The Leopard Man, 1943. 8/10

Very atmospheric horror/mystery drama. The elegant cinematography captures the old colonial feel of a small New Mexico town. The plot uncoils with quick pacing. In the best horror tradition, the monster (the leopard, that is) shows up right away.

Then we get three well-connected murder scenes, each with an eerie set-up and denouement. I can’t decide whether the graveyard is scarier than the tunnel under the railway bridge. The nocturnal street scene where the last victim gets it isn’t bad either. Maybe the graveyard is the best because Consuelo is stuck there longer than Theresa or Clo Clo are when they’re cornered.

Also the graveyard has a magical quality. It seems to get bigger and more forlorn the more Consuelo explores it. The fact that she’s almost rescued adds to the horror. After her death, Galbraith seems to hear her voice as he finds himself there, brooding. Poor Theresa is similarly walled-in by the confined, tomb-like passageway under the bridge. First the tumbleweed, then eyes appearing out of nothingness…

The sense of a lurking menace is skillfully built out of shadow and darkness, the tell-tale castanets, even the sleek blackness of the leopard. The shift from an animal to a human threat is gradual and logical. It changes the form of the danger, but not the substance of it. At first it seems that Jerry wants to believe that the leopard isn’t the killer–after the second killing anyway–only because it lessens his sense of guilt and responsibility.

It’s interesting that Galbraith’s attempt to incriminate How-Come is nearly successful. Galbraith knows that How-Come bears some guilt for bringing the leopard to town in the first place. Strangely, Galbraith analyzes himself as he discusses with Jerry the leopard’s/psychopath’s likely behavior.

What seemed ambiguous was Galbraith’s confession. He says he “had to do something” after Theresa was killed, because “her body was broken and mangled.” His response to her death is to kill two women; did he begin by killing Theresa, and then he couldn’t stop killing? Or, what’s more likely, he saw her just after she was killed by the leopard, and it excited him to the extent that he ‘became’ the leopard. The procession adds a macabre element that fittingly helps to trap Galbraith.

The only thing that didn’t work for me was that most of the characters were forgettable. It’s too bad that Theresa was the first victim, she’s more interesting than Clo-Clo, Kiki, and Maria put together. Jerry, How-Come, and even Galbraith don’t add up to much either. Kiki’s and Jerry’s mutual “turning soft” at the end wasn’t convincing. It seemed that no one cared much about Theresa until the other two victims were killed.

An unusual movie, hard to categorize, but easy to enjoy. I wish that more of Cornell Wollrich’s stories had been turned into films. 8/10.

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