THE LEOPARD MAN (1943) B/W 66m dir: Jacques Tourneur
w/Margo, Dennis O'Keefe, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, James Bell, Margaret Landry
Excellent low-budget thriller from the Val Lewton stable, directed with savage poeticism by Tourneur. About a series of murders attributed to an escaped leopard.
From Joel Siegel's book about the Lewton production unit, Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror :
"The Leopard Man is a mixed effort, superb in its individual sequences and its general ambience but uncertain in structure and lacking any deep thematic resonance. Never approaching the exquisite style and poetry of I Walked With a Zombie , it at least manages to avoid the gaucheries of dialogue and performance which disfigure Cat People , while remaining every bit as inventive and frightening in the suspense sequences.
"Both Lewton and Tourneur later disclaimed The Leopard Man , and with some justice: it is a rather straightforward mystery thriller, based on Cornell Woolrich's Black Alibi , and has little more to offer than most other works in that genre. The film's central image is, again, a fountain --- this time with a jet of water supporting a hollow ball. Although an attempt is made to give the fountain metaphorical significance (one character remarks, 'We know as little about the forces that move us and move the world around us as that empty ball...') it never assumes the highly packed, allusive presence of the St Sebastian figurehead [that appears in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE]. The Woolrich novel was probably too conventional to please Lewton and Tourneur, too heavy in explicit bloodshed, and lacking the kind of poetic suspense they favoured in their first two efforts.
"However conventional the story may be, Lewton tells it in a curious, fragmented fashion which, though not fully successful here, anticipates the mosaic narrative style of his next feature, The Seventh Victim . The Leopard Man is unconventionally structured: it has no central protagonists but moves from person to person, action to action, in a free-flowing manner. One character is committed to prison where he hears castanets clicking outside his window. The camera picks up a castanet dancer and follows her story until another transitional device takes us to yet another character. This method of story-telling, odd when employed in a thriller, tends to distance our responses; we aren't sure why we are watching any particular character at any given time. Lewton once told Florence Mischel that transitions are no problem, that one simply needs a story hook -- an image or sound or object --- with which to 'hook into' the following scene. (Mrs. Mischel sees this as a key to Lewton's stylistic modernism --- his 'hook' is an anticipation of the jump-cut.) Unfortunately, the Woolrich material hardly merits the highly sophisticated Lewton narrative technique. ...
"The Leopard Man lacks sufficient unity and meaning to satisfy as fully as some other Lewton films, but it is none the less a superb production, stylish and richly detailed. From the opening shot --- the clatter of castanets as the camera prowls the backstage corridor of a night club --- we know that we are in the hands of a master. All that Tourneur attempts is flawlessly executed, though some of Lewton's screenplay effects --- like reflection shots of Clo-Clo [Margo's character] dancing around the fountain --- are not attempted, probably owing to a shortage of time and money. The cast could not be better: Margo dominates the film, but Isabel Jewell [Maria] and beautiful Jean Brooks [Kiki], the co-stars of The Seventh Victim , perform quite admirably.
"One can understand why Lewton and Tourneur repudiated the film. It amounts, in the long run, to little more than an exercise in sadistic voyeurism --- three innocent women dying like trapped animals. But movies, like the rest of the arts, are sometimes most memorable when they are least responsible. I saw The Leopard Man when I was eleven, and seeing it again for this book, almost twenty years later, I discovered that almost every shot was fixed in my memory. The death of the frightened child, the young girl alone in the cemetery, those shots of the dancer clicking her castanets through the dark streets --- these are artful images of fear that will long haunt those who experience them."