“The real horror is to show that we all live unconsciously in fear. Many people suffer today from a fear that they don’t begin to analyze and which is constant. When the audience is in the dark and recognizes its own insecurity in that of the characters of the film, then you can show unbelievable situations and be sure that the audience will follow.” – Jacques Tourneur
The place: Santa Fe, New Mexico. The time: 1943. An ambitious promoter (Dennis O’Keefe) borrows a panther from a local circus owner (Abner Biberman) in an effort to jazz up a dull nightclub act and upstage the local talent (Margo). However, events take a dire turn during the ill-conceived publicity stunt when the frightened animal gets loose and begins terrorizing the town. After the mutilated bodies of beautiful young women begin piling up, the promoter, along with his star and lover (Jean Brooks), become amateur detectives in order to help authorities track down the big cat. But is the panther responsible for the murders? Or is there another, more nefarious suspect hiding in the shadows?
THE LEOPARD MAN (‘43) is an unusual noir-horror hybrid produced by Val Lewton, directed by Jacques Tourneur and based on a crime thriller written by Cornell Woolrich. It has often been described as a disjointed and fragmented film. Even Tourneur himself complained that it was, “Too exotic, it was neither fish nor fowl: a series of vignettes and it didn’t hold together.” Despite these criticisms, the patchy narrative is incredibly effective due to the way it accentuates the role of the victims and allows viewers to get to know them, no matter how briefly, so we can deeply sympathize with their tragic ends.
Though there is some attempt to position the promoter and his star as the main protagonists, there are no clear-cut heroes in THE LEOPARD MAN. In fact, the fair-haired couple are the blandest characters in the film and are arguably responsible for the horrors unleashed on the largely Hispanic community. In this regard, the film can be appreciated as an indictment against colonialism given that it positions the white entertainers as invaders who bring death and economic ruin to the poor Hispanics they encounter. As critic and film historian Chris Fujiwara astutely points out in Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall, “The heroes of Tourneur’s three films for Val Lewton are normal, uncomplicated North Americans who become embroiled in doubt, guilt and moral ambiguity through contact with foreign cultures … in THE LEOPARD MAN, the Anglo visitors from the East bring terror and violence with them, unconsciously imitating the conquistadors whose slaughter of the town’s indigenous population is recalled by the procession of the penitents in the last section of the film.”
The gloomy Catholic procession that Fujiwara describes takes place during the film’s climax and it is just one of the many macabre set pieces that make up THE LEOPARD MAN. Another remarkable moment that has often been singled out by critics involves the murder of a nervous teenage girl forced to fetch cornmeal so her mother can make tortillas for dinner despite the threat of a prowling panther. The girl’s fear is palpable as her eyes search the darkness for signs of the big cat that remains hidden in the shadows.
My favorite scene involves a cheerful señorita celebrating her birthday who visits her father’s grave but lingers too long and is locked inside the walled-in cemetery by a negligent caretaker. As night falls the marble monuments and decaying crypts appear particularly ominous while the wild flora seems to engulf the hallow grounds. The place is transformed into a terrifying prison cloaked in a dim gloom and accompanied by strange unsettling sounds that suggest the young woman’s demise is inescapable. She is doomed to spend eternity with her dead father in this gloomy place.
THE LEOPARD MAN is often described as “the first serial-killer film” and credited as a forerunner of the giallo and slasher genres but it had many predecessors including THE LODGER (‘27), M (‘31), DR. X (‘32), NIGHT MUST FALL (‘37) and SHADOW OF A DOUBT (‘43), which was released 5-months earlier. But what sets THE LEOPARD MAN apart is the way it accentuates the shocking aspects of every murder that occurs. Each death is presented as a nightmarish tableau and we’re allowed to experience the horrors perpetrated on each victim as if we were firsthand witnesses. A similar kind of dramatic staging became popular in Italian thrillers by director’s such as Mario Bava, Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci and was further explored by American filmmakers including Bob Clark, John Carpenter and Brian De Palma.
By rejecting the Gothic trappings of classic Universal horror films and setting THE LEOPARD MAN in 1940s New Mexico with its nightclubs, exotic dancers, smoky side streets and dark alleys, it often seems to share more in common with Jacques Tourneur’s noirs such as OUT OF THE PAST (‘47) or NIGHTFALL (‘57). This is largely due to the source novel by Cornell Woolrich, who wrote many crime thrillers that became popular films including NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES (‘48), REAR WINDOW (‘54) and THE BRIDE WORE BLACK (‘68). The noir flourishes make this somewhat of an anomaly among the three pictures Tourneur made with Val Lewton but like CAT PEOPLE (‘42) and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (‘43) before it, the mounting suspense and overwhelming dread are unmistakable. There is no escape from the genuine horrors Tourneur and Lewton unleash in THE LEOPARD MAN