Thursday, October 06, 2011


In a small New Mexico town, nightclub singer Jean Brooks and her manager/boyfriend Dennis O'Keefe concoct a publicity stunt: in the middle of an act by dancer Margo at an outdoor cafe, Brooks comes strutting out with a leopard on a leash and sits down at a table. Margo, not easily rattled, dances toward the leopard and (literally) shakes her maracas at it. That spooks the beast which runs off into the night. The leopard was on loan from Abner Biberman and O'Keefe feels bad about the incident, but he feels worse when later that night, the animal kills a young girl just outside her family's home. A strolling fortune teller (Isabel Jewell) keeps foreseeing doom for Margo, who just laughs at her. Soon, however, the leopard has struck again, attacking a girl who was accidentally locked in a graveyard. O'Keefe and Brooks feel guiltier, but when Margo finally does meet her death in a third brutal attack, O'Keefe tells the local sheriff that he thinks a human being is behind it all; sure enough, Biberman finds the leopard which had been shot dead days ago and could not have caused the last two deaths. Brooks volunteers to be the bait in a plan to bring the killer out in the open.

This is generally considered one of the weaker of the Val Lewton B-horror movie classics of the 40's, though it has a famous shock scene in the killing of the first girl which rivals the famous pool scene in CAT PEOPLE. Young Teresa (Margaret Landry) is sent out at night by her mother to get some cornmeal. She is scared of the dark, but nevertheless goes across town to get the food, and after a couple of false scares, comes upon the leopard. She races home, but when she gets to her door, it's locked and her mother, assuming the girl's screams are out of baseless fear, takes her time letting her in. Before the mother can get the lock undone, Teresa's screams have stopped and a thick pool of blood begins seeping in under the door. The sequence is magnificently done, though I find the mother's struggle with the door at the end an unconvincing way to draw the scene out. The graveyard sequence, though not as famous, is just as tense: On her birthday, Consuelo (Tula Parma) goes there to put flowers on her father's grave and to have a secret rendezvous with her lover (the handsome Richard Martin). She dawdles on her way and he's gone when she arrives. She stays, lost in thought, and is left when the caretaker locks up. A passerby hears her screams, but to no avail.

I think the problem with the film is that it is too ambitious. For starters, there are several potentially interesting characters, but none of them, not even the leads, are fleshed out very well. There are also thematic threads which are left floating. The role of random fate is mentioned several times (and the camera frequently seems to follow characters at random) but goes nowhere. The killer's motivation is nebulous, to say the least--he just couldn't help it! The climax, occurring during a gloomy parade ceremony filled with slowly marching men in cowls, is rushed. The pluses include great sets (mostly stagy but effective), solid building of tension in all the stalking scenes, and Margo (pictured above) who, despite having little dialogue, is memorable--and those castanets make a nice visual and aural touch. The screenplay is based on a novel by noir author Cornell Woolrich, and the film does have a good noir look. It's certainly worth an hour of your time. [DVD]

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