The Leopard Man

The Leopard Man was the last of brief—but fruitful, innovative, and highly influential—collaboration of producer/auteur, Val Lewton, and director Jacques Tourneur. It was preceded by the much more heralded Cat People and I Walk With a Zombie, and was, in fact, the only film of the trio to receive negative-to-lukewarm criticism. In retrospect, the film is more challenging and innovative than either of its predecessors; it has an eye that looks both backwards to Fritz Lang’s supreme psychological suspense/thriller noir about a serial killer, M, as well as ahead to the radical and inventive narratives of Alfred Hitchcock. If The Leopard Man lacks the perfection of M, and the cinematic refinement of Hitchcock, it’s still an undeniable diamond in the rough that contains a great deal to admire.

The story, like most of the Lewton/RKO b-budget horror films, is deceptively simple; in a New Mexico night club, Jean Brooks plays Kiki Walker, a travelling performer who is less successful than Clo-Clo (Margo), a dark-haired, dancing, castanet player. Kiki’s manager, Jerry (Dennis O’Keefe), decides to hire a black leopard from a travelling Indian named Charlie How-Come (Abner Biberman) to spice up her act. Clo-Clo doesn’t take kindly to this, and ends up scaring the animal, which escapes from Kiki and runs out into the New Mexico streets. Shortly after, a young girl is murdered and the leopard is blamed. But after two more murders it seems less likely that the leopard could be the cause, and Jerry joins Dr. Galbraith (James Bell) and the Police Chief, Roblos (Ben Bard), to hunt down the animal, or the killer, or both.

To trudge through the bad first, I admit that after being thrilled by both Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie that I was rather disappointed with The Leopard Man. It lacks the emotional, sympathetic pathos of the former and the precisely distilled terror of the latter. I immediately chalked this up to the inchoate structure, the shallow characterizations, and the bland performances. Upon reflection, I realized that the biggest problem was that The Leopard Man is a film that is so irresolute and mysterious that it can’t help but leave the viewer uncomfortable. Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie left its share of mysteries and provocations, certainly, but they did resolve their narratives satisfactorily. In The Leopard Man it seems as if everything is left in a state of flux, leaving the viewer feeling somewhat cheated, but mostly unsure.

The crux of the film, the element that could just as easily induce as much derision as admiration, is the unusual structure that frequently breaks away from its central cast to follow the victims and the events that lead up to their murder. There are two, in particular, that seem completely divorced from the central trio of Clo-Clo, Kiki, and Jerry. It’s the element that lead both Lewton and Turneur to dismiss the film; Turneur dubbed it “…too exotic, it was neither fish nor fowl: a series of vignettes, and it didn’t hold together.” It doesn’t help that The Leopard Man, of all the Lewton films, sits most uncomfortably in limbo between genres; it’s not quite horror, not quite mystery, not quite thriller, not quite suspense, not quite art-film, but it frequently employs the tropes of all of them, though it seems just as comfortable subverting expectations as playing up to them.

The first of the digressions involves a young girl named Teresa (Margaret Landry) who is sent by her mother to get cornmeal late at night after the leopard has escaped. Teresa makes it to the store, but on her return Robert De Grasse’s malevolent lighting bathes her in deep shadows as Turneur’s elegant camera tracks her in one of the film’s copious “Lewton walks”. Eventually, she spots the leopard hiding out near a sewage tunnel, and even though she runs away and makes it home, she’s trapped at her front door. Before her mother can open it, she sees the blood of her daughter seeping underneath the crack in the door (and image Gabriel Garcia Marquez would famously use in his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude; a novel famous for establishing the magical realism genre).

The second digression breaks off from Clo-Clo to follow a young maid buying flowers for the birthday of her master’s daughter, named Consuelo (Tuulikki Paananen). Consuelo wants to go to the graveyard to meet her boyfriend, though she tells her mother it’s to put flowers on her father’s graves. Her mother sees through her intentions, but allows her to go anyway. Once there, Consuelo is accidentally locked in after getting lost in a reverie when her boyfriend fails to show; the gatekeeper locks her in, and Consuelo is understandably frightened. This leads to perhaps the best stand-a-lone scene in the film where Consuelo tentatively marches through the graveyard, as editor Mark Robson—one of the best in film history; he worked on Citizen Kane—presents spacial disorientation by breaking the 180-editing rule.

