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Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Leopard Man (1943)


Director: Jacques Tourneur
Writer: Ardel Wray, based on the novel, Black Alibi, by Cornell Woolrich, with additional dialogue by Edward Dein
Stars: Dennis O’Keefe, Margo and Jean Brooks


Index: 2017 Centennials.

Putting my mere four names to shame, María Marguerita Guadalupe Teresa Estela Bolado Castilla y O'Donnell was born in Mexico City one hundred years ago today, though she shrank that name down about as far as possible for her screen career. However, as Margo, she didn’t make as many movies as she should have done, as she was blacklisted just as her star was rising. Even her more famous second husband, Eddie Albert, was caught up in that debacle too, and only found abiding fame after his service in the U.S. Navy during World War II. That’s a shame, because Margo showed great potential even as a child. At a mere nine years of age, she performed in nightclubs as a specialty dancer for Xavier Cugat and His Orchestra; that bandleader would marry her aunt, Carmen Castillo, when Margo was twelve. At seventeen, she was plucked off the dancefloor to play Claude Rains’s ex-lover in Crime without Passion. It ensured a screen career, which built steadily until her blacklisting, after which her roles became few and far between.

Even with only fourteen feature films to her name, I had a choice for this project. She was well regarded in Winterset in 1936, in a role which she’d originated on stage, in both instances playing the screen girlfriend of Burgess Meredith. She was also notable in Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon a year later, as the beautiful young lady who ages and dies rapidly after leaving Shangri-La. However, I went with this one as it’s a personal favourite of mine, even among the works of producer Val Lewton, whose fourteen pictures at RKO during the forties included nine horror movies which revolutionised the genre. At a time when Universal were the only real player in the genre left and their work after The Wolf Man had become a string of sequels, Lewton’s films really filled the gap, with a set of quality pictures that were written well, with deep thematic substance; shot well, with incredible use of light and shadows, as befitted the beginnings of the film noir era; and directed well, by a string of names who would go on to serious fame.

The Leopard Man is the third of these nine films, the last to be directed by Jacques Tourneur, the son of pioneering French director Maurice Tourneur, after Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie. Tourneur’s success with Cat People, which made $4m from a $150,000 budget, launched him onto RKO’s ‘A’-list, and his most praised picture, the film noir, Out of the Past in 1947, was shot with Nicholas Musuraca, his cinematographer on Cat People. His only later horror movie was Night of the Demon, one of the greatest British genre films of all time. After these, Mark Robson, the editor of those three films, ascended into the director’s chair for The Seventh Victim and The Ghost Ship; he’d also direct the last two, Isle of the Dead and Bedlam. Robson’s first five movies as a director were for Lewton, but he’d go on to direct seven actors in Oscar-nominated performances and gain two nods himself. Prior to this, he’d worked with Orson Welles; his first work was as an uncredited assistant editor on Citizen Kane and his first credit was for Journey into Fear.

The other two, The Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatcher, were directed by Robert Wise, another editor who was promoted to director when Gunther von Fritsch proved unable to complete the former film to schedule; Wise finished it and directed the latter solo. These, and a non-horror movie for Lewton, were his first directorial credits, though he’d go on to win four Oscars over a long and versatile career, for producing and directing West Side Story and The Sound of Music. Arguably, he should have won his first back in 1942 for editing Citizen Kane; he’d been Mark Robson’s boss on that movie. He also edited The Magnificent Ambersons, for which he also shot a few additional sequences; he must have felt at home when directing The Curse of the Cat People, as it re-used some of that film’s sets. His later horror films are notable too: The Haunting in 1963 and Audrey Rose in 1977. Lewton was surely the mastermind behind the best horror of the forties but, as you can tell, he hired exceedingly well too and these films were fantastic team efforts.
Usually it’s Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and Bedlam that tend to get praised over and over, but the other six stand up very well in their company and deserve as much praise. I chose The Leopard Man partly because I feel that it’s especially worthy, but also for being the way I always remember Margo, with her clacking castanets a memorable soundtrack throughout much of the picture. In fact, they’re the first things we hear, even before we see anything, because they accompany the score behind the opening credits. Then, as the film begins, they continue in a deceptively simple opening shot. She’s a dancer, Clo-Clo by name, and she practices in her room to the annoyance of the ladies next door. The camera moves towards Clo-Clo’s room, somewhat voyeuristically watches her framed in the open doorway, then pans to the other room, where we see Kiki Walker bang on their shared wall in annoyance before slamming her door in our face. This is exquisite cinematography by Robert de Grasse, especially for a low budget picture.

