STARRINGDennis O'Keefe - Jerry Manning
Margo - Clo-Clo
Jean Brooks - Kiki Walker
Isabel Jewell - Maria
Margo - Clo-Clo
Jean Brooks - Kiki Walker
Isabel Jewell - Maria
Year - 1943
Score - 2.5 Howls Outta 4
Have you ever seen those news programs about wild animals running loose in random neighborhoods? Bears terrorizing suburban homes! Wild coyotes running through private backyards! Lions attacking neighborhood children! Yeah, we hear about these things all the time. Usually, nothing truly horrible happens when these wild animals are out and about in our so-called civilization. But what if they did? What would you do? THE LEOPARD MAN, the third and final film by Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton [who were also responsible for the classic CAT PEOPLE and the very good I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE], tries to do just that. Unfortunately, it doesn't succeed as well as I'm sure Tourneur and Lewton wish it would.
PLOTIn New Mexico, manager Jerry Manning (Dennis O'Keefe) brings a black leopard (Dynamite - the same leopard used in CAT PEOPLE) to singer Kiki Walker (Jean Brooks) for publicity purposes. Kiki brings the leopard to a nightclub, where flamenco dancer Clo-Clo (Margo) is doing an act. Resenting the fact that the leopard has taken away the attention from her, Clo-Clo scares the leopard into running away. Now with the leopard on the loose, mostly everyone in town is on edge. It gets worse when a young girl coming from the store is murdered after the leopard chases after her. Several other people are killed soon after. Is this once-gentle leopard now killing people in the town? Or is there some copycat serial killer on the loose using the leopard's M.O.?
REVIEWBased on the book "Black Alibi" by Cornell Woolrich, THE LEOPARD MAN suffers from a case of identity crisis. It's torn with either being a mystery of who-done-it or a horrifying thriller. Neither one actually works because while the mystery isn't too mysterious [I figured it out pretty quickly] and it's not exactly thrilling or scary either. Sure, there's this feeling of paranoia and claustrophobia through the entire film, but that's about it. And it's also pretty obvious who's gonna die since the victims are introduced right before they croak. But at least the murders are discreet, giving the audience the opportunity to imagine how the victims die. All we see is the victims' terrified reactions and the end results. This will probably turn off modern horror fans who like their gore upfront and in-your-face. But I kind of liked that because it creates tension and suspense.
I think the most memorable scene from the film is the first murder. The young girl is forced out by her mother to buy her some cornmeal at the middle of the night, even though she knows the girl is afraid of the dark. The mother even locks the door just so the girl can't come back inside unless she has cornmeal with her. The girl has to go under a dark bridge to get the cornmeal and then go back under it, afraid both times. That's when she confronts the leopard, who chases her back home. Unable to enter, the girl screams for her life while her mother refuses to let her in. But after a few moments, the mother realizes that the girl isn't playing around and desperately tries to open the locked door. But it's too late, as blood runs underneath the front door, showing her fate.
We don't see the actual murder take place, but just hearing the girl scream and the blood trickle underneath the door is pretty frightening. This was really extreme back in the 1940s, where scenes of blood and murder were taboo on the screen. And with the low budget Tourneur and Lewton had to work with, it's quite effective as it's really the only murder sequence that we actually feel for. The other murder scenes lack the sympathy level needed for them to be effective, which is why the fear factor isn't evident. That's why CAT PEOPLE worked and this film almost doesn't.
Jacques Tourneur directs the film okay here, although it's no where the caliber of his job with CAT PEOPLE. While there's a slight bit of tension and atmosphere, the film isn't exactly linear. The leads of the film are barely in the film. Instead we're focused mostly on Margo's Clo-Clo character, who while spunky, is also quite annoying as a wannabe diva. And what was up with that love scene with the two leads anyway? It came out of nowhere for whatever reason and nothing was done with it afterwards. We also get long ass scenes of useless exposition, musical numbers don't do add up to anything, and transitions from a group of characters to another group of characters without any connection until one character is murdered. Tourneur tries to keep it all together through his visual storytelling, but it only leads to confusion and a sense of misdirection. There are some themes like religion and psychology that add intrigue to the film, but nothing is done with it. I blame the screenplay more than the direction for that, but even a good director needs to make the film visually interesting even if the story is lacking. It doesn't happen here, which makes what could have been a really great film into just an above-average one.
The acting was decent too. No one really stands out really except for Margo's Clo-Clo. She dances, she's a gold digger, and she's paranoid over the death card that her buddy fortune teller keeps picking out for her. While she's only a secondary supporting character, she's the only one with enough personality that we actually care about watching. And when she's not on-screen, the film becomes a bit dull actually. Everyone else did fine with what they were given, but Margo is really the star of the film.
THE FINAL HOWL
THE LEOPARD MAN is disappointing compared to CAT PEOPLE and even I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. There's no cohesive story and the terror and mystery is lacking. However, the film looks beautiful and sounds great for a low-budget movie. And the direction and acting isn't so bad. Not a classic by any means, but it's a lot better than I was expecting due to the title. Just beware of giant cats in your neighborhood. These big pussies don't play!