Both of the murder scenes are most indicative of the tremendous talent involved in these RKO, b-budget “horror” films; with very little money, Lewton, Turneur, De Grasse, and Robson were able to manipulate shadows to cast nightmares in the mind of the viewer. But if these films have lasted—and, arguably, they stand up better than all other classic horror films—it’s because of Lewton. His piercing artistry seemed to find the substance in any work he was given, no matter how absurd. All of the Lewton films challenge our perceptions about what’s real, who’s good and evil, is it fate, chance, or choice, and how can we ever know for sure. All are marked by a lingering ambiguity that crawls under one’s skin and into one’s unconscious until they’re forced to reckon with some of life’s greatest and darkest mysteries.

It’s no different with The Leopard Man, and it perhaps more so than any of the Lewton/Turneur collaborations forces the audience to wrestle with its irresolutions. One theme that’s introduced briefly, eloquently, and unpretentiously is the theme of fate; Galbraith introduces this to Jerry when he points out a ball floating atop a fountain at a restaurant: “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.” For me, this echoed strongly with a theme that dominated a great deal of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, as Tolstoy presented repeatedly on scales both grand and intimate the concept of people’s powerlessness against the forces that imperceptivity move us, forces of which we’re relatively unaware of, beyond the fact that they exist. Yet we endlessly struggle against these forces through our concepts of choice and free will.

Unlike Tolstoy, Lewton feels little need to reiterate this theme explicitly after its introduction; instead, he relies on the narrative itself to express the theme. Lewton especially introduces the theme of fatalism with Clo-Clo’s frequent visits to the fortune-teller, Maria (Isabel Jewell), who keeps pulling out the Ace of Spades—the card of death—reminiscent of the fate of Carmen in Bizet’s tragic opera. One might simply write this off as simplistic foreshadowing, but The Leopard Man is a film that’s eerily portentous in ways much more subtle. Upon closer inspection, the superficially disconnectedness of the narrative, for example, reveals strands which tie the central characters to the victims; victims that seem to be singled out for death by the omniscience and omnipotence of the filmmakers.

But the film’s prescience and theme of people being moved by invisible forces can equally be seen in the seemingly arbitrary, trivial, frequently perfunctory or Deus ex machina ways in which the characters and events set the film in motion. Whether its blind ambition, which leads Jerry to cook up the publicity scheme with the leopard in the first place, or blind tradition, which leads Teresa’s mother to send her out for food at night, or blind love, which leads Consuelo to mourn in the graveyard, or the love of money, which leads Clo-Clo to go back for the hundred dollars she lost. In the same way the characters’ lack of perspective result in their tragedy, there’s also a grand failure of the people around them to interfere and prevent the happenings; Teresa’s mother and absent father, Consuelo’s absent fiancé, and Clo-Clo’s recently discovered father figure who gives her the money all fail in preventing their deaths.

(Spoiler Warning Ahead: if you haven’t seen the film, skip this paragraph): Perhaps the element that most provocatively encapsulates all of the films themes, as well as its strengths and weaknesses, lies in the character of Galbraith. Galbraith throughout the film has served as the voice of reason, knowledge, and exposition. He’s the character that Lewton has used to explain the events to us. Galbraith is himself a scientist, an expert on leopards, and curator of a museum. But when Galbraith turns out to be the killer, we realize that the source of logic and stability in the film is no more stable than anyone else. In a brief and almost anti-climactic ending, Jerry, along with Consuelo’s boyfriend, tempts Galbraith to kill again, only to assail him and capture him. After the classic question of “why?” Galbraith himself turns back to the philosophy that he introduced; he has no idea why he’s killed any more than the people who were killed know what lead them down their shadowy valley of death.

Ultimately, The Leopard Man is a film that lacks the provocative, incisive characters and performances in Cat People, or lack the sheer chills of I Walked With a Zombie, but it may resonate longer and, eventually, louder than either. Neither of its predecessors were light on substance, but Lewton and co. may have outdone themselves here, shooting for a moon on a budget where most would be loath to shoot for a roof. With its challenging structure and intricately woven themes, The Leopard Man seems a film that was far ahead of its time. One might call it a Kieslowskian approach to the horror genre where the invisible strings that tie together people’s lives can be pulled taught, revealing a majestically detailed pattern, or cut altogether, revealing how fragile our connection to life and each other is.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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