The Leopard Man (1943)


(director: Jacques Tourneur; screenwriters: Edward Dein/Ardel Wray/from the book “Black Alibi” by Cornell Woolrich; cinematographer: Robert de Grasse; editor: Mark Robson; music: Roy Webb; cast: Dennis O’Keefe (Jerry Manning), Margo (Clo-Clo), Jean Brooks (Kiki Walker), Isabel Jewell (Maria), James Bell (Dr. Galbraith), Margaret Landry (Teresa Delgado), Richard Martin (Raoul Belmonte), Ben Bard (Chief Robles), Fely Franquelli (Rosita), Tula Parma (Consuelo Contreras), Abner Biberman (Charlie How-Come); Runtime: 66; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Val Lewton; RKO Radio Pictures; 1943)
“A wonderful little film in love with being in the shadows.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Jacques Tourneur’s (“Cat People”/”I Walked With A Zombie”) The Leopard Man is the final installment of his trio of cheapie atmospheric horror films produced by Val Lewton at RKO. It’s based on the book “Black Alibi” by Cornell Woolrich and penned by Edward Dein and Ardel Wray. It’s a wonderful little film in love with being in the shadows and excavating in the darkness; a psychological thriller tailor-made for me and other lovers of film noir cinematography.

It’s set in a small New Mexico border town. Showbiz PR man Jerry Manning (Dennis O’Keefe) pulls a foolish publicity stunt to get his nightclub entertainer client and girlfriend Kiki Walker (Jean Brooks) some attention, as he rents a leopard from the Indian Charlie How-Come (Abner Biberman)–the owner of a traveling zoo. When Kiki walks into the nightclub with the leopard on a leash, the wild animal gets spooked by the noise coming from a dancer’s clapping of the castanets and flees outside. Soon a child (Margaret Landry) coming home through the woods on an errand is torn to pieces by the leopard, while her mother keeps her locked outside the door because she thinks she’s faking being frightened because she’s returning late from the errand without an excuse. Sheriff Robles gets the advice of museum curator Dr. Galbraith (James Bell), an animal expert, on how to track the animal. But, in the meantime, a pretty senorita (Tula Parma) is killed while waiting for her boyfriend after dark in a cemetery and later a nightclub dancer (Margo) is killed in the street at night while putting on lipstick. Jerry suspects that it might be a crazed man doing the killings instead of the leopard, as he plays sleuth with the also guilt-stricken Kiki.

The murder of the little girl in the dark is one of the most frightening scenes ever in a horror movie leaving it all to the viewer’s imagination, as all that’s seen is the blood pouring out under the door accompanied by the girl’s blood curdling screams. There’s also the macabre “procession” scene at the conclusion, where the warped killer is smoked out and tries to hide in the town’s nighttime celebration of the massacre of Indians at the hands of their white conquerors–an event marked every year by this eerie march so it won’t be forgotten that mankind is capable of so much cruelty.

Tourneur’s fast paced film is armed with a taut and intelligent script, and is one of those memorable films that gets even better with age like a good wine.