The Leopard Man (1943)

D: Jacques Tourneur
S: Denis O'Keefe, Jean Brooks

Producer Val Lewton's failed attempt to recycle elements of he and director Jacques Tourneur's Cat People, the third of Lewton's RKO films alongside Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie and the least regarded (although in company such as that, even faint praise is not entirely damning). Based upon a novel by Cornell Woolrich, the story is set in New Mexico where publicist/agent Denis O'Keefe attempts to boost the celebrity of client Jean Brooks by having her appear at a night club with a tame leopard on a leash to upstage star performer Margo. When the latter clacks her maracas at the beast, it breaks free and gets loose in the village. A young girl later turns up dead. Guilt and recrimination among the stars gives way to panic among the populous, especially when a second death occurs. O'Keefe meanwhile has befriended local museum curator and big cat expert James Bell, who assures him that the leopard's natural instinct would be to flee the village and head for open country. Perhaps the cat is not the killer, but if it is not, then who is?

The film is and is considered to be a failure largely because of its inability to balance scenes of exposition and scenes of action. There are some superb set pieces here, including the initial stalking scene where the young girl walks home in the dark only to meet her grisly end in a truly terrible way. But there are others which simply don't pay off, including the finale where the heroes chase the villain into a religious procession, a scene which seemed ripe with metaphorical and sub-textual potential which does not even deliver on the level of visual drama. Meanwhile the film stumbles awkwardly through scene after scene of confused emotion and subdued heroism and O'Keefe and Brooks, clearly responsible for the carnage, are offered as central characters while Margo, second billed star of the film, seems to be hogging a great deal of screen time for no particular reason. Character transitions, long scenes of clumsy exposition, and unnecessary musical numbers all add up to distractions as the audience waits for the promised scenes of suspense and unease, of which there are three.

The film seems unsure as to whether it is a whodunit mystery or a flat-out tale of terror. The title is misleading on one level and over-literal on another, especially given the mystery's eventual resolution. After Cat People proved such a success playing games on the generic border, Tourneur and Lewton were obviously eager to repeat the formula and hoped that the suggestion of unnatural goings-on would mesh with the real-world concerns of this group of characters. However this screenplay by Ardel Wray does not so much create tensions resolved by thematic suggestion and visual unease as simply generate generic confusion through contrivance and misdirection. Long scenes of dialogue alternate clumsily with action and suspense, and what seem to be significant themes vanish in a wash of lame psychology.

It is never altogether clear precisely why O'Keefe and Brooks merit our respect, and when the explanation comes, it is a belated afterthought rather than something which gels with our image of the characters as we have come to know them. Thematic asides about religion and social class are initially intriguing, but fade away as the film drifts into ill-concieved murder-mystery red herrings. The film ends with a lot of half-baked psychobabble and comes to a climax with a rather simplistic showdown between a less than well defined evil and a less than admirable good. Rather than contribute to a feeling of noirish moral uncertainty though, this feels too much like the result of a screenplay which has been unable to work itself out. Most of Tourneur's time and energy seems to have been devoted to the three major suspense scenes, all of which (gender sensitives take note) involve the death of women, and all of which are cinematically arresting, making excellent use of composition, sound, and editing. The director famously commented afterwards that the film was "neither fish nor fowl", so it would seem that from his point of view, he choose one and let the other take care of itself.

The Leopard Man is ultimately a minor film which will find its best audience with the late-night movie enthusiast or the film buff who is willing to find its flaws as interesting as its strengths. This is no defence of what amounts to incoherent moviemaking, but it does allow those of the right mind to find things to appreciate in it. Cat People it is not, but the movie does make an interesting companion piece to it, not least of all to show how wrong things can go under circumstances like these and how magical it can be when they go right.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.