Over the last year I’ve covered most of the Val Lewton thrillers from the 1940’s; as well as nurturing top talent like directors Robert Wise and Mark Robson, the master of shadows also enjoyed a fertile collaboration with the great Jacques Tourneur. And yet seeing The Leopard Man didn’t raise much enthusiasm from this critic; my memories of watching this as part of BBC 2’s seminal horror double features as a kid were not happy ones, and this musty venture seemed like a damp squib for a young thrill-seeker.
Firstly, there’s no Leopard Man in this film, no transformations, no half-man, half beast, it’s all a big red herring. The words Leopard Man do appear, written on the side of a van containing circus animals; perhaps following up on the box-office success of Lewton’s Cat People required a similar title, but it’s completely the wrong angle for this murder-mystery story. Based on a novel by Cornell Woolridge, published under the more accurate if more generic title of Black Alibi, this is one of the first serial killer stories. A catty feud between two nightclub singers Kiki (Margo) and Clo Clo (Jean Brooks) starts out as a ‘saucer of milk for table 5’ number but takes on deadly intent when a castanet solo causes a riot, during which a leopard escapes into a small new Mexico town. Murders occurs, but is the animal responsible? An expert suggest that such an animal would head for the hills rather than hang around where it’s liable to be captured. Or is the leopard so divorced from its natural habitat that it only knows urban ways? Either way, Kiki and her pal Jerry Dennis O’Keefe) have to solve the mystery as the bodies begin to pile up.
The unique Lewton formula is in full array here; expanded suspense sequences, creative use of shadows, unexpected musical breaks for local colour, mystical philosophical interludes. It’s a package the spans the years in its attractiveness; The Leopard Man still thrills as a story, and has more than a couple of dramatic set-pieces, notably when a girl goes missing under a bridge as she returns home with groceries, or a fortune telling that goes badly wrong.
I’d prefer to review this film under the title Blind Alibi; the notion of how the killer uses the creature as an alibi is the key one here; even if that’s probably too Scooby Doo for today’s audiences, there’s nothing arch or camp about it here. Those seeking cheap thrills should look for creature-features elsewhere; The Leopard Man is classy, striking entertainment from the top drawer. Maybe I was too young to appreciate this film when I was a kid. As Jerry concludes, eyeing a ball that spins in perpetual motion on the top of the town’s water-fountain.…
‘Kiki, Galbraith said something to me once, — something you ought to know. We were talking and he said that people were like that ball on the fountain at the hotel –they got pushed around by things bigger than themselves. That’s the way it was with us — and we were too small to see it that way…’