The Leopard Man – USA, 1943

‘Women alone the victims of strange, savage killer!’

The Leopard Man is a 1943 American mystery horror feature film directed by Jacques Tourneur (Night of the Demon; I Walked with a Zombie; Cat People) from a screenplay written by Ardel Wray and Edward Dein, based on the 1942 novel Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich.

The RKO production was produced by Val Lewton (The Body Snatcher; Bedlam, Isle of the Dead) and stars Dennis O’Keefe, Margo, Jean Brooks and Isabel Jewell.

The Leopard Man will be released on Blu-ray by Scream Factory on July 30, 2019. Special features:

  • New 4K scan of the original nitrate camera negative
  • New Audio Commentary with filmmaker/film historian Constantine Nasr
  • Audio Commentary by filmmaker William Friedkin (The Guardian; The Exorcist)
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Still Gallery

Review:

The 1943 film The Leopard Man is set in a small town in New Mexico. It’s a place that seems to be hidden away from much of the modern world and where the cultures of Mexico and America mix, occasionally with unease.

Jerry Manning (Dennis O’Keefe) is an American publicity agent who is dating a nightclub performer named, Kiki (Jean Brooks). Kiki has a rivalry with another performer, the far more flamboyant (read: interesting) Clo-Clo (Margo). Jerry, however, feels that he’s come up with the perfect way for Kiki to upstage Clo-Clo.  Jerry has rented a leopard!

Unfortunately, it soon becomes obvious that neither Jerry nor Kiki knows how to handle a leopard.  Clo-Clo startles the leopard with her castanets, causing the leopard to escape and flee into the desert.  Now, Jerry has two problems.  Not only is Kiki mad at him but the leopard’s owner, Charlie (Abner Biberman), expects Jerry to pay for the missing animal.

Actually, make that three problems. Soon after the leopard escapes, a teenage girl is chased to the front door of her house.  When she bangs on the door and begs her mother to let her in, her mother assumes that her daughter is making up a lie to get out of helping around the house. The mother ignores her until suddenly, her daughter screams and blood starts to seep in from under the door…

All of the locals believe that the girl was killed by the leopard.  Soon, more people in town are also killed.  The police are sure that it’s the leopard but Jerry soon comes to think that something else might be happening.  Could it be that something or someone else is committing the murders and attempting to frame the leopard?

A moody and rather fatalistic film that looks truly impressive for a B-movie that was shot on the studio backlots, The Leopard Man is really more of a mystery than a traditional horror film. That said, the film is full of atmospheric and creepy scenes, particularly a lengthy sequence in which the townspeople commemorate the anniversary of a centuries-old massacre.

The specter of death, both past and future, hangs over both the town and the film. That’s not surprising when you consider the The Leopard Man was produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur, the same time that previously created the original Cat People. Much like Cat People, The Leopard Man is a film that’s power comes as much from what we don’t see as what we do see. The Leopard Man is a triumph of atmosphere and tension.

While neither Jerry non Kiki are very interesting characters, the film is full of memorable character roles. The citizens of that small town in New Mexico are all vividly drawn and portrayed, with the film perfectly capturing the quiet desperation of being both poor and forgotten in American society.

Lisa Marie Bowman, guest reviewer via Through the Shattered Lens

Other reviews:

” …a lesser but still fascinating psychological-horror effort […] The haunting finale takes place during the annual “Day of the Dead” festivities. The opening sequence of Leopard Man, atmospherically detailing the last few moments of murder victim Teresa Delgado (Margaret Landry), is so powerful that the rest of the film seems anticlimactic.” All Movie

“The movie does excel in the visuals. The film is pretty low budget, but like many of Lewton’s films, the movie looks better than the story. The nice shooting helps make the so-so script tighter and more suspenseful.  Scenes like the first attack of a girl by the actual panther are rather tense…” Basement Rejects

a feeble and obvious attempt to frighten and shock the audience with a few exercises in mayhem. Margo is the most harrowing victim of the clutching claw, but even her death is no more exciting than having someone jump out from a dark room and say “boo!” If a picture aims to be horrible, let it be so in a big way.” The New York Times, May 20, 1943

“Tourneur’s fast paced film is armed with a taut and intelligent script, and is one of those memorable films that gets even better with age like a good wine.” Ozus’ World Movie Reviews

“Tourneur’s use of sound is perhaps as well regarded as his shadowplay. The women of Leopard Man may seem anonymous, but Tourneur uses sound to both scare and complicate them. Leopard Man may be a horror film but it also has the texture of a musical.” Slant magazine

“It’s not perfect: the brash hero has a cowardly, selfish streak to overcome (so it’s none too convincing that he should solve the mystery), and new characters seem to be introduced every ten minutes, but this remains one of Lewton’s strongest productions due to its tension and overwhelmingly melancholy air.” The Spinning Image

Buy Fearing the Dark: The Val Lewton Career book from Amazon.com

Choice dialogue:

Kiki (Jean Brooks): “We’ve been so busy trying to be tough guys. Confession: I’m a complete softie.”

Main cast and characters:

  • Dennis O’Keefe … Jerry Manning
  • Margo … Clo-Clo
  • Jean Brooks … Kiki Walker
  • Isabel Jewell … Maria – Fortune Teller
  • James Bell … Dr. Galbraith
  • Margaret Landry … Teresa Delgado
  • Abner Biberman … Charlie How-Come
  • Tuulikki Paananen … Consuelo Contreras (as Tula Parma)
  • Ben Bard … Roblos – the Police Chief

Technical details:

  • 66 minutes
  • Mono (RCA Sound System)
  • Black and White
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37: 1

Trivia:

The Leopard Man was made on a budget of $150,000.

The same black leopard (named “Dynamite”) used in Cat People in 1942 was brought back for this film.

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