Horror by Lewton: The black cat
The collaboration of director Jacques Tourneur and producer Val Lewton resulted in two such exemplary horror films, among the best produced during the horror boom that coincided with World War II, that it's easy to use their names as a shorthand for everything that the genre is capable of at its most artistic and effective and intelligent. But there was a third movie after Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, and while it has its eager partisans, The Leopard Man, the second film made by the Lewton unit in 1943, falls short of those two high peaks, in my estimation; in fact, the Lewton Unit never quite got that high ever again, though there were more truly great films in the future, along with just a couple of clinkers. If The Leopard Man has a few too many rock-solid sequences to fall among the lesser films, it also hasn't nearly enough imagination or wit to live up to the great ones, and I'm tempted to call it the most "average" horror film Lewton ever produced.
The title, and the ads of the time, want very badly to make us think that this is a sort of gender-reversed Cat People, a paranormal nightmare of a half-man, half-feline terror, stalking the streets. It is so much not that. In fact, it is the first film in the Lewton fold that has no paranormal angle whatsoever, not even the slightest suggestion that there might be any explanation for the killings that punctuate the film than the most obvious and material one: there's a leopard on the loose that might be killing women, or it might be a psychopath using the leopard as the excuse to kill the women for his own sordid needs. To the surprise of pretty much nobody at all, it proves to be the second of these, making The Leopard Man one of the earliest bona-fide serial killer movies on the books.
So, there's a little town in New Mexico, and in this little town, there's a seedy cabaret where the headline act is the sensual Latina Clo-Clo (played by professional sensual Latina Margo, whose single name stood in for María Marguerita Guadalupe Teresa Estela Bolado Castilla y O'Donnell), a woman famous largely because the gringos from the East are hot and bothered by any dark-haired Mexican beauty who can fill out a traditional dress, as is testily noted by her co-worker Kiki Walker (Jean Brooks), who sounds, on the basis of the handful of words we hear one way or the other, to be kind of bad in her own right. But her manager-boyfriend Jerry Manning (Dennis O'Keefe) has figured out a can't-miss way to raise Kiki's profile: equip her with a black panther borrowed from local carny Charlie How-Come (Abner Biberman), and half her casually saunter across the patio where Clo-Clo performs her routine, stealing all the eyes in the room. The plan works right up until Clo-Clo coolly heads right up to the cat, rattles her castanets right in its face, and sends it running, terrified, into the night.
This naturally throws the town into an uproar, and a fruitless panther hunt starts up immediately. In the meantime, the enraged, frightened animal attacks and kills a local girl, Teresa (Margaret Landry), on an evening grocery run, which only increases the desperate to find and put it down; but when a second death occurs, this time Consuelo (Tula Parma), a young woman hiding in a cemetery to meet her boyfriend, Jerry starts to doubt that the panther is responsible yet again, in which belief he is encouraged both by a guilt-stricken Charlie, and by university professor Dr. Galbraith (James Bell). Thus, after yet another murder, Jerry and Consuelo's boyfriend Raoul (Richard Martin) concoct a plan not to catch a panther, but a very human killer.
Tourneur himself didn't care much for The Leopard Man, accusing it of being episodic; and this is entirely true. Moreover, the problem isn't just that it's episodic, but that it's episodic in an arbitrary way: while the billing block and even a short plot synopsis makes it seem like Jerry Manning is the protagonist, it's in truth a film with an extreme aversion to following a character for very long, preferring instead to tell what amount to mini-movies about each of the girls about to die, with scenes of Jerry's investigation serving as interstitials. This results in a narrative structure that must have seemed, in 1943, like nothing else in the world (the great critic Manny Farber thought it was the most original of all Lewton's productions), though we sitting 70 years in the future have a bit more familiarity with the notion of a movie in which pretty women are stalked and killed by an unseen psycho: we call them slasher movies. An association that becomes even strong in noticing that, by and large, the most impressive, well-crafted, and fussed-over sequences in the film are the killings themselves: I imagine it would take quite a lot of hunting to find anybody who doesn't regard Teresa's death as the clear highlight of the film.
Having made that claim, let me talk it out a bit, for in a movie that finds Tourneur in a much less visually creative mood than his previous horror pictures, it is this death sequence above all that works flawlessly: half implication, half a level of explicit violence that's legitimately shocking for a film of this vintage (visually and in dialogue, The Leopard Man gets great mileage out of the unwritten rule that B-movies could get away with more than A-pictures for most of the classical studio era). Here, as in the rest of the film, Tourneur and his cinematograper Robert de Grasse use the most impenetrably inky blacks for the exterior scenes of Teresa walking - quickly and nervously - back home, in shots so dark that we can barely make out more than the impression of movement at times, and certainly have no idea what might be out in the dark. But that something is in the dark, there can be no doubt: the soundtrack bangs along with heightened sound effects to make certain we understand that. In fact it's sound, and not imagery, that really sells this whole sequence: as Teresa returns home to a locked door, the escalation plays out almost solely through sound, as we hear her pleading, hear the growl of an animal, hear screaming, hear a sickening thumping noise against the door, over and over again, and all we see is the door itself, as Teresa's mother fumbles for the key. Only at the end, after that aggressive soundscape has cut off for several tense moments, do we finally see something: a pool of blood, flowing under the door, an image already fairly extreme for 1943, and made that much more distressing because of the way that the minutes leading up to it have encouraged us to imagine all sorts of dreadful scenarios that could be providing all those sound effects.
That is not the kind of scene that could happen in a bad movie, of course, and on the basis of the three stalk-and-kill scenes alone, The Leopard Man would be a particularly harsh and intense horror movie; but every inch of the film's 66 minutes (making this the shortest film in the RKO horror cycle) is suffused with the overriding gloom of those sequences, in the form of the suffocatingly black shots overriding the whole picture - it is very much the darkest of Tourneur's three films for Lewton, the most grim and oppressive of them all. Once again, the film has atmosphere to spare, something that Tourneur was better at achieving than any of Lewton's other directors.
But then, Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, grand masterpieces of atmosphere, tied that atmosphere to their tight psychological studies, where The Leopard Man uses it like a crutch for a story that doesn't work on its own - Ardel Wray's script failing to capture any of richness of I Walked with a Zombie, in addition to the episodic problems forced on it by the source material, Cornell Woolrich's Black Alibi. The characters, one and all, fail to be interesting, and the reveal of the killer makes sense only because no other character would have worked, not because it's in any way true to the individual in question. It's perfectly functional for its overt purpose - a B-movie murder mystery - but despite the best craftsmanship brought into play by Tourneur and crew, it never rises above just that: a really functional B-movie. God knows, we respect B-movies in this space, and particularly given its practically non-existent running time, The Leopard Man is an extremely easy one to enjoy. But prior to this, the Tourneur/Lewton films weren't just films to enjoy, they were films to love, and it is one of my few genuine disappointments with the Lewton Unit's work that Tourneur's last project with the producer misses that standard by such a commanding margin.
Reviews in this series
Cat People (Tourneur, 1942)
I Walked with a Zombie (Tourneur, 1943)
The Leopard Man (Tourneur, 1943)
The Seventh Victim (Robson, 1943)
The Ghost Ship (Robson, 1943)
The Curse of the Cat People (von Fritsch/Wise, 1944)
The Body Snatcher (Wise, 1945)
Isle of the Dead (Robson, 1945)
Bedlam (Robson, 1946)