Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Leopard Man (1943)

(Spoiler alert.) Considering how brief producer Val Lewton's career was, the quality of his projects and the influence they had is amazing. Born Vladimir Leventon in Russia, he moved at a young age to Hollywood, where he was raised by his mother and his aunt, the infamous Alla Nazimova. A Jack-of-All-Trades, he eventually slid into the movie industry, finally ending up as the head of the newly created B-movie production unit at RKO in the early forties. As any fan of genre movies know, the rest is history. Given a selection of lurid titles to work with, Lewton managed to make a series of some of the best low-budget classics of the 1940s, including Cat People (1942), I Walked With A Zombie (1943), Isle of Dead (1945), The Body Snatcher (1945) and Bedlam (1946). By 1951, however, after finally leaving horror behind and graduating up to producing uninteresting A-features — he did three — Lewton died of a heart attack.
Amongst the eleven films he produced for RKO, he gave three to Jacques Tourneur to direct. And while Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie have both been given safe, solid positions in the history of both American horror and low-budget films, Tourneur's last project with Lewton has, for the most part, been forgotten. Unjustly so, for even if The Leopard Man is hardly a consummate masterpiece like the other two films, it is nonetheless a darn fine film, much better than its forgotten status would indicate. Indeed, even if the film itself is flawed, it does include some truly masterful sequences that remain in one's mind long after the film is over. And the film is over quickly: it has a running time of 66 minutes (including credit sequences).
The Leopard Man is hardly the horror film that the title seemingly infers. Rather, it is a mystery thriller, adapted by Ardell Wray and Edward Dein from Cornell Woolrich's third novel Black Alibi. (Dein wrote numerous B-films before finally moving onto directing. His best directorial efforts are probably the unjustly castigated cult film The Leech Woman (1960) and the completely forgotten vampire western, Curse of the Undead (1959).) Wray and Dein obviously had some trouble honing the story down to fit the 66 minute running time, for, on the whole, the plot development of The Leopard Man is too quick, the resolution too rushed, the story too disjointed. (The story becomes choppy because the focus of the events often changes: every time a victim is introduced, all other characters disappear until the woman is dead. This might help in making the victims more sympathetic, but it is detrimental to the film as a whole.)
Tournier himself seems to have found the film as structurally flawed, as he once admitted that the film "[…] was too exotic, it was neither fish nor fowl: a series of vignettes, and it didn't hold together." Had the film been longer, and had the stories of various individuals been given more time to intertwine and develop, The Leopard Man would have been much more structurally sound, and thus much better.
But for all the flaws in the story and plot development, Tourneur's direction remains deft, Robert de Grasse's cinematography excellent and the film's use of sound exceptional. Much like the two preceding, acknowledged classics Tourneur made for RKO, The Leopard Man bathes in atmosphere, featuring some beautifully fluid camerawork and an equally masterful utilization of light and dark, black and white. Indeed, the only reason this film is probably viewed as substandard is because it was made by Tourneur; had it been the product of virtually any other director working in B-films during the 1940s, The Leopard Man would be hailed today as a forgotten classic. (It is definitely better than many an other movie commonly touted "forgotten classic," such as Robert Florey's bigger-budgeted The Beast With Five Fingers (1946).)
In some sleepy, forgotten little New Mexican town, as the film poster states, "Women Alone the Victims of Strange, Savage Killer!" Though dusty and small, the town does happen to have a rather large, almost posh nightclub, and the film begins with a beautifully fluid camera shot which pans from blackness into a dressing room where Clo-Clo (Margo, whose career ended soon after she married Eddie Albert two years later) is practicing her castanets and onwards into the dressing room of Kiki Walker (Jean Brooks, who eventually fell into obscurity — even most biographies of her one-time husband director Richard Brooks fail to mention that they were married — and died from complications resulting from alcoholism in 1963). Kiki's act at the club is obviously less popular than that of Clo-Clo, we learn as she complains about it to Maria (Isabel Jewell, who, despite the auspicious beginning of her career, died in obscurity and poverty in 1972, soon after making her last film appearances in Curt Hanson's sleazy debut Sweet Kill (1972) and the "underground" docudrama Ciao! Manhattan (1973)). As a publicity stunt, Kiki's manager Jerry Manning (forgotten B-movie leading man Dennis O'Keefe) rents a black leopard for her to enter the nightclub with so as to upstage her Latino rival. Ever the spitfire, Clo-Clo frightens the leopard with her castanets, and it escapes off into the night. That very evening, a frightened young girl sent out to buy cornmeal by her mother falls victim to the cat. Her odyssey to the store and back home is truly frightening, the tension mounting steadily until the final, horrific moment when a puddle of her blood seeps in under the front door of her house. The hunt for the killer cat is on, but soon there is another victim, the beautiful young Consuelo Contreras (the Finland-born Tuulikki Paananen), who meets her fate when accidentally locked up alone in the local cemetery. Everyone is convinced that it was the leopard, but Jerry isn't sure. Could it be the work of a madman? Chief Robles (Ben Bard) and Dr. Galbraith (James Bell), the director of the local museum, think Jerry is barking up the wrong tree. Soon after, not only does Clo-Clo bite the dust, but the body of the dead, mutilated leopard is found. Who can the murderer be? Jerry and Kiki decide to set a trap…
Simple plot, to say the least, and greatly hampered by a total lack of viable suspects. Indeed, if the viewer disregards Jerry as a possibility, there is only one person left that comes in question: Dr. Galbraith. Tourneur cheats a little here in his attempt to direct suspicions as well: throughout the film, Galbraith smokes a pipe, but whenever the (mostly) unseen mystery killer shows up, the killer smokes cigarettes, just like Jerry.
Actually, it is the excellent craftsmanship that makes the movie, for the script itself is truly lacking despite its original source. But then, amongst the many noteworthy aspects of all the RKO films that Lewton produced, the ability to make so much out of so little is one of the most obvious. Once again, style surpasses the substance and the film, as a whole, becomes something fantastic. Rediscover and enjoy The Leopard Man.

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