NOTE: This review of THE LEOPARD MAN is my contribution to the Val Lewton Blogathon being held on Halloween, cohosted by Kristina of Speakeasy and Stephen of Classic Movie Man. Over two dozen terrific bloggers will be writing on all aspects of Lewton's career, so please be sure to check out the other posts in this series!
THE LEOPARD MAN was the third of three RKO films turned out in quick succession by producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur, following CAT PEOPLE (1942) and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943). THE LEOPARD MAN seems to be the odd man out of this trio, not having reached the same level of critical acclaim as its predecessors, but I was impressed by its style. Although I haven't yet seen CAT PEOPLE, I frankly enjoyed THE LEOPARD MAN more than the highly regarded I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE.
Kiki Walker (Jean Brooks), a performer at a nightclub in a small New Mexico town, is being upstaged by Clo Clo (Margo), a flashy dancer with castanets. Kiki's manager Jerry (Dennis O'Keefe) borrows a leopard from a local carnival, thinking Kiki can get attention by making a flashy entrance walking into the club with the leopard on a leash. However, Clo Clo scares the animal and he runs away, leaving the town's residents in a state of terror.
Shortly thereafter a young girl is killed, apparently by the leopard, and then another girl dies. Guilt-ridden Kiki and Jerry try to play it cool, not admitting to each other how deeply responsible they each feel, and they focus on plans to move on to a better gig in another town. Then circumstances unfold which cause them to look into the deaths more closely...
THE LEOPARD MAN captures the viewer's attention from the start of the opening credits. It's a visually stylish film which also uses music effectively -- those castanets! -- and it manages to be terrifying without a bit of gore. The fear is created with shadows, sound effects, and extremely effective editing. The black and white photography was by Robert de Grasse; the editor was future director Mark Robson, who like director Robert Wise got his start in the RKO editing room.
Modern filmmakers could learn a great deal from Lewton, Tourneur, de Grasse, Robson, and the others who worked on this film. The scene where Teresa (Margaret Landry) walks home from the store in the dark has to be one of the scariest scenes I've ever seen, keeping in mind that I rarely watch horror. What child hasn't had a nightmare in which there's a struggle to cross over the threshold of a doorway in order to reach safety? As a young child I had a recurring nightmare with that very theme, so this sequence resonated deeply with me. The climax to this set piece is tremendously effective and disturbing.
My liking for this film over I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE can be chalked up, in part, to some of my personal preferences; I liked that LEOPARD MAN didn't have heavy voodoo/occult elements -- the closest it gets is a fortune teller and later a creepy procession of hooded men -- and that it didn't have the disturbing visuals which are present in some scenes in ZOMBIE. I frankly don't enjoy watching movies which are visually ugly, and, while I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE had its moments of eerie beauty, I have to say that zombies just aren't very nice to look at (grin). THE LEOPARD MAN, in contrast, scares the viewer by not showing critical moments.
I also liked the personal story which unfolds between Jerry and Kiki in THE LEOPARD MAN, as they gradually lose their hard outer shells when forced to confront the havoc created by the leopard. They gradually reveal themselves to be compassionate and responsible, and their feelings for one another reach a new level; their growth as individuals and as a couple provides an interesting thematic contrast with the leopard's destruction.
I haven't read much about the movie, wanting to approach it "cold," but in my limited research, it seems there are those dissatisfied with the film's resolution. I can see the point, but I didn't really have a problem with how it was brought to a conclusion.
With its memorable set pieces and character development, it's hard to believe THE LEOPARD MAN runs a mere 66 minutes. Truly, for Lewton and Company, less was more.
Margo is particularly terrific as the nightclub dancer, who fears that the cards played by a fortune teller (Isabel Jewell) foretell her own doom. Margo's best-known role was perhaps Maria in LOST HORIZON (1937). She was the wife of Eddie Albert and the mother of actor Edward Albert, who died in 2006. As Margo Albert, she was active in Los Angeles community issues, including a stint serving as Commissioner of Social Services. I seem to recall her also turning up regularly in the social columns which used to be a staple of both the Los Angeles Times and the long-defunct Los Angeles Herald-Examiner when I was growing up. Margo passed away in 1985; Eddie Albert survived her for two decades and never remarried.
There's more information about actress Jean Brooks in my post on THE FALCON IN DANGER (1943). The cast also includes James Bell, Abner Biberman, Ben Bard, and Richard Martin.
THE LEOPARD MAN was based on the novel BLACK ALIBI by Cornell Woolrich. I've now enjoyed a number of films based on Woolrich stories, which are described in my posts on NO MAN OF HER OWN (1950) and THE WINDOW (1949).
THE LEOPARD MAN is available on DVD in the Val Lewton Horror Collection. Extras include a commentary track and trailer. It can be rented from Netflix.
It's also out on Region 2 DVD in Europe, and it was released on VHS in the RKO Collection.
This film can also be seen on Turner Classic Movies, where it will next be shown on November 12, 2012. The trailer is here.