a gathering of oddities: Pulp writer Mickey Spillane helps solve a murder at the circus in Ring of Fear (1954), Glenn Ford hunts for Aztec gold in Plunder of the Sun (1953),and Anita Eckberg takes up femme fatale duties in the low-budget Los Angeles heist film Man in the Vault (1956). Perhaps the oddest of all is William A. Wellman’s Track of the Cat (1954), a masterful psychological Western that doubles as an epic experiment in color and sound. Seething with mid-’50s domestic anxiety, the film centers on the Bridges, an isolated frontier family in the final stages of a long, slow implosion. The action starts with the arrival of the youngest Bridges’ prospective bride and the death of the roughneck family’s black-sheep middle son (he reads Keats), who’s killed by a mysterious black panther that haunts the film only as a horrible, disembodied roar. While the eldest son (Robert Mitchum) pursues the cat — and his own personal demons — deep into the snow-covered mountains, the clan’s bitter matriarch (Beulah Bondi) twists the knife of fate and failure into the hearts of everyone left behind, including Tab Hunter and Teresa Wright as the young fiancés. Screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides, who gave Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly its apocalyptic edge, injects a strong strain of misanthropy into the proceedings — there isn’t a single wholly sympathetic character in the bunch — while Wellman works out a dazzlingly minimalist palette on a Cinemascope canvas. Whites, blacks and muted colors dominate the screen, with a yellow scarf, a red jacket or a splash of blood punctuating the mood. Drained of pictorial realism and suffused with feline totems, Track stands as an intensely expressionistic experience the likes of which one would never think to associate with the Duke.
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Other recommended new releases: Born in Flames (DVD); Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (DVD); An Empty Bed (DVD). Also released this week:DVD: 10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America; 16 Blocks; Beavis And Butt-Head: The Mike Judge Collection, Volume Two; Betty Grable Collection, Volume One: The Dolly Sisters, Down Argentine Way, Moon Over Miami, My Blue Heaven; Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman: The Movies; Green Street Hooligans; Mother Teresa; Nate & Hayes; Room 6; Stargate Sg-1: Seasons 1-8; Sunday Driver; The Cincinnati Reds 1975 World Series Collector’s Edition; The Pink Panther; The Sisters; Walker, Texas Ranger: The Complete First Season; A Year Without Love.