Jacques Tourneur, 1943
Starring: Dennis O’Keefe, Margo, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell
“Time is strange. A moment can be as short as a breath or as long as eternity.”
Based on noir author Cornell Woolrich’s novel Black Alibi, Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton’s final film together is a disturbing meditation on death and is one of the first American films to portray a serial killer. In a club at a small town in New Mexico, a performer named Kiki is given a leopard by her manager Jerry as part of a publicity stunt. Wanting to keep all the attention for herself, a rival performer Clo-Clo frightens the animal and it runs off into the night. Another performer, the cat’s owner, Charlie How-Come, the “Leopard Man,” is upset that his tame, trained leopard is lost and wants money from Jerry. A young girl is soon mauled to death when her mother sends her out at night for groceries and Jerry, Kiki, and Charlie all feel guilty about the cat. Another young woman is killed while secretly meeting her boyfriend at a cemetery, and a group is formed to hunt down the cat, though they begin to have other suspicions. When Clo-Clo is killed, Jerry, Kiki, and the police have finally realized that they are looking for a human murderer only imitating the leopard.
One of Lewton and Tourneur’s most difficult and interesting films, this maintains some of the themes of their best work. Sexual repression, the devastating effect of isolation, and, most of all, death, represented in the three episodic killings of local hispanic women. Unlike later serial killer films (but similar to Hitchcock’s The Lodger), the murders are not about the madness or sexual psychosis of an individual, they are about the psychosis of an entire community. While Cat People began with a couple and I Walk With a Zombie moved to a family unit, Leopard Man extends outward to a small community. Guilt and responsibility do not really lie with the killer, but with everyone. Many of the deaths occur because characters simply made the wrong decisions, decisions lacking in feeling, warmth, and love. The two protagonists, if this film really has any, Jerry and Kiki, openly resist compassion and sympathy for much of the film. They follow a typical ‘40s detective trope, where a man and a woman falling in love investigate a crime. Though they mostly fail as investigators and their romance is lukewarm, they represent problems that many of the other characters have. In another example, the first victim is sent out to buy cornmeal by her mother, who does not care that her daughter is afraid of the dark and that she’s sending a young girl out alone late at night. Her daughter screams in terror at the door and she taunts her, not knowing that real violence is about to unfold.
Also unlike later slasher movies and serial killer films, Leopard Man focuses on the victims, providing intimate, but brief snapshots of the three women and their lives. This tendency to jump back and forth between characters throughout the film somewhat weakens the plot, but is a unique and interesting examination of small town murder. Like Lewton’s earlier films, there is a certain obsession with foreignness and with independent female characters. In Cat People, Irena is Serbian and is transfixed by the supersititions of her homeland. In I Walked With a Zombie, Betsy moves to the Caribbean and is immersed in local voodoo beliefs, which she begins to take seriously despite her medical training and profession. Though superstition is absent from Leopard Man, the community is a mingling of white and hispanic Americans. Like the earlier two, this is also a film about women trying to find their way in the world and, like the earlier Irena and Betsy, the female characters are much more developed and interesting than their male counterparts.
As always, Tourneur’s use of noir-like visuals and Robert de Grasse’s haunting cinematography makes this a must-see film, but here Tourneur also plays with sound, creating a threatening landscape in nearly every frame. The use of silence, in particular, is masterful, particularly when it is partnered with the all consuming blackness of Tourneur’s shadowed spaces within the film. There are some impressive set pieces, namely the first death scene, when a young girl is stalked and killed right at her own front door. Her mother is cruelly teasing her and will not let her in, but she is made to regret her actions when her daughter’s blood pools under the door.
A number of other critics have already written about how this essentially fails as a murder mystery. On the surface level, this is a horror-mystery and there are a number of red herrings and non-sequitors throughout the film, including a hefty reliance on the “Lewton Bus,” where you think a character is about to be attacked or killed, but the scene is interrupted with some kind of benign surprise instead. If you pay the least bit of attention and have a basic familiarity with murder mysteries, it will become quickly apparent who the killer is. But I don’t think this is truly a mystery. The film’s power does not lie in discovering the identity of the killer, it is about the effect of the crimes on the community. This is one of the first true blends of horror and noir and is more about mood and tone than unraveling a mystery.
Leopard Man is plagued by somewhat some average performances from leads Jean Brooks and Dennis O’Keefe. Dynamite, the black leopard from Cat People, is used to great effect, though it’s a shame that RKO forced Lewton and Tourneur to use the deceptive title, Leopard Man, which tricked audiences into thinking that this would be another riff on The Wolf Man.
This is one of my favorite Lewton films and comes highly recommended, though like all his works, it is an acquired taste. Anyone who loves early serial killer films like Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Psycho (on which this and Lewton’s next film, The Seventh Victim was surely an influence) or Nicholas Ray’s masterful horror-tinged noir In a Lonely Place, will want to seek this out. Leopard Man is available as part of a split disc with the lesser Ghost Ship, also the study of murder and a diseased mind, or in the excellent Val Lewton Horror Collection box set.