Column: The Vault of Secrets: The Leopard Man (1943)

By Orrin Grey

The Leopard Man (1943). Directed by: Jacques Tourneur. Starring: Dennis O’Keefe, Jean Brooks & Margo.

Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. Tonight’s film is the last (and least) of three collaborations between producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur for RKO Pictures, following hot on the heels of The Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie.

Lewton and Tourneur are both responsible (collectively and separately) for some of the greatest classics of suggestion in the canon of horror cinema. Few people ever made better use of the deep, rich shadows afforded by the black-and-white format. While it might be a stretch to say that there’s not a single misfire in the Val Lewton Horror Collection (I’ve been called out before on Ghost Ship), it’s true that both men (and their crews at RKO) were adept at “transforming cheap, underlit sets into the stuff of nightmares, where every darkened nook housed a potential menace” (from the TCM Archives), thus keeping the audience off-balance and on-edge, all achieved without jumpy modern editing techniques or any sudden “Boo!” moments. And while The Leopard Man never attains the heights of either gentleman’s best features, it’s still a worthy addition to the filmographies of both.

One of the things Lewton and Tourneur knew how to do best was use shadows and darkness to their advantage. You can see this in The Leopard Man, in shots of darkened alleys and railway bridges, and in the play of shadows on the walls (especially in the first scene in the funeral parlor). Also, like most of Val Lewton’s movies, music plays a major part in building the suspense, especially the castanet-heavy score by prolific composer and Lewton stalwart Roy Webb.

Loosely adapted from the noir novel, Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich (author of Rear Window, among others), the title was changed to The Leopard Man to capitalize on the success of previous Lewton/Tourneur collaboration The Cat People. As with most of Lewton’s films, the title is misleading, and the finished product is much more psychological and less pulpy than the title or the taglines (“Don’t Be Afraid to Know the Truth about the Monster that Killed for a Thrill!”) would suggest.

Probably the only time that The Leopard Man approaches the high points of either of its predecessors is in its best and most famous sequence, the one leading up to the first death. The eerie shots of deserted sets, the slowly escalating tension broken by a brief moment in the brightly lit grocer’s shop, end with a death made infinitely more chilling by being just out of sight beyond a locked door, as the victim’s mother and brother try desperately to open it and come to her rescue.

Though the film never quite manages to reach that particular peak again, it’s full of other sharp moments and great shots. Even the often-dismissed final sequence, in which hooded monks bearing candles walk across an obviously fake desert backdrop, seems to me to be somehow creepier thanks to its clear theatricality than it would have been if the same shot had been done on a more convincing set.

That’s it for tonight’s program, but join us next time when we check out a (thankfully) lesser-known entry in the Roger Corman/Vincent Price Poe film saga.