The Leopard Man
Dir. Jacques Tourneur
When a publicity stunt backfires, a domesticated leopard escapes from a New Mexico nightclub prompting a desperate search to re-capture it. An ensuing series of grisly deaths is blamed on the animal; however nightclub performer Kiki and her agent Jerry soon suspect that it isn’t the leopard responsible for the violent deaths; but a deranged serial killer who uses the escaped animal as a cover for his heinous crimes.
After the success of Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, producer Val Lewton reteamed with director Jacques Tourneur for their next collaboration, the RKO-assigned title of which was to be The Leopard Man. Rather than churning out a hackneyed variation on the werewolf film, in which a man transforms into a slathering beast before claiming his prey, the exceedingly literate Lewton chose to adapt Cornell Woolrich’s mystery-thriller ‘Black Alibi’: a twisted tale about a killer in a Mexican city using the fear caused by an escaped wild animal as a cover, or alibi, for his own vicious murders. A typically moody and thoughtful Lewton production, The Leopard Man sticks closely to its source material and unspools as an episodic noir thriller quite ahead of its time. While film noir was a genre still in its embryonic stages, The Leopard Man could arguably be described as the first horror/noir hybrid that revolves around the ghastly actions of a serial killer - bear in mind the term and concept of the serial killer wasn’t coined until much later. Its plot, detailing the deaths of several young women, also exhibits similarities with what would later become the slasher movie.
The overriding theme of The Leopard Man is the randomness of death and the cruel mystery of fate. The opening shot of a ball atop a spurt of water in a fountain highlights the underlying notions of the unpredictability of fate, and the lack of control people have over such matters. One of the characters, Galbraith (James Bell), comments on this spectacle, pontificating on the dominant theme of The Leopard Man: ‘We know as little about the forces that move us, and move the world around us, as that empty ball does about the water that pushes it into the air, lets it fall, and catches it again.’ At the end of the film, Jerry (Dennis O’Keefe) reiterates Galbraith's musings to Kiki (Jean Brooks) and quips: ‘That's the way it was with us, only we were too small to know it.’ Such philosophical foreboding abounds amongst the host of tragic and flawed characters in the film, their true natures gradually unveiled as the story progresses.
One of the most interesting things about The Leopard Man is its rather unconventional narrative structure. The main set pieces in the film involve the violent demise of three women, two of which are introduced to the episodic narrative by the third, a dancer called Clo-Clo (Margo). The sudden shifts in the narrative are cued once Clo-Clo interacts with these other women, or someone who will immediately lead us to them. The first shift begins when Clo-Clo leaves the nightclub where she works after she deliberately startled Jerry’s leopard, causing it to bolt into the night. As the camera follows her down a moodily lit street where men with flashlights are looking for the escaped critter, we can’t be blamed for believing that something bad is going to befall her. As she walks past an open window she greets a young girl looking out of it and the camera remains fixed on the girl as Clo-Clo continues walking out of the shot. The focus of the story then shifts to this young woman, Teresa, whose death is preceded by one of the most suspenseful and moody sequences in horror history. We follow her night walk to a store on the outskirts of town, as she wanders through empty streets and out into the fringes of the community, eventually having a horrific encounter under a shadowy train trestle that culminates in her death outside her own front door: safety just inches away. After a series of blood-chilling screams, her domineering mother relents and tries to open the door. There is a large thud and a steady trickle of blood seeps under the door into the house. This masterfully tense scene highlights one of the most characteristic traits of Lewton’s work: suggestiveness. As in Cat People, everything is conveyed to the audience by shadows and sounds, ensuring the viewer must use their imagination, which can usually conjure all manner of gruesome sights special effects at the time could not effectively depict. Events are thus rendered infinitely more disturbing then anything a low budget film could ever hope to show us.
