The Leopard Man
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By the time of their third collaboration, producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur (pioneers of the psychological horror film) had solidly proven their theory that the unseen can be more frightening than the obvious. 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 paranoia that slowly engulf the films' characters.
The Leopard Man (1943) stars Dennis O'Keefe (T-Men, 1947) as Jerry Manning, a theatrical agent who convinces his songstress client Kiki (Jean Brooks) to incorporate a black leopard into her nightclub act. The publicity stunt backfires when the cat breaks free and later kills a girl in a New Mexico village. Soon thereafter, another woman (Tula Parma) is mysteriously killed while locked inside a cemetery, apparently mauled by the escaped cat. Manning, however, begins to suspect that the culprit is human rather than feline... a psychopath "with a kink in his brain," who is using the leopard as a sort of alibi. Meanwhile, Kiki's fellow performer Clo-Clo (Margo) is faced with omens of her own doom, and begins to wonder if perhaps she will be the Leopard Man's third victim.
Based on Cornell Woolrich's hard-boiled novel Black Alibi (1942), the screenplay was given a name change by RKO head Charles Koerner, who hoped The Leopard Man would capitalize on the popularity of Cat People, Lewton and Tourneur's first film together. Several of Woolrich's stories and novels were adapted to the screen by such filmmakers as Alfred Hitchcock (Rear Window, 1954), Mitchell Leisen (No Man of Her Own, 1950) and Francois Truffaut (The Bride Wore Black, 1968). But only Lewton and Tourneur succeeded in capturing the grim brutality of Woolrich's prose and the oppressive night that is such a vital ingredient of his work.
Screenwriters Ardel Wray and Edward Dein made many changes in Woolrich's text in order to keep costs low and sidestep the censors. The castanet-playing Clo-Clo was a part-time prostitute in the novel, and the killer was unmasked as a police inspector who adorned himself in animal parts cut from the carcass of the escaped jaguar (not a leopard) -- clear violations of the Production Code. The novel was set in South America, in "the third-largest city south of the Panama Canal," and the climax occurred in the abandoned tunnels and cells that were once used as torture chambers during 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 color and make snapshots of settings and buildings she found interesting. "First day there I took pictures frantically, of anything and everything, and took them to a shop for development," said Wray, a talented screenwriter but an inexperienced photographer. "Miraculously, probably because it was a nearly foolproof camera, it was all right." These amateur photos were then given to staff of the RKO art department, who incorporated certain architectural features into the modestly budgeted set designs. "Another instance of Val's genius for improvisation."
Much credit for the Lewton/Tourneur successes is owed to the talented craftsmen of RKO -- under the guidance of cinematographer Robert de Grasse and art directors Albert D'Agostino and Walter Keller -- who were adept at transforming cheap underlit sets into the stuff of nightmares, where every darkened nook housed a potential menace. Some of these same technicians had sharpened their cost-efficient skills two years earlier on Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941), a textbook example of how shadows can conceal budgetary limitations and a testament to the resourcefulness of the RKO art department.
The only scene of The Leopard Man that clearly betrays its B-picture status is its one attempt at spectacle: the pursuit of the killer into the midst of an ominous religious procession. What was a brilliant concept could not possibly have been done justice in the confines of a studio soundstage. The images of monks garbed in black robes and pointed hoods, bearing candles and crucifixes as they march into the desert was most likely inspired by the controversial Penitente religious cult of New Mexico, which was also the subject of the exploitation film Lash of the Penitentes (1936).
The Leopard Man succeeds best when it relishes the mysterious power of darkness, as was the case with its most memorable sequence. In an unsettling dramatization of childhood fears, a teenage girl (Margaret Landry) is forced to go on a late-night errand to buy cornmeal for her family. After a terrified walk to the distant store, through empty streets and a pitch-dark riverbed, she returns home only to be attacked by the leopard on her own doorstep. Surprisingly violent for a film of 1943, the murder is depicted from inside the house, with the sound of the girl's screams outside, pounding at the locked door, the mother desperately trying to unlock the rusted bolt, and finally silence...and a trickle of blood flowing beneath the door. Tourneur never shows the cat or the attack, but the 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 to separate projects, a bit of logical reasoning that failed to take into account the unique way in which the producer and director's talents complemented one another. Tourner recalled, "We had the perfect collaboration -- Val was the dreamer, the idealist, and I was the materialist, the realist. We should have gone right on doing bigger, more ambitious pictures and not just horror movies."
Working together, Lewton and Tourneur made three timeless horror films in quick succession. Separately, they only occasionally ascended to such heights of cinematic inventiveness. Lewton followed up The Leopard Man 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 Body Snatcher (1945), Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946). Tourneur, eager to escape the horror genre, went on to direct the legendary film noir Out of the Past (1947), but later returned to his roots 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