Noir-Horror: THE LEOPARD MAN (‘43) by Kimberly Lindbergs
“The real horror is to show that we all live unconsciously in fear. Many people suffer today from a fear that they don’t begin to analyze and which is constant. When the audience is in the dark and recognizes its own insecurity in that of the characters of the film, then you can show unbelievable situations and be sure that the audience will follow.” – Jacques Tourneur
The place: Santa Fe, New Mexico. The time: 1943. An ambitious promoter (Dennis O’Keefe) borrows a panther from a local circus owner (Abner Biberman) in an effort to jazz up a dull nightclub act and upstage the local talent (Margo). However, events take a dire turn during the ill-conceived publicity stunt when the frightened animal gets loose and begins terrorizing the town. After the mutilated bodies of beautiful young women begin piling up, the promoter, along with his star and lover (Jean Brooks), become amateur detectives in order to help authorities track down the big cat. But is the panther responsible for the murders? Or is there another, more nefarious suspect hiding in the shadows?
THE LEOPARD MAN (‘43) is an unusual noir-horror hybrid produced by Val Lewton, directed by Jacques Tourneur and based on a crime thriller written by Cornell Woolrich. It has often been described as a disjointed and fragmented film. Even Tourneur himself complained that it was, “Too exotic, it was neither fish nor fowl: a series of vignettes and it didn’t hold together.” Despite these criticisms, the patchy narrative is incredibly effective due to the way it accentuates the role of the victims, allowing viewers to get to know them, no matter how briefly, so we can deeply sympathize with their tragic ends.
Though there is some attempt to position the promoter and his star as the main protagonists, there are no clear-cut heroes in THE LEOPARD MAN. In fact, the fair-haired couple are the blandest characters in the film and are arguably responsible for the horrors unleashed on the largely Hispanic community. In this regard, the film can be appreciated as an indictment against colonialism given that it positions the white entertainers as invaders who bring death and economic ruin to the poor Hispanics they encounter. As critic and film historian Chris Fujiwara astutely points out in Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall, “The heroes of Tourneur’s three films for Val Lewton are normal, uncomplicated North Americans who become embroiled in doubt, guilt and moral ambiguity through contact with foreign cultures … in The Leopard Man, the Anglo visitors from the East bring terror and violence with them, unconsciously imitating the conquistadors whose slaughter of the town’s indigenous population is recalled by the procession of the penitents in the last section of the film.”
The gloomy Catholic procession that Fujiwara describes takes place during the film’s finale and it is just one of the many macabre set pieces that make up THE LEOPARD MAN. Another remarkable moment that has often been singled out by critics involves the murder of a nervous teenage girl forced to fetch cornmeal, so her mother can make tortillas for dinner despite the threat of a prowling panther. The girl’s fear is palpable as her eyes search the darkness for any sign of the big cat. But fate plays a particularly cruel trick on her careless mother who is forced to listen to her daughter’s bloodcurdling final screams but unable to save her from death.
My favorite scene involves a cheerful señorita celebrating her birthday who visits her father’s grave but lingers too long and is locked inside the walled-in cemetery by a negligent caretaker. As night falls the marble monuments and decaying crypts appear particularly ominous, casting strange shadows while the wild flora seems to engulf the hallow grounds. The place is transformed into a terrifying prison cloaked in a dim gloom and accompanied by strange unsettling sounds that suggest the young woman’s demise is inescapable.
THE LEOPARD MAN is often described as “the first serial-killer film” and credited as a forerunner of the giallo and slasher genres but it had many predecessors including THE LODGER (‘27), M (‘31), DR. X (‘32), NIGHT MUST FALL (‘37) and SHADOW OF A DOUBT (‘43), which was released 5-months earlier. But what sets THE LEOPARD MAN apart is the way it accentuates the shocking aspects of every murder that occurs. Each death is presented as a nightmarish tableau and we’re allowed to experience the horrors perpetrated on each victim as if we were firsthand witnesses. A similar kind of dramatic staging became popular in Italian thrillers by director’s such as Mario Bava, Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci and was further explored by American filmmakers including Bob Clark, John Carpenter and Brian De Palma.