“Something black. Something on its way to you…”
Shortly after poor Teresa’s death we are reunited with Clo-Clo who, in a similar narrative twist, passes on some sort of curse or death-mark when she meets another young woman who will eventually connect us to the new focus of the narrative and the centre of another moody murder set-piece: Consuelo.* As she waits for her lover Raoul in the cemetery, Consuelo realises too late that she has been locked in. Wandering around the spooky locale she panics, remembering the fate of Teresa and the wild animal on the rampage. Like Teresa before her, Consuelo is a lone and vulnerable figure and much menace is elicited through the location and her predicament. Every tomb, headstone and tree potentially harbours a threat hiding behind it waiting to pounce. Unusual editing renders the audience as disorientated and panicked as Consuelo, who is eventually murdered by an unseen assailant. All we see is a tree branch moving under the weight of something, or someone, as they lunge from it upon the terrified woman.
That this scene and the scene involving Teresa’s death play out with no music only adds to their effectiveness; a lonesome howling wind is all we hear as these women encounter their killers.
“Men who killed for pleasure. Strange pleasure.”
Interestingly, The Leopard Man also unravels as a sort of proto-slasher film, specifically in it’s, albeit off-screen and highly suggestive, depictions of the murders of several lone characters as they wander around sinister and imposing dark spaces only to encounter violent death at the hands of a madman. Predating the likes of Psycho and Peeping Tom (both noted as major influences on the slasher flick) the narrative is essentially hung around these set pieces. The motive of the killer is also revealed to be rooted in a fascination with the aesthetics of fear. His morbid inclinations and urges are aroused by the sight of Teresa’s mauled body and he is compelled to stalk and murder several women. Just like in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), it is the look of fear on the faces of his victims that entices the killer and motivates his frenzied blood-lust. As JP Telotte notes in ‘Dreams in Darkness’: ‘In each situation an individual leaves the safety of her home to wander through a circuitous, ultimately imprisoning world within which there lurks sudden death.’ Tourneur himself described the film as a ‘series of vignettes.’ With descriptions such as these, the film’s narrative arguably foreshadows those of the Italian gialli made famous by the likes of Mario Bava and Dario Argento: where loose stories are draped around arresting and provocative set pieces featuring characters wandering around sinister, moodily lit spaces before being murdered. Argento himself paid homage to The Leopard Man (and Woolrich's novel) in his third film, Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), with a scene in which a lone woman waiting for someone in a deserted park is locked in and (very untypically of Argento) murdered off-screen. Sergio Martino, whose gialli also drew inspiration from the likes of Woolrich, featured a similar scene in his first giallo, The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh.
Lewton’s films don’t boast monsters or obvious supernatural occurrences; the horror always emanates from the darkness of the human condition, the id, if you will, and is highly ambiguous. His productions could be cited as the first psychological horror films. Beautifully written and elegantly lensed, the ‘terror’ pictures he produced for RKO were also amongst the first to be based in contemporary times and settings (not the typically far flung gothic locales popular at the time) and very often the figure of terror was an ‘ordinary’ person. The Leopard Man is no exception. When its killer is revealed, he is a seemingly ordinary man who harbours morbid, and eventually murderous, tendencies. Prefiguring Psycho by about twenty years, this killer, like Norman Bates, is a mild mannered and soft-spoken chap who spends his days largely in solitude. Working as a curator in the museum, he fusses over old artefacts he’s collected – much like Bates who collected and stuffed birds.
Lewton was indeed a rare breed: a producer who helped rather than hindered his movies, and an even rarer example of a producer regarded as an auteur. His movies, most of which he also co-wrote (or re-wrote) using various pseudonyms, or completely uncredited, address such notions as psychology, sexuality, death and loneliness. The Leopard Man is often sorely overlooked when it comes to his work, and indeed the work of its director Jacques Tourneur. Unconventional and engrossing, it consistently rises above and beyond genre expectations and cleverly subverts various archetypes and narrative traditions associated with thrillers of the time. It remains a curious and fascinating entry in war-time American cinema.
* Unlike 'Fearing the Dark' author Edmund G. Bansak’s suggestion, that these encounters between Clo-Clo and other women who become victims of the killer are the film’s only traces of possible supernatural intervention, due to Clo-Clo being dealt the death card by her fortune teller friend, I would suggest they simply highlight the film’s underlying theme of the random nature of death and the bleak irony of fate. But hey, that's just my own humble opinion. It is also testament to Lewton's best work that the horror is ambiguous enough to allow one to draw their own conclusions.