Val Lewton was well-known for taking ludicrous titles and crafting a narrative from there. In the case of Cat People or I Walked With a Zombie, the acting and storyline mined those titles for psychological significance. But you can’t expect lightening to hit every time, and thus you get films like The Ghost Ship and The Leopard Man. The latter always had a lot riding against it; was Lewton going to create a male version of Cat People, or some type of experimental monster/human hybrid? For all his and director Jacques Tourneur’s attempts to craft an intense psychological story, The Leopard Man looks and feels cheap and undercooked.
A publicity stunt goes awry when the tamed leopard accompanying burgeoning actress Kiki Walker (Jean Brooks) gets loose and runs into the city. When a spate of murdered women start popping up, the leopard is blamed…but is it really the leopard?
Lewton’s films never starred big names nor did they come with a huge influx of cash, but considering this is between Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People you have to wonder what was going on. Did this film’s failure necessitate Lewton returning to the well, so to speak, with something that had worked previously? The Leopard Man’s New Mexico sets look cheap and lackluster with a hacienda here or there, but predominately appearing like any other major street on the backlot. Furthermore, the lack of chemistry, tenacity, or passion from stars Brooks, Dennis O’Keefe, and Margo showcase why they aren’t better known names. There’s just something missing; a feeling that the producer and his director had run out of ideas or had bit off more than they could chew with trying to make a story out of the title “the leopard man.”
There is a great opening to this film, and it’s a shame the film can’t sustain the fear of those first fifteen minutes. Lewton’s repertory leopard, Dynamite, returns after Cat People, and is given a few minutes of front and center appreciation before he’s scared off by the jealous Clo-Clo (Margo). With panic racing through the town a young girl is afraid of leaving her house for fear of being attacked…there is a leopard on the loose after all! The classic movie tropes are out in abundance as the girl walks in the dark to the store, gets what she needs, and finds there’s something lurking in the shadows. As she races back home her idiotic mother, who locked her daughter out before she left, can’t open the door to let her back in. The audience is left to hear the girl’s plaintive cries for help….before a trickle of blood seeps under the door. That scene alone is packed with emotion and horror, leaving much to the audience’s imagination.
Unfortunately, after that, the movie doesn’t leave anything to the imagination because there’s nothing to see! The remaining murders leave the camera on incidental objects, a cigarette or a moving tree, and that’s it. I’m not saying we always need blood showing, but something beyond a stationary object would yield a better reaction. The script toys with questions of whether it’s man or beast committing the crimes. There’s talk of the leopard’s owner fearing he is turning into a murderer while drunk which conjures up comparisons to Cat People. Thankfully, the movie refrains from outright copying the preceding film, but there’s nothing particularly interesting about who the killer actually is. It’s a character you never notice, fine for a red herring, but you don’t want to create a murderer who audiences thinks was thought of in the last second. I had to ask someone who the character was because he’s so nondescript. This is allegedly the first serial killer presented on film, and I guess we have Lewton to thank for creating the trope of killing off women, although the virgin/whore dynamic isn’t here.
Although the cast is rather unremarkable, Margo is worthy of praise as being a discount Rita Hayworth, clacking her castanets from beginning to end. Better known as Eddie Albert’s wife, Margo takes a vengeful character and creates something genuine through a lone scene of her interacting with a little girl alluded to be her daughter. It’s rather shocking how underdeveloped all the characters are, but we’re given a glimpse into Clo-Clo’s home life and her reasons for being so tenacious in her pursuit of acting – making money for her child – only to have her violently die.
The Leopard Man isn’t the worst Val Lewton film I’ve experienced (that goes to The Ghost Ship), but there’s moments of human interaction, but it lacks overall. Despite a strong opening of intense fear, the rest of the movie is quick, mish-mashed and weak.
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