Panther’s Moon (1950)

vt Spy Hunt
US / 74 minutes / bw / Universal International Dir: George Sherman Pr: Ralph Dietrich Scr: George Zuckerman, Leonard Lee Story: Panther’s Moon (1948; vt Hunter’s Moon) by Victor Canning Cine: Irving Glassberg Cast: Howard Duff, Marta Toren (i.e., Märta Torén), Philip Friend, Robert Douglas, Philip Dorn, Walter Slezak, Kurt Kreuger, Aram Katcher, Otto Waldis, Ivan Triesault, Jay Barney.

Although it’s technically a US production, this outing has “UK film noir” stamped all over it, including the use of a fading US star as leading man: Duff was accused in 1950 of communist sympathies and, if not for his relationship with Ida Lupino, whom he married in 1951, might have found himself ostracized by the industry. British and other European actors dominate the cast, notably the radiant Swedish actress Märta Torén as the female lead, and the movie is based on a novel by the stalwart UK thriller writer Victor Canning.

Marta Toren as Catherine

It’s the early days of the Cold War, and Europe is aswarm with clandestine agents of diverse allegiances.

In Milan, an agent called Gormand (Waldis) passes a piece of microfilm he’s brought from Istanbul to Catherine Ullven (Torén), who seems to be working with the British Secret Service. She in turn, pretending to be a journalist for the Apex News Service, sweet-talks Steve Quain (Duff), who’s escorting a pair of black panthers by train across Europe for eventual delivery to Bradley’s Circus in the US, into leaving the animals briefly unguarded.

She feeds the two cats, having doped the portion she gives to the male, Roger. Then, while Steve’s sitting in a nearby ristorante waiting in vain for her to turn up, Catherine sews the microfilm into the collar of the sleeping Roger.

Howard Duff as Steve

Two hostile thugs (Triesault and Barney) seize Gormand and torture him until he yields up the plan to use the panthers to smuggle the microfilm to the UK. Other agents are sent to isolate the freight car from the rest of the moving train and derail it, sending Steve and the panthers, it’s hoped, to their dooms. But Steve and the two animals survive, and one of the latter kills an agent.

Steve wakes up in the Hotel l’Hermitage near Brieg, Switzerland. He’s being tended by Dr. Stahl (Slezak) who, unusually, has twin careers as physician and innkeeper. Meanwhile the two escaped panthers are terrorizing the surrounding countryside, killing livestock, domestic pets and at least one human. Armed soldiers under the command of Captain Heimer (Kreuger) are combing the area with orders to shoot to kill.

Otto Waldis as Gormand

Soon the inn is filling up with people attracted by the panthers. Journalist Chris Denson (Friend) of the Europa News Service wants a scoop about them. Big-game hunter Paul Kopel (Dorn) wants to shoot them. Artist Stephen Paradou (Douglas) wants to draw them. Catherine arrives too, hoping to recover her microfilm, and she’s soon certain that one and more likely several of the hotel’s guests must be bad hats, her suspicion centering mainly on Kopel . . .

Philip Dorn as Kopel

That’s perhaps the first half-hour of the plot, and I’ve simplified things considerably. The microfilm is a complete maguffin: we never discover what it contains, why the good guys are so keen it gets to London and why the bad guys so desperately want to stop it doing so.

As you’ll probably have guessed, while Panther’s Moon is a relatively short movie, it’s jam-packed with plot. The combination of these two qualities means there’s a helterskelter feel to the proceedings, especially in the second half. By the time I got to the finale I felt quite breathless—exactly the way you want to be, in fact, when the reach the end of a thriller!

Robert Douglas as Paradou

Walter Slezak as Dr. Stahl

Left to right, Walter Slezak as Stahl, Philip Friend as Denson and Kurt Kreuger as Heimer

In the New York Times Bosley Crowther was characteristically snotty about the movie, adding a bit of gratuitous misogyny:

No need to make much comment on the artistic merits of this film. That outline of the melodramatic story gives a fair notice of same. Marta Toren, who plays the British agent, is valid, however, in one respect: she acts as naive and dopey as her stratagem would indicate she is. . . . George Sherman’s direction for Universal is of the elementary school.

Crowther was right in that the movie (like, I assume, the original novel) has its share of plotting flaws. Smuggling the microfilm in a panther’s collar is an idiotic scheme; Gormand would not have been told of the plan, and thus wouldn’t have given up the details under torture; and so on. But Torén’s character reveals herself as a tough, resourceful operator when the chips are down (far tougher and more resourceful than Duff’s character, indeed), and Sherman’s direction gives the movie tremendous pace. Because of that pace, and the sheer amount of incident packed into Panther’s Moon, those plotting dubieties have gone past before we have time to worry about them. Yes, Tarkovsky would doubtless have done it differently, but Sherman’s aim was to engage and entertain.

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