(director: William Wellman; screenwriters: from the book by Walter van Tilburg Clark/A.I. Bezzerides; cinematographer: William H. Clothier; editor: Fred MacDowell; music: Roy Webb; cast: Robert Mitchum (Curt Bridges), Teresa Wright (Grace Bridges), Diana Lynn (Gwen Williams), Tab Hunter (Harold Bridges), Beulah Bondi (Ma Bridges), Philip Tonge (Pa Bridges), William Hopper (Arthur Bridges), Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer (Joe Sam); Runtime: 103; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Robert M. Fellows/John Wayne; Warner Brothers; 1954)

“It’s one of those overlooked great films that somehow slips under the radar, in this case probably because it’s unique as a Western.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A brilliantly realized ambitious dark, brooding Western set in the 1880s in northern California on an isolated snowbound ranch. It’s based on the book by Walter van Tilburg Clark, one of whose other books, The Ox-Bow Incident, had also been filmed by William Wellman (“The High and The Mighty”). The scorching literate script is by A.I. Bezzerides. It has the haunting feel of a Poe work and the primitive savageness of Indian folklore. Cinematographer William H. Clothier bleached out the primary colors and that gave the images the look of a black and white film. The haunting luminous look created was very effective in charging the film with the subtextual sexual energy that lingers from the hot melodramatics and also giving it an alluring aura of mystery.

The Bridges are a repressed dysfunctional family who fought with everything they have to possess their own little place in the forsaken wilderness. The price they paid for this freedom is great, with the four adult children unmarried and unhappy. The patriarch (Philip Tonge) is a weak-willed drunk living vicariously through his strong-minded 37-year-old middle son Curt (Robert Mitchum), who is credited with saving the ranch and driving off squatters who tried to take it over. Oldest son Arthur (William Hopper) is the sensitive type who reads poetry, and the gentle soul opposes Curt’s despotic roughhouse ways and is the only one to keep Curt in check. Youngest son Harold (Tab Hunter) is shy and can’t speak out and say what he wants, relying on Arthur to look after him. A lovely neighbor farm girl, Gwen (Diana Lynn), is visiting the Bridges and is expecting Harold to ask her to marry him. The spinster sister Grace (Teresa Wright) has seen her life pass her by and dwells in misery in this barren place, and encourages Harold to marry Gwen and get out of this house while he can. The matriarch (Beulah Bondi) is a pious Bible-spouting believer, whose holier-than-thou attitude has turned the house into a joyless place. She favors Curt over the others and to please her he’s turned into a bully, who intimidates his siblings. While Curt mocks the marriage plans and manhood of Harold, mom speaks ill of Gwen by mocking her for being two years older than Harold and for being a hussy who leads her boy on by kissing him in public. Joe Sam (Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer, original childhood member of Our Gang comedy series) is the mystical Indian, who is the hired help. He relates only to Arthur, who is the only family member in touch with nature.

The first snow brings out a big cat killing the livestock. It’s feared he might be the ‘black painter,’ who according to Indian legend is the evil spirit who returns with the first snow to get revenge on the white men who took away the Indian land and raped it. The excitement builds as Curt is obsessed with tracking the mountain lion and Harold must become a man by going after what he wants, as one tragedy after another confronts the family and leaves him as the man of the family. During the hunt, the big cat is never seen.

It’s one of those overlooked great films that somehow slips under the radar, in this case probably because it’s unique as a Western and Mitchum in a superb performance is a tough one to figure out–disappointing those who expected him to be his usual Mitchum self. Its critics called it a weird film, but its strangeness is nothing more than telling a bold moral allegory about what could happen when you don’t live in harmony with your surroundings and misuse knowledge to suit your own fancy and lord it over others not strong enough to fight back.