The Leopard Man (1943)

*. Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur are names to conjure with, but their quality output was actually pretty meager. I don’t give either a free pass for substandard work, and despite its odd moments (a Val Lewton movie always has odd moments) The Leopard Man is a bad movie.
*. As I see it, there are three items worth talking about: the structure, the first killing, and the killer.
*. The structure is very odd, and often remarked upon, quite usually critically. For such a short movie (only just over an hour) it spends an inordinate amount of time introducing characters who are only going to be victims. The different threads are smoothly, even elegantly, woven together on the street. For example, when Clo-Clo tries to steal a flower she ends up being given one by Consuelo’s maid, which effects a narrative hand-off that takes us into the birthday girl’s mansion. The camera also picks up Teresa in a similar way.
*. But do we really want to know so much about Consuela? I guess the argument could be made that her story introduces Raoul, who will have a role to play at the end, but there seems to be too much of her. And why do we go on for so long with Clo-Clo’s seduction of a sugar daddy at the club? Is all of that supposed to make us identify with her more? We’re to understand she’s OK because even though she’s a gold-digger she loves her little sister and wants to get married to her real sweetheart some day?
*. On the DVD commentary William Friedkin does his best to defend this patchwork presentation, finding the movie’s construction “postmodern” (specifically prefiguring Pulp Fiction). In theory, he may have a point. Unfortunately, none of these digressions are particularly interesting and we aren’t introduced to any characters worth knowing more about.
*. The other defence Friedkin gives of the film’s structure is that “the enemy of the horror film is coherence.” In his view, things shouldn’t be explained: they should be left mysterious, possessing the illogic of a nightmare. Again, an interesting point that may be true in theory but that doesn’t work here because incoherence isn’t pursued as an aesthetic end but only seems to be the product of a rushed job.

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*. The death of the girl Teresa who is locked out of her house is artfully done, but I’m not sure it’s that great a scene and it’s undercut by the profound silliness of her mamacita and little brother being unable to unlock their door from the inside. I guess the latch is broken, but it’s a ridiculous excuse used to make the scene work and reminded me of the way poor Jamie Lee Curtis finds herself locked inside the house in Halloween. I’m still not sure how on earth that happened, as no explanation is given. I think Carpenter just wanted Laurie to be trapped, much as Lewton here didn’t want Teresa’s mamacita to be able to open the damn door because then he wouldn’t have had that nice shot of the blood flowing under it.
*. The Lewton “bus” of the train going over Teresa’s head when she’s walking through the arroyo is effective though, and provides the film with its one jump.
*. The final point worth addressing is the serial killer. Hollywood didn’t know what to do with such creatures yet. Galbraith is, in theory (I say that again!), an interesting example of the type: a refined, pipe-smoking intellectual who is somehow triggered by the panther’s killing of Teresa into becoming a bloodthirsty maniac. It’s also very clever that he’s the one cast in the role of explaining the psychology of the serial killer to the hero.

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*. I wish Raoul had given him more time to explain himself, but the censors probably wouldn’t have stood for any more given the sexual direction his mea culpa was heading in. It was 1943 and movies, at least Hollywood movies, weren’t quite ready to go there yet. Instead he is just another ball being juggled by the fountain, unable to understand the demonic forces surging and bubbling beneath him.
*. Yes, that’s the same black panther as in Cat People. Lewton was going to get value out of “Dynamite.” I don’t know if it’s really a leopard though. Wouldn’t it more likely be a black jaguar? They’re the American version.
*. I wonder what Lewton’s fascination with statues was. They figure in almost all of his movies. There’s another prominent one here in the cemetery. Is it just that he thought they made good thematic props?
*. Yes, this was a very cheap film, made very quickly. But unlike Lewton’s and Tourneur’s previous RKO thriller collaborations (Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie) this one really gives the feeling of being an industrial product turned out without a lot of care or thought. Indeed, the street and sidewalk, the dominant image throughout, seemed to take on the look of an assembly line, moving the characters along their various stations of the cross, culminating in the funereal procession at the end.

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