Revisiting the shades of fear in ‘The Leopard Man’
We’ve all been there.
There’s a noise behind us.
A rustling of bushes.
Or a movement in a dark street corner.
Is someone there? We casually walk a little faster while telling ourselves it’s just our imagination – or is it?
Yes, we’ve all been there (admit it, guys) and that’s why a similar scenario playing out in a movie feels so real.
I was reminded of this recently after stumbling on the 1943 film The Leopard Man on TV. It had already started and the atmospheric scene that was unfolding caught my attention.
A young woman named Teresa, on an errand for her mother, is anxiously walking through an arroyo at night. The wind picks up and it sounds like someone – or something – is walking behind her. She knows a leopard is on the loose and she hesitates and turns. The sound reveals itself to be, of all things, a tumbleweed. But there’s not relief on her face, only fear.
I have felt that uneasiness while walking alone on an unfamiliar street or through a parking lot at night so I kept watching.
It wasn’t just because I could identify with the “little girl who’s afraid of the dark,” as she was called when she reached the shop to buy corn meal.
Nor did I watch to learn what was going on. I had seen the film and knew it was about murders in a small New Mexico town that are blamed on an escaped leopard.
The Leopard Man is one of three movies made by Lewton and Tourneur who were known for creating gorgeous, psychological horror films told through a poetic lens.
Their three films also required viewers to use their imaginations. The monsters – or whatever they were – weren’t seen, but their presence was felt and in a very terrifying way.
In Caligari’s Children The Film as Tale of Terror, author S.S. Prawer fittingly described Tourneur as being among the directors who “liked to work through suggestions that allowed the audience to piece together what they had only half-seen with their own horrendous imaginings.”
Here’s how it started.
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RKO was going through a rough time with the fox office disappointments of its mysteries, detective stories and even Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. The studio asked Lewton to head a new horror division with three prerequisites: His budget was limited to $150,000, the films could not be longer than 75 minutes, and he had to work from a title that was audience tested. (He would have to figure out a story to match.) To save money, Lewton also had to utilize what the studio already had on hand, like sets and contract players. His salary was reported to be a paltry $250 a week.
RKO was expecting B-movies; the films it received deserved an A.
The first was Cat People (1942) starring Simone Simon as a bride who believes she is a descendant of an ancient tribe of cat people. It became an instant hit and earned $4 million on its way to becoming RKO’s biggest moneymaker of the year.
Lewton and Tourneur used their winning formula again in 1943 with I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man. (Lewton would also produce The Seventh Victim and The Ghost Ship that year with other directors – he worked fast.)
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The Leopard Man is based on the novel Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich. The screenplay was credited to Ardel Wray with dialogue by Edward Dein, but Lewton was involved, too. He cut down the number of characters, increased the role of the dancer Clo-Clo and changed the setting from South America to New Mexico.
A promoter named Jerry Manning (played by Dennis O’Keefe) “rents” a leopard to gain attention for his client/girlfriend Kiki Walker (Jean Brooks).
Of course, it’s a terrible idea. Kiki enters the night club in a black gown that matches the leopard she has on a leash. The audience is aghast but Clo-Clo (played by Margo) sees through the stunt and scares the leopard away with her castanets. (The sound of the castanets is brilliantly used to unnerve viewers – and characters – throughout the film.)
This is where the film becomes a mystery, thriller and horror noir (watch the play of light and shadows throughout the movie) as the murders begins.
First, it’s young Teresa on her fateful journey. Jerry and Kiki feel guilty that their publicity stunt leads to her death, but that’s only the start. (Guilt is a big theme here that will also be felt by Teresa’s mother, a shop keeper and others throughout the town.)
Consuelo (Tula Parma) is taking her birthday flowers to her father’s grave at a cemetery where she’s also sneaking off to meet her boyfriend. Lost in thought, she gets locked in (it has a stone wall surrounding it) and we follow a scene eerily reminiscent of Teresa in the arroyo.
As she frantically searches for a way out, a howling wind picks up, moving every bush and tree as if there is something in them. “Let me out,” Consuelo screams recalling Teresa’s cries for her mother to “let me in.”
Tourneur moves our imaginations again as leaves begin to swirl, a long tree branch slowly drops down like there is a weight on it and then it violently snaps back into the air. There are screams.
When Consuelo and the cemetery keeper are found dead, everything points to the leopard: claw marks on the tree as if it descended the branches, leaves on the ground (they don’t fall this time of year, we’re told), and hair and a claw found near the bodies.
Charlie, the cat’s keeper (he travels in a wagon with the words “Charlie How-Come The Leopard Man” on the side), insists his leopard is innocent. “Cats don’t go looking for trouble,” Charlie says.
Manning doesn’t buy it either. Why is the cat lingering around town and going after people instead of fleeing to the safety of the wilderness?
But our scientist and historian Dr. Galbraith (played by James Bell) has other ideas. “Caged animals are unpredictable, they’re like frustrated human beings.”
We’ll hear a few conversations like this between Manning, Galbraith and the authorities. Manning doubts the cat is the killer and wonders if a man could kill like this; Galbraith shares his scholarly knowledge of cats (the personification of force and violence) and men like Bluebeard and Jack the Ripper who killed for strange pleasure. The cops just want to find the killer cat before it kills again. Too late.
Clo-Clo should have listened when fortune teller Maria kept drawing the “death card,” warning that something black was coming for her.
On another of those atmospheric and tense night walks that this film does so well, Clo-Clo eventually arrives home (whew!) but realizes she lost money and runs back into the night.
This next intense scene could be inserted into almost any noir. The wet street, which was busy with cars and people just a few minutes earlier, is now empty except for lights and shadows. There is a sound like shuffling footsteps behind Clo-Clo. The camera focuses on her face with only her eyes visible. Her initial fear briefly changes to a smile and she begins to apply lipstick. Suddenly there is a realization on her face and she drops the lipstick. Again, there are screams.
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The Leopard Man has historically been considered some type of ugly sister to the two extraordinary films that came before it: Cat People and I Walked with Zombie. That’s hard to fathom with the unusual beauty found throughout the film in images such as puddles reflecting on a young girl’s face, shadows painting the background and a smoldering cigarette burning on the street.
Too much, you think? Would you believe director William Friedkin, who was also captivated by the imagery?
Let’s go back to that early scene of Teresa. Now clutching the bag of corn meal on her way home, she timidly walks into a short tunnel under a train bridge. The silence is only interrupted by soft drips of water. Then comes the “Lewton Bus,” named after what is considered the first jump-scare in movies. It was created by editor Mark Robson for Cat People in the famous scene where the quiet tension of a woman being stalked at night is shattered by the unexpected hiss of bus brakes.
As used in The Leopard Man, the “Lewton Bus” is a train traveling over the tracks that brings a high-pitched sound and a very noirish flashing display of light and shadow. Then it quickly falls quiet and Teresa steps into the open where the real horror is waiting.
The scene ends with her screaming outside her home for her Mamacita. But the lock is stuck, and her mother and little brother are too late. Blood seeps under the door, filling the grout lines of the tile at their feet. In typical Lewton-Tourneur style, we don’t see what’s on the other side of the door, but we can imagine and that’s just as horrifying.
Friedkin holds The Leopard Man in such high regard, that he made an audio commentary for it. He called this sequence – from Teresa’s walk to the blood pooling on the floor – “a strange journey that will lead to what I believe is one of the greatest horror sequences ever filmed.”
High praise from the man who directed The Exorcist.
– Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub
Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever and is a member of the Classic Movie Blog Association. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.