Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Tonight's Movie: The Leopard Man (1943)

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. The trailer is here.


Blogger Caftan Woman said...

I also enjoy the Kiki & Jerry aspect of the story. I've always found Dennis O'Keefe immensely appealing. The ending to "The Leopard Man" is somewhat of a let-down, but it doesn't hinder my appreciation and fondness for the storytelling that has come before.

6:59 AM  
Blogger J.C. Loophole said...

Great review (as always). Loving this blogathon- makes me wish I was still writing to participate. What fun! I remember when the Val Lewton Collection came out, I got the chance to review it, the documentary about him and to interview Lewton's son. (http://randomshelf.blogspot.com/2008/01/profile-and-review-val-lewton-man-in.html) It was great talking to him- what a nice guy. Hope you are doing well- my best to your family!

7:19 AM  
Blogger Citizen Screen said...

I too prefer The Leopard Man to I Walked with a Zombie. But of the (only) three Lewton films I've seen, Cat People reigns supreme for me. Still, this one is great and you describe what makes it so enjoyable (if being scared is enjoyable) beautifully.

Mr. Lewton seemed to know our psyches.

Great write-up as always.


11:38 AM  
Blogger Kristina said...

yes, gotta watch out for those flashy dancers with their castanets. I too am a big Dennis O'Keefe fan and watched this to see him, didn't know much about Lewton then.
Glad you picked this one, and you perfectly describe the effective scares in it. and like you say, such economical filmmaking, in every way.

Having so much fun making the rounds, no joke, it really is like trick or treating for movie geeks, with all good quality candy! thanks for being part of this!

2:39 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

Val Lewton made 9 horror or near-horror films at RKO in the '40s. None of them is bad, and 6 or 7 of them are among the best horror films ever.
I know you're not a horror film fan, Laura (while I definitely AM), but CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, THE LEOPARD MAN, THE SEVENTH VICTIM, ISLE OF THE DEAD, and THE BODY SNATCHER are all great. Matter of fact, THE BODY SNATCHER is my personal choice for the greatest of ALL horror films.
But the Lewton film I feel you'd most likely enjoy is CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE. Despite the title, it's not so much a horror film as a fantasy, or perhaps a study in child psychology. It's a sort of sequel to CAT PEOPLE, but seeing the first movie is not necessarily a prerequisite to viewing CURSE, though I think it would help to set things up a little.

3:15 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you all so much for your thoughtful comments -- what a fun blogathon!

I've seen a number of O'Keefe films in the last year or so and always enjoy them, Caftan Woman. Appreciated your take on this film.

J.C., love hearing from you! Thanks very much for sharing that link, I'm going to revisit it later today. :) All doing well here, hope the same is true of you and yours!

Thanks for stopping by, Aurora! Interested to know you also prefer LEOPARD MAN to ZOMBIE. I'm looking forward to trying CAT PEOPLE.

Rick, I think you may be right, CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE seems as though it would be likely to appeal to me. I'm so glad I picked up the Lewton box on sale last year! At the time it was for my son but now I'm enjoying it too.

Kristina, you and Stephen did such a great job with this wonderful blogathon theme. Thanks for all the organizational work pulling so many bloggers together!

I like your trick or treat comparison! Have been in a work crunch and so couldn't visit all the Lewton posts yet -- I'm looking forward to continuing to enjoy the "candy" over the next day or two as I keep reading them all!

Best wishes,

12:53 PM  
Blogger Stephen Reginald said...

Laura, I love The Leopard Man and you did it justice with your sharp critique. I think Margo's character is very well developed. It's especially amazing when you consider the film is barely more than an hour. And the scenes are incredibly scary without the gore you mentioned. It's as good as Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie, in my opinion. Great job!

3:58 AM  
Blogger Jeff Flugel said...

Excellent post on an underappreciated Lewton film. I agree with you that the opening stalking scene with the young girl killed by the panther is highly atmospheric and disturbing. It's the one mental image I had of this film from my childhood, which haunted my imagination for over 30 years until I had a chance to see it again last year.

5:38 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Stephen and Jeff, thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. It's simply amazing how scary a movie can be with zero gore, maybe just a bit of blood on the ground (grin). So interesting that one scene stayed with you all this time, Jeff!

Best wishes,

12:23 PM  

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