By rejecting the Gothic trappings of classic Universal horror films and setting THE LEOPARD MAN in 1940s New Mexico with its nightclubs, exotic dancers, smoky side streets and dark alleys, it often seems to share more in common with Jacques Tourneur’s noirs such as OUT OF THE PAST (‘47) or NIGHTFALL (‘57). This is largely due to the source novel by Cornell Woolrich, who wrote many crime thrillers that became popular films including NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES (‘48), REAR WINDOW (‘54) and THE BRIDE WORE BLACK (‘68). The noir flourishes make this somewhat of an anomaly among the three pictures Tourneur made with Val Lewton but like CAT PEOPLE (‘42) and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (‘43) before it, the mounting suspense and overwhelming dread are unmistakable. There is no escape from the horrors Tourneur and Lewton unleash in THE LEOPARD MAN.
Fragments - (Saw gif of guitar kiss scene. Imdb’d Bye Bye Man, found actor. Found title to short. Found the short.) So this one is a different short. Certain aspects I just don’t understand and am ok with that. It’s definitely got a more artistic vibe. A pushy girlfriend tries to drive her boyfriend to get the most out of life. Someone needs to take the two male leads and put them in an epic gay themed film, I ship it.
Wherein Social Media Assistant Manager Marya E. Gates ( @oldfilmsflicker) writes about her experience at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival
For the last two years I’ve attended the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in a tiny town in northern Italy. It’s the first and longest running international film festival dedicated to silent films. Over its eight days you will see everything from restored fragments from the 1890s to late-era Japanese silent films from the 1930s and everything in between. In 2016 I saw 181 shorts, feature films, and fragments; this year I saw a whopping 201! While a good deal of the films presented at the festival are new discoveries from archives or films that have yet to make it to home video or streaming, I found a few films that I saw at Pordenone Silent in the FilmStruck library!
This movie blew me away and is probably more relevant this year than it felt when I saw it in 2016. The film stars Hobart Bosworth as Oscar Krug, a German-American who experiences rampant xenophobia as the U.S.A. enters WWI. He enlists in order to prove his patriotism, but after he falls in love with Alice (Jane Novak), things take a tragic turn. When you get to the part of the film from which it derives its title I guarantee you will be like “What????!?!?!?!”
This may not be my favorite King Vidor film (that belongs to THE BIG PARADE, also streaming now), but seeing this film on the big screen was definitely an experience I will not long forget. THE CROWD stars Eleanor Boardman and James Murray as a couple who meet-cute, only to discover that marriage and, well, life is much more difficult than either could have expected. You will laugh, you will cry, you’ll laugh again. A wonderful portrait of what it means to be alive.
Although he only made four films (and only one feature film) Jean Vigo left an indelible mark on cinema (watch L’ATALANTE and be changed forever). This short, experimental documentary looks beneath the veneer of 1930s Mediterranean culture expose the economic inequalities of the glamorous seaport.
Like Charlie Chaplin, Yasujirô Ozu resisted the switch to sound and made silent films five years after the first sound film in Japan was released. Like his talkies, Ozu’s films look at the nature of family and status, in this case from the point of view of two young brothers.
Ozu’s last extant silent film tells the story of a father who during the great depression attempts to find a job, feed his children, and keep a roof over their heads. When he meets a young mother and widow, he makes a questionable choice to help her pay medical bills. Ozu is one of the most humanist directors of any era, but for me his silents really hit that theme home.
While seeing silent films on the big screen (with live accompaniment!) is ideal, I love that I can recommend my favorites to others and they are more accessible now than ever before, and that I can still discover new silent films every day. You can find more silent film streaming on FilmStruck here.