A Movie A Day: THE LEOPARD MAN (1943) Let me in! Let me in! If you love me, let me in!!!
Published at: Oct. 17, 2009, 3:44 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the newest October special horror run of A Movie A Day!
[For the entirety of October I will be showcasing one horror film each day. Every film is pulled from my DVD shelf, recorded on the home DVR or streamed via Instant Netflix and will be one I haven’t seen. Unlike my usual A Movie A Day or A Movie A Week columns there won’t necessarily be connectors between each film, but you’ll more than likely see patterns emerge day to day. At the end of each standard AMAD I’m going to include a recommendation of a genre film that is either one of my personal favorites or too good of a double feature with the AMAD title to pass up a mention.]
You couldn’t make THE LEOPARD MAN today. Hell, from what I understand, producer Val Lewton almost couldn’t make it back in the ‘40s.
I know the Val Lewton catalogue is owned and in some kind of remake queue and I hope they never get greenlit and here’s why: Any true reinterpretation that would get the point of Lewton’s films would never, ever get made in the studio system.
Case in point, today’s movie. If they made THE LEOPARD MAN today not only would it be filled with CGI, graphically showing the mauling and corpses, but it’d also actually have a leopard man in it.
On a certain level it is frustrating to have a movie with the title THE LEOPARD MAN and not actually have any kind of transforming creature, but if you’ve seen a Val Lewton film before you should expect that by now.
Directed by frequent Lewton collaborator Jacques Tourneur (CAT PEOPLE and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) THE LEOPARD MAN fits very well in with Lewton’s work of extremely well executed and often cerebral horror thrillers. These films are class acts all the way.
There’s a scene in THE LEOPARD MAN that still works as strongly today as it did back then, even for a guy who grew up on graphic hack ‘n slashers, where a young girl (Margaret Landry) is sent out by her fed-up mother to get some cornmeal. The whole thing is one long build up.
A leopard walks the streets, having just escaped from a nightclub lounge act of all things, and this girl knows it, but her mom wants some damn tortillas so she shoos the terrified girl out the door as her asshole little brother taunts her with a pretty damn good shadow puppet.
Tourneur really puts the screws to us in the following few minutes as this poor girl walks the darkly shadowed, empty streets to the closest store. She finds it closed and the owner unwilling to reopen, so she has to walk even farther into the darkness, under train tracks… the whole works.
The whole time you’re waiting for the leopard to pounce out of some impossibly black shadow or around a horrible corner. Tourneur holds you for minutes, letting the girl get her cornmeal and almost get home before the cat shows up.
Strangely enough, it’s not the eventual killing that gets to you, but how it happens. The girl actually makes it home, but her mom won’t let her in right away, upset that it took her so long, no matter how much she pleads. In actuality the mother killed her little girl. The leopard is only a force of nature. It’s the mother’s apathy that killed the girl.
That’s where the genius of Lewton and his stable of professionals comes into play, the key to their keen insight into horror. The suspense is fantastic, but the payoff is somehow more horrific than you expect. The girl was so close and could have been saved but for the unintentional cruelty of the one that is supposed to be her protector. That’s so fucked.
Jean Brooks and Dennis O’Keefe are our protagonists and, in fact, the reason for the leopard being loose. She’s the showgirl that lost control of the leash and he’s the manager that made her use the beast in the first place. Their guilt keeps them in town, searching for the cat as the bodies start popping up. The search turns from leopard to man as O’Keefe suspects the cat might not be responsible for a couple of the bodies.
Brooks and O’Keefe are fine, but the real stars of the movie are Jacques Tourneur, his cinematographer, Robert De Grasse, and screenwriter Ardel Wray. The movie is a compact 66 minutes long, but in that time frame they pack in so much character and detail and do it in a unique way. The camera will pick up new characters and move away from our leads, but they’re all tied together in one way or another. It’s really interesting and keeps the movie from lingering too long in any one place.
Final Thoughts: The Leopard Man might be a misleading title, but the film is great as long as you accept it on its own terms. There may not be a literal Leopard Man, but it’ll make sense when you get to the end. All you gotta do is sit back, enjoy the wonderful atmosphere, the gorgeous black and white photography and soak in the rich world that Tourneur and Co. crafted.
I actually had trouble coming up with a decent recommendation title. The best double feature is obviously Tourneur’s other feline collaboration with Val Lewton, 1942’s CAT PEOPLE, but I’ve already reviewed that film in my AMAD run. So, I whole-heartedly recommend that as the perfect double-feature for this movie, but my recommendation title will be a film I felt was vastly underrated upon its theatrical release. It’s also a movie that’ll scratch that killer cat itch you might have after watching the off-camera, 100% atmosphere horror of THE LEOPARD MAN.
It’s actually making me feel very old that THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS came out 13 years ago. I have vivid memories of downloading the trailer for this movie via a dial-up connection. Remember those days? It took around 50 minutes and the video was blocky and the size of a postage stamp.
And now I can just do a quick search, locate, copy & paste and voila!
I think I love this movie so much because it has such a JAWS feeling. It’s a character-driven movie where our leads are hunting a real life monster. There’s a grisly, cantankerous badass hunter leading the pursuit (in this case Michael Douglas instead of Robert Shaw), a nervous everyman (Val Kilmer instead of Roy Scheider) along for the ride, his worried wife at home with the kids (Emily Mortimer instead of Lorraine Gary) and a crooked businessman authority figure (Tom Wilkinson instead of Murray Hamilton).
Now, comparing this movie to JAWS has some dangers. It’s not as good, but then again in my eyes nothing is as good as JAWS. But so much came together to make this movie work.
One, you have a tight, fun script by master screenwriter William Goldman. Two, you have an amazing score from Jerry Goldsmith. Three, you have some gorgeous photography from the legend Vilmos Zsigmond. Four, you have some great looking animatronic lions from Stan Winston Studios.
I could keep counting, but that’s getting tiring for me… I can’t imagine it’s any better for you.
THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS refers to the two lions that terrorized the builders of a bridge in Africa in the late 1800s. The African and Indian workers are killed nightly by these two lions to the point where their legend is almost scarier than they are. They become more than big cats to the indigenous people, more the representation of supernatural evil.
While this movie is based on a true story I’m sure there was some cinematic tinkering, but the idea of lions that hunt for the thrill of it kind of scares the hell out of me.
When these two lions attack it gets bloody and visceral. These aren’t passive monsters, but skilled and thoughtful… dangerous. A bit like how Spielberg presented the raptors in Jurassic Park.
The movie is classy, with real deal Academy Award winning talent at every department and that shows through. We get these kind of “better than they should be” movies from the studios every once in a while. The big budget, epic period scope of the movie is a brilliant backdrop and you can’t go wrong with Michael Douglas chewing scenery like it’s a tough, but delicious steak.
Here are the next week’s worth of AMAD titles:
Friday, October 16th: WOLFEN (1981)
Saturday, October 17th: MADHOUSE (1981)
Sunday, October 18th: THE HOUSE WITH THE LAUGHING WINDOWS (1976)