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By the time of their third collaboration, producer Val Lewton and directorJacques Tourneur (pioneers of the psychological horror film) had solidlyproven their theory that the unseen can be more frightening than theobvious. Rather than relying on elaborate makeup and special effects,films such as Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie(1943) situate their horrors in the dark shadows and the mounting paranoiathat slowly engulf the films' characters.
The Leopard Man (1943) stars Dennis O'Keefe (T-Men, 1947) as JerryManning, a theatrical agent who convinces his songstress client Kiki (JeanBrooks) to incorporate a black leopard into her nightclub act. Thepublicity stunt backfires when the cat breaks free and later kills a girlin a New Mexico village. Soon thereafter, another woman (Tula Parma) ismysteriously killed while locked inside a cemetery, apparently mauled bythe escaped cat. Manning, however, begins to suspect that the culprit ishuman rather than feline... a psychopath "with a kink in his brain," who isusing the leopard as a sort of alibi. Meanwhile, Kiki's fellow performerClo-Clo (Margo) is faced with omens of her own doom, and begins to wonderif perhaps she will be the Leopard Man's third victim.
Based on Cornell Woolrich's hard-boiled novel Black Alibi (1942), thescreenplay was given a name change by RKO head Charles Koerner, who hopedThe Leopard Man would capitalize on the popularity of CatPeople, Lewton and Tourneur's first film together. Several ofWoolrich's stories and novels were adapted to the screen by suchfilmmakers as Alfred Hitchcock (Rear Window, 1954), Mitchell Leisen(No Man of Her Own, 1950) and Francois Truffaut (The Bride WoreBlack, 1968). But only Lewton and Tourneur succeeded in capturing thegrim brutality of Woolrich's prose and the oppressive night that is such avital ingredient of his work.
Screenwriters Ardel Wray and Edward Dein made many changes in Woolrich'stext in order to keep costs low and sidestep the censors. Thecastanet-playing Clo-Clo was a part-time prostitute in the novel, and thekiller was unmasked as a police inspector who adorned himself in animalparts cut from the carcass of the escaped jaguar (not a leopard) -- clearviolations of the Production Code. The novel was set in South America, in"the third-largest city south of the Panama Canal," and the climax occurredin the abandoned tunnels and cells that were once used as torture chambersduring the Inquisition.
With a budget of less than $150,000 and a tight four-week shooting schedule, there was little time for experimentation and extravagance on the set of The Leopard Man. Filming scenes on location was out of the question. To help flavor the film with authenticity, Lewton recruited screenwriter Wray to take an excursion to New Mexico to gather local colorand make snapshots of settings and buildings she found interesting. "Firstday there I took pictures frantically, of anything and everything, and tookthem to a shop for development," said Wray, a talented screenwriter but aninexperienced photographer. "Miraculously, probably because it was anearly foolproof camera, it was all right." These amateur photos were thengiven to staff of the RKO art department, who incorporated certainarchitectural features into the modestly budgeted set designs. "Anotherinstance of Val's genius for improvisation."
Much credit for the Lewton/Tourneur successes is owed to the talentedcraftsmen of RKO -- under the guidance of cinematographer Robert de Grasseand art directors Albert D'Agostino and Walter Keller -- who were adept attransforming cheap underlit sets into the stuff of nightmares, where everydarkened nook housed a potential menace. Some of these same technicianshad sharpened their cost-efficient skills two years earlier on OrsonWelles's Citizen Kane (1941), a textbook example of how shadows canconceal budgetary limitations and a testament to the resourcefulness of theRKO art department.
The only scene of The Leopard Man that clearly betrays its B-picturestatus is its one attempt at spectacle: the pursuit of the killer into themidst of an ominous religious procession. What was a brilliant conceptcould not possibly have been done justice in the confines of a studiosoundstage. The images of monks garbed in black robes and pointed hoods,bearing candles and crucifixes as they march into the desert was mostlikely inspired by the controversial Penitente religious cult of NewMexico, which was also the subject of the exploitation film Lash of thePenitentes (1936).
The Leopard Man succeeds best when it relishes the mysterious powerof darkness, as was the case with its most memorable sequence. In anunsettling dramatization of childhood fears, a teenage girl (MargaretLandry) is forced to go on a late-night errand to buy cornmeal for herfamily. After a terrified walk to the distant store, through empty streetsand a pitch-dark riverbed, she returns home only to be attacked by theleopard on her own doorstep. Surprisingly violent for a film of 1943, themurder is depicted from inside the house, with the sound of the girl'sscreams outside, pounding at the locked door, the mother desperately tryingto unlock the rusted bolt, and finally silence...and a trickle of bloodflowing beneath the door. Tourneur never shows the cat or the attack, butthe scene couldn't have been more terrifying.
The Leopard Man marked the end of the Lewton/Tourneur partnership,as RKO thought it wiser to double their productivity and assign them toseparate projects, a bit of logical reasoning that failed to take intoaccount the unique way in which the producer and director's talentscomplemented one another. Tourner recalled, "We had the perfectcollaboration -- Val was the dreamer, the idealist, and I was thematerialist, the realist. We should have gone right on doing bigger, moreambitious pictures and not just horror movies."
Working together, Lewton and Tourneur made three timeless horror films inquick succession. Separately, they only occasionally ascended to suchheights of cinematic inventiveness. Lewton followed up The LeopardMan with The Seventh Victim (1943), a moody thriller directed by editor Mark Robson that almost equals the Tourneur films. Two years later,Lewton made several films with Boris Karloff at RKO: The BodySnatcher (1945), Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam(1946). Tourneur, eager to escape the horror genre, went on to direct thelegendary film noir Out of the Past (1947), but later returned to hisroots with the supernatural thriller Curse of the Demon (1957).
Producer: Val Lewton
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Screenplay: Ardel Wray and Edward Dein
Based on the novel Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich
Cinematography: Robert de Grasse
Production Design: Albert S. D'Agostino and Walter E. Keller
Set Design: Darrell Silvera and Al Fields
Music: Roy Webb
Principal Cast: Dennis O'Keefe (Jerry Manning), Jean Brooks (Kiki Walker), Margo (Clo-Clo), Isabel Jewell (Maria), James Bell (Dr. Galbraith), Abner Biberman (Charlie How-Come).
BW-67m. Closed captioning.
By Bret Wood