Val Lewton produced a string of low-budget “horror” films in the 1940s that have since attracted a large following and become cult classics. Of these under-appreciated films, the most overlooked of them all, even today, is probably The Leopard Man (1943), directed by Jacques Tourneur. This was the third and final collaboration between Tourneur and Lewton, after Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and while the first two are widely celebrated, The Leopard Man is often dismissed, incorrectly in my opinion, as a failure. On the contrary, I would rate it perhaps the second best, after I Walked with a Zombie, among the films that Lewton produced. It is a surprisingly complex and fascinating work, but like all of Lewton’s films, it suffers from some minor deficiencies, perhaps due in part to resource constraints. On the surface it is a murder story and a film noir, but as with Lewton’s other works, there is a dark undercurrent that conjures up feelings of primitive, supernatural powers that go beyond our “modern” understanding. In fact, like Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and Isle of the Dead, the film suggests an underlying confrontation between a traditional, pre-scientific cultural mode and our own modernist Western culture, which is dominated by positivist and materialistic thinking. In this film, the setting is New Mexico, where the native ethnic Mexican inhabitants sometimes have superstitious fears of dark forces and the mysteries of fatal destinies. This presentation of this confrontation raises the film above the level of an ordinary murder mystery and propels it into the murky regions of our inexpressible fears
The story, based on the novel The Black Alibi, by Cornell Woolrich, begins at a local nightclub in a New Mexican town. A woman entertainer, Kiki Walker, along with her press agent boyfriend, Jerry Manning, have arrived from out of town and hope to win the favour of the local audience. In an effort to outshine a competing local Mexican performer, the dancer Clo-Clo, Jerry arranges for Kiki to enter the nightclub with a semi-tame black jaguar (the leopard) on a leash while Clo-Clo is performing. But Clo-Clo, upset by the upstaging, intentionally antagonises the leopard, and it breaks from its leash and escapes into the night. In the next few days there are a series of grisly murders presented, all attributed to the leopard. As Jerry observes the ongoing police investigation, though, he begins to suspect that the leopard may not be responsible for all of the deaths. His suspicions are quickly directed towards the local museum curator, the urbane pipe-smoking Dr. Galbraith, who is an expert on natural history and local wildlife. Jerry and Kiki attempt to bait the curator into engaging in another attack, and when they are successful, the murderer is finally captured.
The acting in The Leopard Man is generally satisfactory, but Dennis O’Keefe’s performance as Jerry is unfortunately wooden and unconvincing. Another deficiency is the absence of any real “chemistry” between Jerry and Kiki (played by Jean Brooks) as a romantic duo. This was not the only time that a Lewton-produced film was undermined by an unconvincing male character actor. Curiously, the actresses in Lewton’s films were almost always uniformly good. Also, as a whodunit murder mystery, The Leopard Man is not very puzzling and fails to live up to the usual demands of that genre. Halfway into the piece there is enough evidence available for the audience to suspect Dr. Galbraith, and this failure to keep the audience puzzled concerning who perpetrated the crime has led some people to dismiss the entire film as uninteresting. But we shouldn't really look at the film as a just an ordinary whodunit mystery (although that may have been Woolrich's original intention in the novel), because the filmmakers have pursued some more subterranean currents that make the film an interesting cinematic experience. Of particular interest is the portrayal of the circumstances leading up to the three grisly murders, which take up more than half the film's running time.
