The Leopard Man was the last of the 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 Walked 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 backward 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 visceral impact 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 traveling 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 traveling 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 negatives first, I admit that after being thrilled by both Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie 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 realize that the biggest problem is 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 (an 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 grave. 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, heightening the ominous terror until it reaches a boiling point.
The Leopard Man is a film full of distortions on all levels, perhaps because, more so than any of the Lewton/Turneur collaborations, it forces the audience to wrestle with its irresolutions. One theme that’s introduced briefly, eloquently and unpretentiously is that of fate; Galbraith introduces this to Jerry when he points to 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 resonated 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 powerlessness against the forces that imperceptibly 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—which is 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 transitional strands that 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 sense 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 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 results in tragedy (either theirs, or others), there’s also a grand failure of the people around them to interfere and prevent them; 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. Throughout the film he serves 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, or logical, than anyone else. In an abrupt 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.
The Leopard Man is a film that lacks the incisive characters and performances of Cat People and 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 the moon on a budget where most would be loath to shoot for the roof. With its challenging structure and intricately woven themes, The Leopard Man is a film 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 ultimately is.