We’re in an unnamed town in New Mexico, where we only see crowds in the unnamed café at which most of our characters work. Then again, that’s because of a scene that unfolds only five minutes into the movie, sparked by an unnamed gentleman who turns out to be the nominal lead. We’ll later discover that he’s Jerry Manning, Kiki’s publicity agent, manager and boyfriend, perhaps in that order. His latest scheme to garner her attention is to have her walk into the café, during Clo-Clo’s number, of course, with an impressive partner: a black leopard on a leash (played by Dynamite, who was also the panther in Cat People). Beyond constituting a memorable entrance, we can’t help thinking, with our sarcastic 21st century mindsets, ‘What could possibly go wrong?’ Well, Clo-Clo one-ups Kiki by rushing the poor creature with a clicking castanet crescendo and off it scampers to hide in the dark streets of the town, which promptly scares everyone into their homes, especially after the deaths begin.
Every time I watch The Leopard Man, I feel that it’s a movie far ahead of its time, but Scott Preston, exploring the film in Cineaction magazine, ably highlights that much of the praise for this belongs equally (or more) with Cornell Woolrich, who wrote the source novel, Black Alibi, only a year earlier. Woolrich was a huge deal, one of the great pulp crime writers of the era and one of the most frequently adapted to screen but he’s annoyingly out of print today; his work isn’t old enough to have entered the public domain while ‘estate issues’ have prevented newer editions. This was only the third adaptation of his work onto film, but his name would often be seen on screens in the forties: Black Angel, Night Has a Thousand Eyes and two Whistler films for a start. His biggest picture, though, is surely Rear Window, the Hitchcock film from 1954, which was based on his short story, It Had to Be Murder. And, it seems, it was Woolrich’s Black Alibi that really did some of the things first that I expected The Leopard Man to be credited with.

For one, this is a slasher movie, made in 1943, long before the films usually cited as most influential on that subgenre: Psycho and Peeping Tom, both released in 1960, and A Bay of Blood in 1971. Once the black leopard is free, we’re ready for the victims to add up and, sure enough, they do, in the form of the lovely young ladies we expect. First up is Teresa Delgado, a local girl sent out by her mother to get cornmeal from the store. She doesn’t want to leave the house but she goes anyway. She really doesn’t want to walk across the arroyo and under the railroad tracks to the other store because the first one is closed, but she does it anyway. There’s a fantastic shot as she returns, scared and slow, through the dark tunnel under the tracks, wondering if the leopard is in there with her. What happens there is known as the ‘Lewton Bus’, after a similar release of tension in Cat People, though here it’s a train. The leopard is on the other side; she screams and makes it home, but her blood flows under the door before mama can open it.
For another, it’s a serial killer story because we gradually realise, along with Jerry Manning, that the progression of deaths may be the work not of the missing leopard but a human being. It’s fair to say that horror, mystery and crime were often lumped together back in the thirties and forties, resulting in routine crossover, but this treats the killer in a very different way to the norm. He’s no crime lord, comic book villain or evil genius; he’s just a man, driven by impulses that he can’t control and doesn’t understand. The only real antecedent in this is Fritz Lang’s M, which was surely a huge influence on Lewton, Tourneur and scriptwriter Ardel Wray, not only for this compassionate exploration of an insane man but for its use of sound. Clo-Clo’s castanets don’t carry the weight of the whistling in M, but they’re a recurrent theme that adds depth to the fantastic visuals. The catch, of course, is that the movie is short, the cast is small and it’s hardly difficult to figure out who that serial killer is.

Without spoiling that ‘revelation’, I can suggest that this is worth watching once to see it unfold, then again to see how it was built. There’s a wealth of depth in how the actor in question plays his part, far beyond the leads. Dennis O’Keefe is a more simple leading man who struggles to justify his top billing, even though he was a capable actor and this was one of his most remembered movies, made at the time when he was just starting to really establish himself after a decade of bit parts. Jean Brooks is a far more obvious lead as Kiki, especially as she appears to be our focus from the beginning. Lewton would also cast her in The Seventh Victim and his awful juvenile delinquent movie, Youth Runs Wild. Oddly, it’s Margo’s name on the poster after O’Keefe’s, even though she isn’t the lead. However, Clo-Clo is also far more notable than Jerry Manning and more memorable than Kiki. In fact, she’s the most abiding character in the entire movie, the one we remember after it’s all done, not least because of those clicking castanets!
What’s more, the film’s theme of doomed fortune revolves around her. While Kiki shares her room with a dreaming cigarette girl, Clo-Clo shares hers with a fortune teller named Maria, played by the ever-acerbic Isabel Jewell, as memorable as ever. Whenever Maria has Clo-Clo select a card from her deck, it’s the Ace of Spades, representing Death. Whenever she deals the cards, the same thing happens, even if she tries to hide it every time by dealing afresh. Clo-Clo is a tough girl, so naturally she laughs it off, but the sheer repetition can’t fail to affect her. The fact that she encounters every victim of the Leopard Man and is the only character in the story to do so, is another harbinger of doom. So is the story told by Maria’s cards, that she’ll meet a rich man who will give her money and then she’ll die. All this haunts her and when this prophecy of the cards begins to come true, it haunts her all the more. It’s a great way to build up Clo-Clo’s character and the picture, but neither Jerry nor Kiki have anything remotely similar.

