The Val Lewton Collection: The Leopard Man (1943)

Synopsis:

An ambitious talent agent, Jerry Manning (Dennis O’Keefe, Raw Deal), decides to hire a leopard for his client’s singing act, but the wild beast escapes and women start showing up dead. The leopard is, of course, blamed for the killings, but Jerry begins to suspect that a man is behind the vicious deaths.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Cats are funny. They don’t want to hurt you, but if you scare them they go crazy.”

Famed producer Val Lewton’s third film is one of his most interesting if less admired productions. The Leopard Man is a surprisingly inventive and engrossing B-movie — a compelling storyline and clever camera & sound tricks make this little horror movie a cut above the rest.

Made on a shoestring budget yet astutely executed, The Leopard Man is a provocative thriller about the psychology behind a serial killer.

Despite the fact that the title suggests a man turning into a leopard, The Leopard Man is really about a serial killer who hunts down his victims like a wild animal — in this regard, the film is ahead of its time. The Leopard Man presents the then novel idea of a heartless predator hiding in plain sight. I was taken aback by how many things the movie gets right about a “serial killer,” a term that hadn’t yet been coined. The film also anticipates the American slasher and Italian giallo.

The slasher vibe isn’t the only interesting part of the movie — The Leopard Man is filled with eye-catching oddities. Based on Cornell Woolrich’s 1942 novel Black Alibi, the script by Ardel Wray (I Walked with a Zombie) and Edward Dein (Shack Out on 101) is structured as a series of vignettes, each operating as a stand-alone short story. It’s like a collection of short stories that work both separately and together.

The Leopard Man is interesting in other ways too. There is a good chance that the film’s murder-set-pieces will forever be seared into your memories. You don’t really see any of the actual killings, but director Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past) is able to suggest unspeakable violence, while showing almost nothing.

Dennis O’Keefe is good in the lead, and the supporting cast is excellent — Mexican-American actress Margo as dancer Clo-Clo is a standout — but this is the kind of movie where the actors take a backseat to story and visuals. I can’t praise the technical crew enough. The cinematography by Robert De Grasse (Lady of Burlesque and Born to Kill) is fantastic. Roy Webb’s (The Spiral Staircase) music score is great too.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

This is the kind of low-budget movie that is able to accomplish a great deal despite its limited resources. The Leopard Man is simple as well as complicated, a perfect example of producer Val Lewton’s economic yet highly inventive style — it’s a genuinely imaginative, spooky thriller. B&W, 66 minutes, Not Rated.

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6 responses to “The Val Lewton Collection: The Leopard Man (1943)

  1. I owned a few of the Val Lewton double-bill DVD sets, but I don’t remember this film being among them. I’ll definitely have to find this one somewhere…your description makes it sound great, and all in a swift 66 minutes!

    Liked by 1 person

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