Monday, October 16, 2017

The Leopard Man (1943) is another Lewton film I will definitely be giving a far more substantial treatment in the future. It deserves more recognition than it gets, but when you follow Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, that might be difficult. That shadow is quite all-encompassing, but I think when all the films are given screen time during Lewton marathons The Leopard Man someday might just get a little of the shine. But I will give it some love this evening. It was my late afternoon movie on Monday. I had previously watched the most popular, most renowned of the Lewton productions with Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie on Saturday, and was quite anticipating today’s viewing of The Leopard Man. Teenage Teresa (Margaret Landry) walking to get some cornmeal for her domineering mother knowing that her daughter is afraid of the dark (and the daughter informs her mother of the leopard accidentally set loose on their Mexican village) is one of those gulp-in-the-throat sequences that doesn’t depend on loud sound effects seeking jump scares or a thundering sound design specifically noising you out of your seat. It is about the quiet, what is out there in the dark somewhere. It is about a worried girl looking into the black under the bridge where visibility is denied. It isn’t until she approaches it closer that the leopard can be seen, just emerging in pursuit after the teenager loses her meal as she stumbles to the ground. The tragedy of it all is a mother who doesn’t take seriously her daughter’s fear and have the presence of mind and heart to recognize that sending her out into the dark could not only be traumatic but dangerous. Remember the leopard’s presence in town is told to the mother and yet she doesn’t take that threat seriously. She locks the door to her daughter to teach her a lesson and the results are blood pooling under the crack of her stuck-latch door. Jerry (Dennis O’Keefe) is a publicity man for showbiz entertainer, Kiki (Jean Brooks), hoping to get her some attention through the use of a leopard borrowed from her owner, also an entertainer. It seems that this town has a lot of Americans looking to achieve success. The leopard (conjuring memories of Cat People) gets free from Kiki when dancer, Clo-Clo (Margo), and her clicking hand instruments (this is her musical routine to accompany her flexible dancing techniques) scare it away. But when other victims turn up (lovely Consuelo on her birthday while visiting her father’s grave, Clo-Clo when out walking back home on the street), and they appear to be similar leopard attacks, the police feel the clinch to locate the missing animal…but Jerry believes it isn’t a leopard but a psycho on the loose. Included in the cast is Dr. Gilbraith (James Bell), running a museum in the town with expertise in the darker aspects of human history. Jerry picks Gilbraith’s brain on the possibilities of a human with a “few kinks in the brain” perhaps being responsible, questioning the behavior of a leopard in the later attacks. The police chief (Ben Bard) and even Gilbraith aren’t altogether convinced although Charlie How-Come (Abner Biberman), owner of the leopard, considers the idea, requesting to be locked up. A “day of the dead” type of procession where a confrontation between Kiki (volunteering for Jerry to be bait for the killer) and the echoing reminder of Clo-Clo’s hand-clicking music could very well be the deciding factor is breaking the killer into potential confession. Although I think Teresa’s night walk and inability to escape thanks to her mom’s latching the home door is the film’s best scene, Clo-Clo’s return home, only to go back for money she accidentally dropped on the sidewalk, after “the cards” (fortune tellers continue to draw the “death card” from the deck) tell her of a bleak future, sure is a close second. The cemetery, which has a concrete wall that encircles it, reaching up quite high, closed on Consuelo as she begs to be let out (the watcher of the cemetery tells her to be out by 6 and he even sounds out a tune to her which she seems to, at first, not hear) is not a shabby third sequence, either. All three show director Tourneur is a master at getting the most out of implied visual cues and the foreknowledge that a dangerous cat is on the loose (and, even scarier, a psychopath mimicking a leopard). Like when Consuelo is waiting on someone on the other side of the cemetery wall for help and seeing a predator…all Tourneur does is shake a tree branch and Consuelo scream. Clo-Clo drops her lipstick and her clicking is no more. Teresa stomps on her mother’s latched door, begging to get in, until the deafening silence of her fists stop. And all of this after the sun sets, the streets go silent, and, in the dark of night, the women find themselves alone. The Leopard Man might be a bit slight in its running time (barely over 60 minutes), and the killer is rather revealed (or hinted at loudly) about thirty minutes in, Tourneur’s contribution in the Lewton canon is nonetheless a stunner.

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