By Scott A. Cupp
This is the 136th my series of Forgotten, Obscure or Neglected Films
The other day Sanford Allen, the owner of this blog, and I were talking about last week’s film The Robot Vs. the Aztec Mummy. Sanford is fond of the Aztec Mummy films, particularly Wrestling Women Vs. the Aztec Mummy. The conversation turned to other films and we got talking about Val Lewton and his time in Hollywood. Sanford had just re-watched I Walked with a Zombie. I told him that I thought I had reviewed once before. I just checked and I have not, so beware.
One of my favorites from Lewton was one he produced and oversaw. The Leopard Man was directed by Jacques Tourneur, who lensed several films with Lewton producing.
And this one is amazing.
This is your early noir film on steroids. It is based on Black Alibi, a novel by one my favorites, Cornell Woolrich. Short, moody, black, white, shadows and weird sounds. The movie is set in a sleepy New Mexico town that faces terror when Jerry Manning (Dennis O’Keefe) obtains a black leopard for his client/girlfriend Kiki (Jean Brooks) to use in her nightclub singing act to upstage her club rival Clo-Clo (a Latin dancer played by the singular-named Margo). The leopard escapes when Clo-Clo frightens it with her castanets.
The escape makes the news and people are slightly worried. None more so than Theresa Delgado (Margaret Landry), a young teenage girl sent out on an errand at night by her mother. In one of the most chilling scenes ever put in black and white, Teresa tries to escape the leopard while her mother disbelieves her and refuses to open the door. When the screams turn very real and the leopard growls, Mama finds the door is tough to open. Before she gets it open, the sounds have stopped and blood begins to seep under the door. Little is seen, but the mind fills in all the blanks most vividly. Everybody who sees this film remembers that scene.
Soon other young women are killed – Consuela waiting for her boyfriend in a cemetery that has been locked. (Old joke: You know why they lock cemeteries? People are dying to get in.) There are others too.
The owner of the leopard, Charlie How-Come (actor and later director Abner Biberman), wants his cat back or for Jerry to pay him money. Jerry feels responsible for everything, as does Kiki. A Posse is organized to try to find the leopard, but they have no success.
But Jerry keeps thinking about the deaths. Something doesn’t seem right. A local expert, Dr. Galbraith (James Bell), proves to be a good sounding board. The leopard seems to be hunting, rather than hiding, as Charlie says a normal cat would be doing. Perhaps this isn’t a leopard at all, but rather a man intent on killing young women.
The trailer and poster straight up tell you there’s a man involved. He is a serial killer, though that term had not even been conceived in 1943.
The film is somewhat straightforward. There are no major twists, but the direction and the actors make it wonderful. One of my favorites is the delightful fortune teller, Maria (Isabel Jewell), who tells Clo-Clo’s fortune. Clo-Clo keeps cutting the cards and the ace of spades continues to turn up. Not a good card in fortune telling, apparently. Maria keeps saying that she’s making mistakes.
Isabel Jewell reminded me a lot of Gloria Grahame in both looks and attitude. Although Gloria didn’t make her Hollywood debut until the following year. Jewell had a long career in Hollywood including parts in some great films, like Gone with the Wind, Lost Horizon and High Sierra. She ended up being typecast into smaller roles as gang molls, prostitutes and dumb blondes. Eventually she ran afoul of the law with bad checks and drunk driving.
The music for the film was by the great Roy Webb who had done Cat People for Lewton and would soon do Out of the Past and The Body Snatcher. His work alone was worth the price of admission.
This film is part of the Val Lewton box set which includes Cat People, Return of the Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, among others. It is well worth searching out, either as a full set or for the individual film. Scott says Check this out, but stay out of the shadows.
Series organizer Todd Mason hosts more Tuesday Forgotten Film reviews at his own blog and posts a complete list of participating blogs.