The Leopard Man

The Leopard Man (1943) movie poster

(1943) dir. Jacques Tourneur
viewed: 05/21/10

So many movies, so little time.  Of the many tropes and avenues of film-viewing that I follow, the entire catalog of films by director Jacques Tourneur and producer Val Lewton are actually high on my list of things to see before I die.  Problem is that my list is long, the breadth of topics/directors/genres/producers/stars/everything is tremendous, and while perhaps not infinite, the numbers of specific films that I want to see is longer than my poor little Netflix queue will allow me to hold (limit 500).

For producer Lewton and director Tourneur, the B-movies of the 1940’s are legendary and quite short, packaged happily often two films to a disc.  And in the horror/thriller genres, this is the kind of stuff that I could watch just about any day.  With such masterpieces as Cat People (1942),I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and Night of the Demon to their credit as a team, they still have a lot of others left that I haven’t seen. And Lewton, as a producer, worked with other directors as well (and he is often given much of the credit for the consistency and quality of the films he produced on such low budgets.

But Tourneur has long been a favorite of mine, and as far as I can tell, he actually directed the best of the films produced under Lewton’s production staff (which included many other talented filmmakers such as Robert Wise (The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945)).  Among his Lewton horror films, Tourneur also directed one of the best films noir, Out of the Past (1947), starring Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer (that’s a movie I need to see again!)

The Leopard Man, while receiving high praise on the film’s commentary by director William Friedkin, and certainly demonstrating flair of genius and quality filmmaking throughout, really isn’t as masterful as the others I’ve mentioned before, but is still a very quality flick.

Set in a small New Mexico town, the story follows a couple of competing dancer/performers in a local restaurant/club, who flare in their competition when the boyfriend/PR man for one of them brings a live “leopard” (the same black cat from Cat People) as a striking attention-getter.  But when this cat is frightened by the noise of castanets and patrons, it escapes into the darkness of the night, eventually mauling a young Mexican girl to death as she goes for a late night grocery run.

The PR man is beside himself with guilt over the death of this innocent, but is further perplexed when the hunt for the animal remains unsolved, and the killings keep coming.  Is it truly this black panther who is slaughtering the women of this village, or is it perhaps a man, a serial murderer who is imitating the panther’s mauling style to hide behind a veil for the brutal killings?

There are many nice sequences, visually, using the RKO filming lot effectively, developing atmosphere and creepiness far outstanding of the budgets with which they were working.  As well, the setting, this small New Mexican village, tints the narrative significantly, from the many Latina women in the story, songs sung, to even the strange, spooky religious precession that happens late in the film, commemorating the slaughter of the native people by conquistadors (but which looks like something of devil worship, perhaps, with black-hooded, candle holding men).  Again, it’s not germane exactly to the story, but it’s part of the mise-en-scene, the atmosphere of strange darkness.

Lewton and Tournuer, always interesting.

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