Release Date: May 8th, 1943
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Written by: Ardel Wray, Edward Dein
Based on: Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Dennis O’Keefe, Jean Brooks, Margo
RKO Radio Pictures, 66 Minutes
“You don’t get the idea, mister. These cops banging those pans, flashing those lights, they’re gonna scare that poor cat of mine. Cats are funny, mister. They don’t want to hurt you, but if you scare them they go crazy. These cops, they don’t know what they’re doing.” – Charlie How-Come
I’ve been working my way through Val Lewton’s horror films for RKO. He produced some of the coolest scary movies of the 1940s and The Leopard Man is a pretty solid film that was directed by one of his best collaborators, Jacques Tourneur. Mark Robson, who would also direct some of Lewton’s productions, worked on this picture as its editor.
The film stars Dennis O’Keefe, who would go on to work in film-noir throughout the decade. He is joined by the mesmerizing Jean Brooks, who completely owned the screen in another Lewton production, the horror film-noir The Seventh Victim. She had a very strong presence in this and an enchanting aura about her. It’s surprising to me, actually, that she never went on to be a megastar in the era of film-noir.
Like Tourneur’s other films under Lewton, this is a picture where the audience has to often times rely on their own imagination. This is a classic suspense horror picture, through and through. It’s the things that aren’t seen that are the most scary. For instance, when the first victim dies, you witness this from the other side of a locked door, hearing her bloodcurdling screams, until they abruptly stop and a pool of blood starts pouring into the house from under the door.
Additionally, when another victim is attacked in a graveyard, much is left to the viewer’s imagination. You see the victim’s reaction and a branch violently shake before the attack. But it is done in a way that is more effective than seeing the monster attack on screen. And for the twist ending of this film, it is actually necessary to obscure the killer and allow the mind to fill in the blanks.
The plot of the film is pretty simple. A showman rents a black leopard to spruce up the act of one of his top ladies. The leopard is frightened and runs off, escaping into the small desert town. Shortly after, a girl is mauled outside the front door to her house, as her mother and little brother listen in horror. Some other killings happen while the police are trying to find the leopard, who is blamed for the deaths. As the story progresses, we learn that it might not be the leopard that is killing these people after all.
The big reveal at the end is pretty predictable but it doesn’t make the film any less effective. Plus, you’re never really sure what’s happening and why. The “why” is as big of a question as the “who”. While the answers might not be totally satisfying, everything leading up to the mystery being solved is pretty well structured and executed.
Tourneur and Lewton made another horror movie in the same visual style as the noir pictures that would come to dominate the 1940s. There’s a bit of a German Expressionist influence in the lighting and the use of shadows for contrast and a chiaroscuro presentation.
The Leopard Man is a much smarter horror picture than what was the norm for the 1940s but this would become Val Lewton’s specialty and even if they weren’t as big as Universal’s horror franchises in terms of popularity, they were better than most of those pictures in quality.