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January 14, 2008

The Val Lewton Blog-a-thon: The Leopard Man

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Jacques Tourneur - 1943
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

Walks with zombies and further Lewton inspired bedlam is to be found at The Evening Class.

Even before I watched The Leopard Man with William Friedkin's commentary, I wondered about Friedkin's film, Bug. Could his own film be an attempt to re-invent a Val Lewton style horror film for a contemporary audience? Consider that the horror of Bug is largely psychological, taking place in the minds of the characters, much to the dismay of an audience that was expecting the more explicit horrors of Friedkin's more famous The Exorcist. That Bug was also a much lower budget film mostly taking place within a single set may have been a tribute to Lewton and his limited resources. There is also the classic beauty of Ashley Judd, who when photographed in certain ways, reminds one of the classic Hollywood brunettes. As Friedkin discusses Lewton and Jacques Tourneur, as well as episodes in his life growing up in Chicago, it would seem that Bug was Friedkin's attempt to recapture what made him excited about film in the first place.

Tourneur's third film for Lewton begins with a leopard on the loose in some small town in New Mexico, the result of a mishandled show business stunt. The action takes place in a totally imagined location that hardly qualifies as a small town, yet has a restaurant-night club that features hoofers from Chicago. The New Mexico location allows for some low budget exoticism in both the set up, and the film's finale. What is best about the New Mexico setting is that it allows for the introduction of one of the characters, Clo-Clo, whose act is a Spanish style dance with castanets. The castanets are incorporated as a dramatic device, as well as being the most significant element of Roy Webb's imaginative score.

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Most of The Leopard Man takes place at night. In their final collaboration, Lewton and Tourneur amplify and parody elements of The Cat People. This is especially notable during the sequence of the first victim. A young woman, sent by her mother to get cornmeal, walks alone to the one store open that night. This in spite of fear of the leopard on the loose in town. Walking home, she has to choose between walking around or under a railroad bridge. One way may be safer, but out of the way, the darker passage under the bridge is shorter and more direct. The scene seems to have been designed to remind viewers of the similar moment of the woman alone in the swimming pool in The Cat People. The parody of the "Lewton style" comes literally from the hands of the first victim's little brother, with his inappropriate penchant for creating a shadow that resembles a fierce creature.

It is life in the shadows that is where The Leopard Man truly lives. There are two lateral shots of Clo-Clo walking along the street of the small town. Against the darkness of one building is a man smoking cigarettes, creating O rings of smoke, one of which Clo-Clo grabs. A pair of lovers a glanced at kissing in the darkness. A fortune teller extends her hand with a deck of cards which may reveal Clo-Clo's future. Whether the killer is really a runaway leopard or something else is almost besides the point. What The Leopard Man is really about is the mysteries of fate and choice, and darkness as a form of sanctuary.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 14, 2008 12:01 AM


Peter, thanks so much for your two contributions to the Val Lewton blogathon. Your focus on shadows is reinforced by the black backdrop of your own site where so many wonderful words in white have emerged from the blackness. My best.

Posted by: Maya at January 14, 2008 02:08 PM

I enjoyed reading your comparison of Bug to The Leopard Man. I haven't listened to Friedkin's commentary on the DVD, but now I'm curious about it. I also haven't seen The Leopard man in years, but it has some fantastic moments.

I really wish Bug was getting more credit this year from critics. It's one of the best films I saw in 2007 and Judd easily gives her best performance in the film. I was sort of indifferent about her before Bug, but she's truly terrific in it.

Posted by: Kimberly at January 14, 2008 03:57 PM