Sunday, November 23, 2008
The Leopard Man
The Leopard Man is the most conventional horror film of the three movies that director Jacques Tourneur made with producer Val Lewton. This third film, following on the eerie Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, uses many of the same aesthetic techniques as the two earlier efforts shadowy atmosphere, slow build-up, and the suggestion of violence rather than its direct portrayal but hews much closer than either of the others to a true horror plot. The result is the creepiest and scariest film to come out of the fruitful Tourneur/Lewton collaboration, but not necessarily the best.
The film's premise is simple: a trained leopard escapes in a New Mexico town after the show biz promoter Jerry (Dennis O'Keefe) tries to pull a publicity stunt for his girlfriend and top talent Kiki (Jean Brooks). Soon enough, dead girls start showing up on the streets of the town, mauled to pieces in vicious attacks, and a few small clues lead Jerry to wonder if the cat is really to blame, or if a more human predator is on the loose. The film is loosely structured with a continually varied perspective. Though Jerry and Kiki are the film's ostensible protagonists, the point of view often shifts off of them to the town's residents, briefly taking up other people's tales. The camera will often unexpectedly begin following someone who seemed to be an ancillary character in a scene, picking up their story and seeing where it leads rather than following the track of the main plot. This democratic structure refuses to privilege the young couple who would be the unquestioned heroes in any other horror film. The killer's victims are not treated as disposable pieces of flesh who are just there to scream and die. In just over an hour of film, Tourneur still finds time to draw out the stories of all his characters, giving respect and attention to the eventual victims before their final moments.
The first victim is a young girl (Margaret Landry) who's afraid of the dark but is forced to go out late at night anyway, to get corn meal for her father's supper. Her nighttime walk to the grocer's is a moody, haunting trek through the shadowy town and its empty outskirts, with a midpoint pause at a railroad bridge where the girl is terrified by the shadows underneath the crossing. Tourneur isolates her in the cold, dark night, pulling back for a long shot of this crucial junction, her lonely figure standing just outside the deep black under the bridge, as though foreshadowing her end. But before it comes, she gets a wonderful little scene in the grocery store, admiring the birds chirping in a cage. It's apparent that this is something she often does, delaying her walk back through the darkness by a few minutes, and it triggers a crisp but evocative exchange with the grocer, who says she can pay him next time she comes: "The poor don't cheat one another. We're all poor together." This quietly spoken line, freighted with melancholy, suggests a long history between the grocer and the girl's family, and evokes the conditions of poverty for families scraping by in this village. The film's barely hidden subtext is its insistent probing of class and money, which comes up again and again in small asides and brief scenes. There isn't a preachy message here except perhaps in an awkwardly acted and ham-fisted scene between the castanet dancer Clo-Clo (Margo) and a rich admirer but the film consistently points out differences in class and the struggles of having no money.
The second victim is of a different class, a wealthy young woman (Tula Parma), and Tourneur again takes great pains to delve into the substance of her life rather than simply throwing her into the middle of danger. The film is able to invest a great deal into these characters with a few broad strokes: a lovely scene where her family awakens her for her birthday, clustered around her bed with flowers and singing; her pining for her boyfriend, who she keeps secret from her parents for some reason; her conspiratorial relationship with the maid who helps her arrange her trysts. These details are strictly extraneous to the plot, but establish the character and give her a life beyond what we see on the screen. Lewton and Tourneur were always known for doing a lot with a little, suggesting what is not seen, in their suspense and horror scenes, and in this film the principle is extended to the lives of the characters. These brief vignettes suggest that we are only seeing part of a life, that there is much beyond the surface of all these people who we meet for such a short time. Even the cemetery watchman, who doesn't have much to do otherwise, gets a great, creepy little throwaway moment when he tells Jerry and Kiki, "I have many friends, but they don't bother me with talk," gesturing through the cemetery gates as he says it.
The film takes the concept of "local color" as its defining aesthetic, so much so that Jerry and Kiki themselves are increasingly marginalized. They come across a bit like a team-up of Nancy Drew and a Hardy Boy, clean-shaven kids trailing around the edges of the story while the murder victims get most of the really juicy screentime. This is fortunate, because this duo isn't particularly interesting in and of themselves, and the movie falters whenever it tries to drum up some interest in their tepid romance or their conflicts of conscience over having started this whole thing. O'Keefe seemingly wandered off the set of one of the noirs he's best known for directly into the midst of this stalker tale, just for a change of pace though it doesn't seem to have changed his tough guy demeanor any. Clo-Clo is much more interesting; Margo can barely act, but she winds her sinewy way through the film right from its first shot, which frames her curvy, dancing form in a doorway, contoured into an S-shape by her snake-like motion. The click of her castanets, insistent and eerie, also flows through the film, its coldly rhythmic sound echoing through the town's deserted streets at night, a music like the clacking of bones, one against the other.
The Leopard Man is at its best when it concentrates on small details like this, building its unsettling atmosphere through the accumulation of sounds, shadows, and slowly building tension. It's a film without a center, economical in its storytelling and yet giving the impression that it has time for plenty of detours into the lives of its characters, even the least "important" ones. This meandering quality to the plotting is the film's greatest strength, and it's inevitable that as the structure begins to tighten up in its final act, the film loses some of its charm. Despite a vaguely unsatisfying resolution, this is a fine low-key horror production from Lewton and Tourneur.