Margo is fantastic here, an exotic diva who clearly warrants the acclaim that she clearly believes is due to her. She dances like she never walks and she walks like she owns the streets beneath her feet. Kiki’s sets are after Clo-Clo’s, suggesting that she’s the bigger draw, and she does have a publicity man following her around, but we never see her perform and, even though Jean Brooks is nice on the eyes, she has a girl next door sort of beauty rather than that of a glamorous star. To me, this is one of those films where my concentration automatically finds its focus on the supporting characters, who are far more interesting than the leads. O’Keefe and Brooks do their jobs capably, but it’s Margo and Isabel Jewell who shine for me here. I last saw Jewell in Babies for Sale, a thoroughly different movie in which she was just as acerbic and stole just as many scenes. Being a Val Lewton picture though, who we see on screen isn’t as important as how we see them and that’s because of the crew as much as the cast.
I often find myself calling out a particular crew member for praise, but with this film and any of Lewton’s horror movies, it’s really the result of a set of highly talented professionals working together. Tourneur was a visionary director who would create some of the techniques that made film noir what it was. Robson and Wise were both accomplished editors who were finding their place at the time; Lewton gave them their first stints in the director’s chair and their careers flourished. The director of photography here was Robert de Grasse, an experienced cinematographer with one Oscar nomination already to his name, for Vivacious Lady, a 1938 romcom starring Ginger Rogers. Everyone talks about Teresa Delgado’s blood under the door, but I actually prefer the scenes that precede it. They just feature a girl and the wind, but they’re haunting and the way Tourneur and de Grasse build tension through use of a dark tunnel, a dripping sound and what might be a pair of leopard eyes is absolutely textbook stuff.

What leapt out at me this time through was the lighting, which is impeccable throughout. The camera moves especially well and a nod has to be given to the choreography that allows it to include so much as it does so. Had the budget been more substantial than a mere $150,000 (by comparison, the highest grossing film of the year, For Whom the Bell Tolls, cost $3m), and the film longer, then scenes during the finalé might have been even more special. They’re set in and around a procession of locals, dressed in tall black masks and black cloaks, in memory of a local massacre of Indians in the seventeenth century by conquistadores. Whenever people proclaim the superiority of colour and modern technical marvels, I always point them to Hollywood in the forties, as film noir was mastering just how much could be done with light and shadow in glorious black and white, then Germany in the twenties, where a great deal of the techniques of film noir were forged.
The Val Lewton horror movies, however, show just what could be done when a talented director and a talented cinematographer, usually known as the director of photography back then, worked hand in hand with talented art directors and set decorators. The former were responsible for the entire art department, what are now known as production designers; they unified the vision of a film. The latter populate the film with everything that we see, outside of the props that the actors use. As much as the golden age of Hollywood usually references the thirties and Hollywood’s golden year was 1939, I’ve gradually come to realise that the forties were a step up. Film noir is surely the most artistic movement in American film and it offered so much in the way of possibility to those talents who wanted to do something more than had been done before. That bled into other films of the time and the horror movies of Val Lewton are the most obvious such pictures I can think of.

Of course, there are reasons why The Leopard Man doesn’t slip off the tongue right after Cat People. It’s too short to have anywhere near the space it needs to do its story justice and the theme isn’t as tightly woven in as it could be. There are some odd choices of casting, though they’re far less notable than many such choices made in the classic Hollywood era. The owner of the leopard, who lends it to Jerry, is Charlie How-Come, a Native American played by Abner Biberman, as Native American an actor as such a name suggests. He did have exotic features that prompted his casting as every race under the sun and he was certainly talented, but we don’t buy him as Native American here. Ironically, he ended up running Universal’s casting department! Consuelo Contreras, the second victim, should be a lovely Latino girl, but she’s played by Tuulikki Paananen, credited as Tula Parma, who was Finnish. She does a surprisingly good job but, again, we don’t buy her as Mexican in the slightest.
Every time I watch or re-watch a film for my centennial project, I feel compelled to explore further. Usually, that centres around the person I’m remembering, but Margo had less of a career than many of my subjects to explore. Here, there are so many names whose careers I want to leap into with abandon. I’ve sought out the films of Jacques Tourneur for years, but I have more to find. I keep seeing Isabel Jewell cropping up in all sorts of movies and she impresses me every time. I’ve followed Mark Robson’s career as a director but should focus on his films as an editor too. I really ought to track down the novels of Cornell Woolrich, in addition to the films that grew out of them. Most of all, though, as happens every time I pull a Val Lewton off the shelf, I want to dive back into the whole set of nine horror movies. They’re old fashioned exercises in tell not show and they don’t revolve around the icons of the Universal horrors, but they’re arguably the closest the classic horror movie ever got to art. Thanks, Margo!

Bibliography:
The Strange Pleasure of The Leopard Man: Gender, Genre and Authorship in a Val Lewton Thriller by Scott Preston

2 comments:

Rick29 said...

It's my favorite Lewton film and the first one I show to friends. The scene with the blood under the door is justly famous (and even praised by Scorsese), but the one in the graveyard is almost as good. Margo is indeed terrific, too!

Christian Esquevin said...

Thanks for selecting this film as its great if relatively unknown. As Rick states the graveyard scene is chilling and terrific. If you havent read the book its based on by Cornell Woolrich, this same scene is one of the great scenes in Noir/Horror literature.