At the encouragement of her manager, a nightclub performer in New Mexico (Kiki Walker) takes a leashed leopard into the club as a publicity gimmick. But her rival, angered by the attempt to upstage, scares the animal and it bolts. In the days that follow, people are mauled and the countryside is combed for the loose creature. But Kiki and her manager begin to wonder if maybe the leopard is not responsible for the killings.
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 ... Chief Roblos
I think 'The Leopard Man' is the most memorable and frightening of the three Lewton-Tourneur collaborations. While it may be more straightforward than 'I Walked With a Zombie' or 'Cat People,' it's more atmospheric and more effective because its chills are predicated on agoraphobic horror. 'I Walked With a Zombie' was confined to a tropical island setting, while 'The Leopard Man' takes place in a New Mexico border town, on the edge of town, so that we travel along the desolate and wide open spaces of the sleepy Southwest at nighttime.
Early in the film, a young Mexican girl is sent on a late-night errand by her mother to buy some tortilla. Being that the shop is closed, she must traverse the sandy expanse between town and the nearest open shop. During this trek, she must pass under a bridge, and the shadows and sounds that stalk her are terrifying. Recalling this scene, right now, gives me goosebumps.
Horror is the most cinematic of all genres, because it works directly on the viewer's emotions and fears, using atmosphere, sound, and montage as its tools. Most horror films are either exploitative or slick and empty, unfortunately, but to watch 'The Leopard Man' is to encounter the full potential of the horror genre, as Tourneur paints with shadows and not entrails. Forgive its plot holes and its lunkheaded denouement, because the journey there is a hair-raising walk in the dark.
After their success in 1942 with the fabulous 'Cat People', the star team of producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur would team up twice the year later. First for the compelling and brilliant 'I Walked With a Zombie', and second for this film; The Leopard Man. For the movie, the two filmmakers re-cast the star of their first success, the big black leopard, in this movie, who once again plays a big black leopard. The screenplay this time round makes far better use of the animal at the centre of the film, which allows the impressive creature to make a much bigger impression on the movie, and it also gives the film a unique edge over other horror movies, as there aren't a great deal that can build around a leopard. In fact, one thing that struck me about this movie was it's similarity to the 1980's remake of Cat People, and I wonder just how much influence that film took from this production. Anyway, the story here is deliriously simple and it follows a leopard that has escaped from a nightclub. After a few deaths, the cat is blamed...but is there more to this scenario than meets the eye?
Just like Val Lewton's earlier and later productions, The Leopard Man is notable for it's breathtaking atmosphere, which is once again up there with the greatest ever seen in cinema. The use of shadows and lighting is impressive, and when you combine this with Jacques Tourneur's incredible ability to stage a scene amidst this atmosphere; you've got a recipe for a truly great horror movie. This movie isn't as full of great scenes as Cat People was, but there is still some really good stuff on display, including my favourite scene which sees someone mauled behind a closed door. I'm not a big subscriber to the idea of 'less is more', but the scene I just mentioned goes to show just how well it can work if utilised properly. If the film had directly shown the killing, it would have uprooted the atmosphere and the terror of the movie on the whole wouldn't have been as astute. As it happens, The Leopard Man has got it spot on. But then again, would you expect anything less from a Val Lewton production?
A far better than average early film from the Val Lewton unit, The Leopard Man is as much murder mystery as horror picture. It is set in a New Mexico town where there are some weird goings on, including, among other things, big cat attacks. The photography is exceptional, moving from subjective to documentary-style objective without drastically altering the tone of the picture. What horror there is comes more from a sense of dread than anything that actually happens; also from the eerie feeling that certain places are unlucky, that some people are bound to die simply because of where they are. How true.
The star players are somewhat dull, but the supporting cast is quite good. And the merging and sometime colliding of the Anglo, Hispanic and Indian cultures is nicely presented. There is a sense of primitive feeling, of old religion, throughout the film, implied rather than stated, that is beyond the grasp of the hyper-rational lead players. We can catch this mood in fits and starts, but like the major characters, it eludes our grasp. Jacques Tourneur's direction is masterful every step of the way; and he uses music sensually yet emphatically, and the result is a fine-tuned film. It's major flaw is the revelation of the culprit, yet once Tourneur accepted the script's limitations he works superbly within them. The best thing about the movie is that its most crucial events happen mostly off-screen, leaving a good deal to our imaginations. And the minimalist script leaves a great deal in the dark, and even after the picture's florid, almost surreal climax, the air of mystery lingers. There are loose ends for sure, but Tourneur's polite, civilized touch dresses them up to appear profound and suggestive rather than threadbare, and the result is a pleasing conclusion that does not quite give the whole thing away; and we are left wanting to know just a little bit more. Tourneur was a true master.
Is Jacques Tourneur the laziest director ever? He let the audience do all the work. At least he did when making little suspense programmers under producer Val Lewton, who headed RKO's second-feature unit in the wartime 1940s. Hamstrung by parsimonious budgets, they racked their brains for ways to make their movies look good and pack a wallop. Their solutions proved inspired, resulting in a string of classics – The Cat People, The Leopard Man, I Walked With A Zombie – that still rank among the moodiest, most memorable fright-films ever made (with different directors, Lewton oversaw The Seventh Victim and other distinctive works in the same vein). With The Leopard Man, Tourneur was handed a script that showed little promise; when he was finished with it, it shone with his distinctive black magic. That magic was to suggest rather than to show; to plant seeds in viewers' imaginations and let them grow.