In connection with the fates of the three doomed women, there is an early portentous, iconic shot of the garden fountain at the nightclub, which constantly shoots a stream of water into the air and maintains a rubber ball aloft at the top of its stream. Dr. Galbraith remarks later on in the story that all people and animals are similar to that fountain ball – they may appear to be in a stable situation, but they are actually driven by powerful and turbulent forces that are beyond their understanding. Our ignorance concerning the dark forces of our destiny is a major theme of the film. In addition to that recurrent visual icon, there is a relentless audio motif associated with the driving, rhythmic sound of castanets, and this haunting background sound similarly conveys a feeling of hidden forces stirring up the passions. While the sound of the castanets is the specific sonic signature of the vivacious Clo-Clo, the pulsating sounds also evoke the passions underlying flamenco music in general. With these symbols and sounds recurring in the background, the film obsessively tracks the fatal narratives of three different Mexican girls, each of whom has the youthful passion for life to try to overcome her fears of the unknown -- that unknown danger that lies just outside and beyond the comforting light of the community and lurks out there in the darkness. Each of these mini-narratives follows one of the girls and quickly establishes its own social context and circumstances filled with both hopes and apprehensions. Each of the girls in her own way resolves to push back her instinctive feelings of fear of the dark in order to follow her own pursuits. And each girl is ultimately subjected to a violent death, apparently by the leopard, and forthwith her story, along with all of it social context and personages, is abandoned. This is an unusual narrative format for a film, but it goes with the themes of fatal destiny and the terminal fears of darkness and death. We follow the story of each girl, becoming involved in her concerns, until she encounters a fearful situation in the darkness. But unlike most stories, where the protagonist survives the scary test and the story continues, here each of these stories ends in the brutal death of the female protagonist, with whom we have come to sympathise. Each of the endings of these mini-narratives is brilliantly filmed and manages to convey a graphic sense of mounting tension and alarm. Particularly noteworthy is the first sequence, involving the teenage girl Teresa, who must go out at night to purchase some cornmeal for her mother. To carry out this task, she must walk across some dark fields and under a railroad bridge in order to get to the store, and this frightening walk in the darkness is truly a cinematic tour de force and a credit to Trouneur and cinematrographer Robert De Grasse. In fact this early sequence is so extraordinarily gripping that the viewer may doubt that the remainder of the film can possibly live up to it. But the second murder sequence, involving an upperclass girl (played by the beautiful Tuulikki Paananen) who goes out at night to a cemetery for a lovers’ tryst, is also haunting and enthralling, in a different way. These two sequences alone make the film a memorable and worthwhile experience.
The three mini-stories are part of the larger themes of the film. Jerry and Kiki, the modernist characters in the larger narrative, are gradually made aware that their own self-images are merely artificial masks that they have adopted from their own cultural backgrounds. They have always been trying to act cool, cynical, and sophisticated, but they come to realize in this film that they are only fooling themselves. They are perpetually hiding their real emotional feelings and sympathies, not only from others, but also from themselves. This contrast between the modernist culture and the more authentically in-touch-with-their-feelings Mexican people is picked up later on in the film during a nightclub encounter between the Hispanic Clo-Clo and a middle-aged gray-haired "European" (i.e. non-Hispanic) gentleman patron. The gentleman’s adult daughter and her husband, who have accompanied him to the nightclub, are also cut off from genuine feelings and bored with their surroundings. When the man's daughter sees him socialising with the Clo-Clo at a separate table, she expresses disgust and embarrassment with his, to her, unseemly behaviour. Meanwhile the gentleman and Clo-Clo, alone at their own table, engage in a spontaneous and cordially innocent discussion about what interests them. We are led to the feeling that this business of being cut off from one's inner feelings is common to our modernist Western culture, whereas the traditionallyl-oriented Mexican people in the film are more natural and emotionally spontaneous.
This brings us to the consideration of Doctor Galbraith, the curator of the museum. He exhibits the behaviour of an academic, familiar with scientific understanding about the natural world. But inside of him is a boiling cauldron of twisted passion that, we ultimately learn, drives him to commit savage, animal attacks on innocent people. It is as though the conflict between his inner self and his outer persona is so great that it leads to violent, uncontrollable eruptions.
The overall outcome of The Leopard Man, with its individual mini-narratives each dead-ended by the cruel turbulence of dark forces, is ultimately a matter of interpretation. Jerry and Kiki resolve to be more authentic and responsive to their true feelings in the future. Perhaps, in the face of the mysterious and turbulent forces that perpetually surround us, just out of sight and in the darkness, this is our only option. Yes, the film seems to suggest, we should all have the courage to walk straight towards our dreams . . . . but don’t go out alone when darkness falls.