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Leopard Man, The
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by WilliamPrice

"Not for those who like to chant 'We want the monster!'"
3 stars

With the onset of World War Two, the appeal of conventional horror films began to slip. Macabre characters like Frankenstein or Dracula were becoming less credible through repetition and overshadowed by the real-life tragedies of war. Producer Val Lewton, hired by RKO in 1942 to produce a string of budget-conscious suspense films, realized that a fresh approach was required to provoke the increasingly desensitized imagination of theatergoers. He resolved to keep his scenarios earthy and believable, free from outlandish flights of fancy or frothing melodrama. But on a subliminal level, his creations would work overtime to create a superstitious aura of dread, making the experience of shock and fear inevitable. The resulting cycle of films were highly effective and successful in their day, and remain unsurpassed in the horror genre for their understated quality and artistry. “The Leopard Man” is no exception.

An unremarkable hamlet in New Mexico is the setting for this tale of a psycho who uses an escaped black leopard as cover for his own killings. Jean Brooks and Dennis O’Keefe play the nightclub entertainer and agent who were partly responsible for the creature’s escape, and who later find themselves tracking down the murderer. But the real interest here is not the hackneyed mystery plot -it’s the prolonged, chilling sequences where the victims meet their fate.

The combination of a vulnerable female character making her way through the shadows while being stalked by a sinister force was not new to the screen. The catacomb scene in Metropolis (1927) is an excellent early example. But the strident tone of American horror films typically disallowed this voyeuristic point of view until Lewton and Tourneur reintroduced it in 1942’s Cat People.

For a truly superb rendition of the motif, look no further than the first death sequence of The Leopard Man. In this story-within-a-story, we meet a young local girl whose unsympathetic mamasita orders her out into the dark evening for a cross-town errand. Her younger brother, understanding her fear, casts a finger shadow of the escaped leopard on the wall. But out the door she must go.

The terror of her reluctant journey is conveyed masterfully through the use of shadowy lighting and inventive staging. Although the takes are relatively long, the editing choices have a sudden, angular quality, capable of inspiring the viewer to leap from their chair for no reason at all. The soundtrack makes excellent use of an oppressive silence that becomes more menacing as every second ticks by.

Eventually, the terror-stricken heroine makes it back to the cottage, screaming and pounding on the door to be let in. This is filmed from inside, reinforcing our feelings of helplessness. Before they can get the door open, there is an awful crash, a final scream, and gurgling sounds. A pool of blood slowly seeps under the door. Yow.

The film is enlivened by two more set pieces along similar lines, but increasingly undermined by the ridiculous plot. The basic idea had just been used, none-too-prestigiously, in the 1940 Monogram dirt-bomb The Ape starring Boris Karloff, and seems to smack of exactly the kind of melodrama Tourneur and Lewton were seeking to avoid. Insufficient gibbering on the part of the psycho at the film’s climax, while perhaps a noble attempt at good taste, merely renders the conclusion unsatisfying. Moreover, the screenplay’s attempt to keep his identity a “secret” not only fails miserably but robs the character of any development that might have made him at least marginally compelling. Bland casting of the part completes the picture. One can imagine the likes of Peter Lorre or George Zucco rescuing the role from oblivion. But Lewton’s contrarian approach probably ruled out such a choice. My feeling is that he didn’t realize he was trying to make a silk purse from this sow’s ear of a story concept, or more likely, he was just too stubborn to accommodate its baser requirements.

The standard elements of the story are further neglected in the treatment of the alleged “main characters” Jerry Manning (O’Keefe) and Kiki Walker (Brooks). Once again, bland casting prevails, especially in the case of O’Keefe. On top of this, the director and producer seem disinterested in bringing these characters to life. The screenplay does introduce an angle whereby Manning and Walker learn to express their feelings in the wake of the guilt they feel over the killings. But the dialogue in this regard is scripted like so much corned beef hash, and performed mechanically. In another obstinate stroke, we never even learn the nature of Kiki’s nightclub act.

On the other hand, the supporting cast is filled with vitality. The random ethnic townsfolk are especially endearing, even those with only a line or two. The entire household of a well-to-do Hispanic family is introduced, in the second story-within-a-story, with a fullness of characterization that would be sufficient to motivate an entire film. Perhaps the interest in these characters, at the expense of the stereotypical leads, is another case of producer and director bucking the usual trends.

This is further evidenced by the screenplay, which goes out of its way to highlight the virtues of simplicity and happiness over material wealth. A shopkeeper states “Poor don’t cheat one another. We’re all poor together.” And a policeman remarks about the shoeshine man “You know there’s no-one else in the whole state like this fellow. He’s a genius in his own line.”

Perhaps the most interesting character of all is the Spanish twirl dancer Clo-Clo (played by Margo), whose staccato castanets add a singularly unnerving twist to the soundtrack. She’s a gold-digger, preying on the dandies who come up from Mexico. She has a friend, the fortune teller Maria (Isabel Jewell). Her dire forecasts for Clo-Clo extend the anti-materialistic theme, and represent the only explicit supernatural element in the story. Clo-Clo’s tragedy, looking for love in the wrong place, becomes the film’s central theme.

The sensitive, understated background music is by Roy Webb, who composed the scores for most of Lewton’s RKO horrors. But don’t look for a lot of it. The Leopard Man makes excellent use of sound effects, source music (such as the band in the nightclub) and just plain silence to create atmosphere organically whenever possible.

Nonetheless, Webb’s underscoring adds immeasurably to the sequence where Teresa Delgado (Margaret Landry), vainly seeking a romantic tryst, finds herself trapped inside the cemetery at dusk. Lithe, gently swooping high strings conjure a quietly romantic mood, tinged with solemnity and sorrow. Graceful musical question-marks arise in response to her plight, and then give way to a cool eeriness subtly colored by vibraphones. Now the strings swoop lower into the dusk, adding a charcoal hue to a roiling, enigmatic cloud of nameless dread. The black mass eventually dissipates, leaving only a weird, endlessly sustaining organ chord that keeps company with the full moon, until it is gradually subsumed by the low howl of noisome, chilling winds.

Webb’s graceful, restrained styling and his quiet focus on humanistic themes such as hope and sorrow stand in sharp contrast to the boxy, overdramatic onslaught of orchestral yammering so much more typical of horror films, before and since. His refined approach complements Lewton’s vision perfectly, and is one of the key elements that give these films their unique luster.

While “The Leopard Man” is a bit clunky overall, it is nonetheless rich in artistic treasure on a variety of levels. This is a moody, suggestive horror film that works its magic slowly and surely. Those willing to look beyond its flaws will be well rewarded by this mysterious journey thru the dim, smoky mirror of the subconscious.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=13121&reviewer=407
originally posted: 09/25/05 01:56:47
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User Comments

11/12/10 Josie Cotton is a goddess Slightly disappointing final, but a good film non the less 4 stars
8/08/08 Charles Tatum Mousy Margo torpedoes another flick 3 stars
5/06/07 fools♫gold A fascinating job working around the title of a film given to Lewton, no flaws if you think 5 stars
3/30/07 Joe Blow another Lewton -Tourneur tour de force 5 stars
10/28/05 David Fowler Brilliantly atmospheric murders. Margo is exsquite. Poor finale, but still magnificent! 5 stars
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  DVD: 04-Oct-2005



Directed by
  Jacques Tourneur

Written by
  Ardel Wray
  Edward Dein

  Dennis O'Keefe
  Jean Brooks
  Isabel Jewell
  James Bell
  Margaret Landry

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