Of starving artists and clawed maidens, Val Lewton’s showbiz perspective: "Our first big break, and we throw wild animals at the audience." A languid dolly shot down a corridor followed by a quick lateral pan links two nightclub performers in separate dressing rooms, and the introductory thread in the intricate pattern of destiny, guilt and connectedness is woven. The setting is a New Mexico town, rattled by the press agent’s idea gone awry: A black leopard, brought in to enhance a chanteuse’s act but frightened away by a rival dancer’s castanets. Three women are slain before the mystery is solved, each made vividly human with one or two beautiful strokes, each filmed by Jacques Tourneur in her own mini-masterpiece of dread and desire. Entranced by a caged toy bird while on her way home, the virginal teenager (Margaret Landry) comes face to face with the agitated feline and is last seen, unforgettably, as a trickle of blood under her mother’s locked door. Lost in lovelorn thought at the cemetery, the young heiress (Tuulikki Paananen) blinks and realizes she’s locked in and about to be pounced on by something lurking on a nearby branch (cf. Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet). Finally, the seasoned odalisque (Margo) ventures into the dark alley and puts on lipstick before her last breath. "Nothing but fate and a brute animal," or the "kink in the brain" of a copycat murderer? The bland Anglo couple (Dennis O’Keefe, Jean Brooks) sleuth on, gradually aware of the land’s thorny spiritual past, while the museum curator (James Bell) ponders the orb kept afloat at a fountain by life’s unknowable forces. Amidst all these death cards and liturgical processions, the liminal Tourneur figure: The tiny fortune teller (Isabel Jewell), introduced as a hand reaching out of the shadows and revealed in one of Hitchcock’s Catholic gags, a shrouded Madonna with a cigarette dangling from her lips. The camera’s tender scratch, a most graceful vision of a most predatory world, just about one of Borges’ Ficciones. Cinematograph by Robert De Grasse. With Abner Biberman, Ben Bard, Keefe Brasselle, and William Halligan. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce