Cast & Crew
At a nightclub in a small New Mexican town, Clo-Clo, an exotic Latin dancer, upstages the performance of Kiki Walker. To draw attention to his client, Kiki's press agent, Jerry Manning, rents a black leopard for her to use in the act. As Kiki leads the leopard onstage, however, it becomes frightened by the sounds of Clo-Clo's castanets and escapes. That night, as Clo-Clo walks home from the club, she passes the Delgado house. Inside, Mrs. Delgado orders her daughter Teresa to go to the store, and when the little girl protests that she is terrified to go outside because of the leopard, her mother pushes her out the door. Upon finding the village store closed for the evening, Teresa is forced to cross the arroyo to shop at another store. On her way home, the leopard emerges from the shadows and attacks her. Running home, Teresa cries for her mother to open the door, but when the lock becomes stuck, Mrs. Delgado can only watch in horror as her daughter's blood seeps under the door. The next day, the sheriff, Chief Roblos, organizes a posse to search for the beast, and during the hunt, Jerry meets Dr. Galbraith, the curator of an Indian museum. That night, at the club, a fortune-teller reads Clo-Clo's cards and fortells that the dancer will receive a sum of money from a rich man, after which the "black card of death" will follow. The next morning at a flower vendor, Clo-Clo meets Rosita, the maid to Consuelo Contreras, a young noblewoman. Rosita brings flowers to her mistress in honor of her birthday, and later that afternoon, Consuelo visits a cemetery to keep a secret rendezvous with her lover, Raoul Belmonte. When Raoul is late for their meeting, Consuelo is locked within the cemetery walls by the gatekeeper. As night falls and the wind begins to howl, Consuelo calls for help and is answered by a man who promises to return with a ladder. Before he comes back, however, Consuelo hears a rustling in the trees and screams in terror. The next day, when Consuelo's body is found clawed to death, Galbraith and Roblos are certain that she was assaulted by the leopard. Jerry begins to have doubts, however, and goes to speak with the cat's owner, an Indian named Charlie How-Come. After Charlie, who rented the animal to Jerry, assures him that the cat is not vicious, Jerry takes Charlie to the museum to consult with Galbraith. When Jerry proposes that Consuelo's assailant was human, Galbraith suggests that Charlie could have killed the girl when he was drunk. Fearful that Galbraith might be right, Charlie insists upon being jailed for murder. That night at the club, Clo-Clo meets a wealthy old man who gives her a $100 bill. On her way home, she visits the fortune-teller, who once again uncovers the black card of death. After arriving safely home, Clo-Clo discovers that she has lost her money and ventures back onto the street to retrieve it. There, after hearing the shuffle of footsteps, Clo-Clo stares in horror as her attacker lunges from the dark. After Clo-Clo's death, Roblos sends for the state hunter and Charlie is exonerated. Jerry and Kiki plan to leave for Chicago, but when Galbraith sends Kiki a farewell bouquet of flowers, she feels compelled to place them at the site of Consuelo's murder in the cemetery. There, Kiki confesses her love to Jerry and insists upon staying in town to catch the killer. When Charlie finds his leopard dead, lying by the side of the arroyo, Jerry remembers that he saw Galbraith enter the arroyo and tells Roblos that the curator killed the animal. Roblos refuses to arrest Galbraith without evidence, however, and so Jerry seeks Raoul's help in exposing the murderer. That night, during the rites of a religious procession, Galbraith walks along the street toward the museum. As he passes the cemetery, he hears a woman's screams followed by the clicking of castanets. Panicking, Galbraith rushes to the museum, and soon after, Kiki arrives to watch the procession pass. When she insists upon turning off the lights to better see the procession, Kiki drops a pair of castanets, causing Galbraith to flee and join the marchers. Jerry and Raoul follow and subdue Galbraith, who then confesses to murdering Consuelo and Clo-Clo after watching the leopard maul Teresa. Out of revenge for his lost love, Raoul shoots Galbraith, and later, outside the funeral parlor, Jerry and Kiki reaffirm their love for each other.
Jacqueline De Wit
Albert S. D'agostino
Robert De Grasse
J. C. Grubb
Walter E. Keller
The Leopard Man
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
The Leopard Man
The Val Lewton Collection on DVD
It's hardly a perfect collection, especially with all the audio commentaries by film historians who wallow in minutia that gets very tiring very quickly. But these facts are clear: (1) Lewton produced some of the best B-movies ever turned out on low budgets and quickie schedules for a Hollywood studio; and, (2) Some of the set's most noteworthy content is on the two discs available only within the five-disc boxed set.
First, some background. Struggling RKO hired Russian immigrant Lewton, then a story editor at David O. Selznick's studio, to head up a unit that would make low-budget horror movies and challenge Universal's dominance in that genre. RKO would have been happy to release monster movies like Universal's, and the studio imposed monstrous-sounding titles on Lewton's movies before scripts were ever penned. But the resultant stories were much more ambitious than that. Instead of using monsters, Lewton's subtle use of the power of suggestion left much of the terror to the viewer's imagination. By withholding shots of the source of terror in favor of foreboding shadows and sounds, and offering stories that usually took place in a contemporary, realistic setting, Lewton forged a distinctive mix in his RKO chillers. (Though he rarely took a writing credit, and never under his own name, Lewton wrote the final screenplay drafts for his RKO movies.)
Lewton's 1942-46 RKO chillers fall into three groups: the first trio of movies (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man), all directed by Jacques Tourneur; after RKO split up Lewton and Tourneur to spread their talents wider, a mid-section of Lewton movies that often stuck to the style of the Tourneur pictures (The Seventh Victim, The Ghost Ship, The Curse of the Cat People); and, after the so-so financial performance of the straight dramas Mademoiselle Fifi and Youth Runs Wild, the three Lewton productions starring Boris Karloff (Isle of the Dead, The Body Snatcher and Bedlam).
Because the DVDs include two movies (each averages about only 72 minutes in length), the set often mixes titles from these periods on them:
Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People: Cat People, released in late 1942, is undoubtedly the most important Lewton movie, and this disc is the best place for the uninitiated to start. It set the tone for the rest of his RKO movies and, very importantly, was a big hit. Though the producer was forever stuck with imposed titles and tight budgets, its success gave Lewton a measure of creative control over his stories.
In its tale of the ill-fated marriage between a Serbian immigrant (Simone Simon) and a boat designer (Kent Smith), Cat People blends naturalistic staging and supernatural story as Lewton so often would. Irena, Simon's title character, believes she's descended from a line of women who turn into vengeful felines when sexually or emotionally aroused, so she won't consummate the marriage, which cranks up the sexual tension to levels unheard of in 1940s Hollywood movies, especially when Smith's character turns to the chummy co-worker who loves him (Jane Randolph) for advice. The movie's archetypal moments come when Irena stalks her rival through Central Park, and the extended silence becomes broken by a braking bus that lunges into the picture (a trademark Lewton device he'd often repeat) and when the still-stalked rival gets spooked by shadows and noises as she swims alone in a pool. Paul Schrader remade Cat People in 1982, but the original is the better version.
The Curse of the Cat People, out in 1944, is indicative of how Lewton subverted his RKO bosses' orders. Told to make a Cat People sequel, Curse is instead a very involving, very sensitive portrait of a lonely child. With the Smith and Randolph characters now married, following the death of Irena in the first film, their biggest worry is their daydreaming young daughter Amy (Ann Carter), who sees a picture of Irena and conjures up her image as an imaginary friend. Though lacking the visual lyricism of its predecessor, it's one of Lewton's best. Robert Wise co-directed with Gunther V. Fritsch, the first taking over for the second, who RKO fired for finishing only half the movie during the allotted schedule.
I Walked with a Zombie and The Body Snatcher: Another great double feature. The first, made just after Cat People, is more evidence of Tourneur's talent as a visual storyteller. A variation on Jane Eyre transposed to the West Indies, it finds a Canadian nurse (Frances Dee) arriving to her new post in the Caribbean, only to discover her new patient is a catatonic woman once caught in a love triangle between her husband (Tom Conway) and his half-brother (James Ellison), and that the island's native culture is steeped in voodoo. Like Cat People, an eerie chiller that travels far beyond the shocks we associate with horror. Meanwhile, The Body Snatcher is the best of Lewton's three pictures with Karloff (it was the second). Inspired by the Burke-Hare grave-robbing scandal, it's set in 1831 Edinburgh, with its main conflict pitting two former cadaver-stealing allies: a cabman (Karloff) who still digs up graves and a doctor (Henry Daniell) who's graduated to respectability and now only hires people to rob graves. The Body Snatcher, directed by Wise, is a fine example of how Lewton's movies not only avoided monsters, they also avoided outright villains and skillfully mined the moral grey zone.
Isle of the Dead and Bedlam: The first and third Lewton-Karloff collaborations, both also period pieces, are indicative of how Lewton's later RKO movies could be well-crafted, yet not as interesting as intended. The first, about a group of people quarantined on a Greek island during a plague scare, and the second, centered on London's notorious insane asylum of the 18th century, used period paintings and drawing as visual inspiration, so maybe it's not surprising they feel static. They're not bad and they give Karloff roles superior to his usual characters, but they feel flat compared to Lewton's more evocative work.
The Leopard Man and The Ghost Ship: the first of the two discs available only within the set offers two fine movies. The first is Tourneur's rendering of Cornell Woolrich's novel, Black Alibi, about what happens when a deadly black leopard gets loose in a New Mexico town. It's surely more uneven than Tourneur's two previous Lewton movies, yet it has great set pieces, especially when the cat stalks a teen who's been sent to the store by her mother. The Ghost Ship has been one of the most elusive Lewton movies, as it was pulled from release by RKO after a writer filed a plagiarism lawsuit, claiming the movie took elements from a script he had submitted to Lewton's office. Although Lewton never saw that script, RKO lost the case and pulled the movie. As with Curse of the Cat People, made just after it, Ghost Ship comes up with something much better than the mere horror film RKO wanted. Its conflict between the idealistic new third officer (Russell Wade) and the power-mad captain (Richard Dix) on a freighter doesn't just recall The Caine Mutiny, which Herman Wouk hadn't written yet, it also turns into an exploration of authority run amok, an anti-Fascist parable for its wartime audience.
The Seventh Victimand Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy: the second of the boxed-set-only discs contains two essentials. The Seventh Victim,, the first non-Tourneur Lewton movie, directed by Mark Robson in keeping with Tourneur's style, may be the eeriest of the producer's movies. Kim Hunter makes her film debut as a teen who travels to New York City to look for her missing older sister (Jean Brooks), and discovers that her sister became involved with a devil-worshipping cult that now wants her dead. If Lewton's movies stew in the juices of death, grief and loneliness, The Seventh Victim may be his grimmest. It's also his most noir movie, with all of its dangers stemming from human loneliness. A beautiful piece of melancholy.
Running a little under an hour, Shadows in the Dark is literally littered with interview subjects. Do we really need five film historians, four writers and seven directors praising Lewton? An indication of how cluttered it is comes when George A. Romero who, like Lewton, knows a thing or two about movie zombies, is never heard offering his take on Lewton's kind of voodoo-based zombie, much different from Romero's Pittsburgh zombies. Still, this is a good overview of the producer's life and work, and it's hard to argue with any of the praise heaped upon Lewton's movies. They deserve it. Full of family snapshots and home movie footage, as well as the comments of Lewton's son, Val E. Lewton, Shadows of the Dark offers a strong sense of how Lewton's RKO movies reflected his personality: dark, literate, competent.
Most of those film historians in the documentary handle audio commentaries on the set's movies, though there's no commentary for The Ghost Ship, which seemingly has the most interesting "back story." The most worthwhile commentary is definitely the late Robert Wise's, on
Wise's first-hand anecdotes are much more interesting than the historians' micro-observations and rabid research, which is often along the lines of "This scene was filmed on October 13, but this insert within it was filmed on November 4." Sorry, stuff like that is just not that interesting. The historians are all well-prepared and speak well, but when I cautiously popped in director William Friedkin's commentary for The Leopard Man—cautiously because Friedkin's The Narrow Margin commentary had some dubious observations — it was really refreshing to hear him say, "Frankly, the movie speaks for itself" in the first minute. Greg Mank's commentaries on Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People also include snippets of his phone interview with the late Simone Simon. For some reason, though, these snippets are often semi-arbitrarily dropped in with no set-up and, like most of the historians commenting, Mank doesn't even open by telling us his qualifications to do a commentary for a Val Lewton movie. When that happens, I just want to ask, "Dude, where's your credibility?"
For more information about The Val Lewton Horror Collection, visit Warner Video. To order The Val Lewton Collection, go to TCM Shopping.
by Paul Sherman
The Val Lewton Collection on DVD
According to a pre-production news item in Hollywood Reporter, producer Val Lewton initially assigned DeWitt Bodeen to write the screenplay for this film. Another Hollywood Reporter pre-production news item notes that Rita Corday was to play a lead in the film. Corday does not appear in the released film, however, and the extent of Bodeen's contribution to the screenplay has not been determined. A news item in Los Angeles Times adds that RKO negotiated with Lon Chaney, Jr. to appear in this picture. According to an RKO Legal Files memo from Lewton to Wynn Rocamora, the agent for the actress Margo, Lewton offered to restructure Cornell Woolrich's novel to expand the part of "Clo-Clo," the role that Lewton wanted Margo to play. According to a contemporary interview with writer Ardel Wray as reprinted in a modern source, the film exteriors were shot around Santa Fe, New Mexico. This was director Jacques Tourneur's third and last picture for Lewton. It also marked Ben Bard's first screen appearance since the 1934 film The White Parade (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40; F3.5084).