Home Video Hovel: The Leopard Man, by West Anthony
If you’ve been listening to Adam Roche’s podcast The Secret History Of Hollywood, you know that he has been laboring for over two years now on an exhaustive multi-part series on producer Val Lewton; the episodes are few and far between but make no mistake, the man’s a volume dealer–the shortest among them is 90 minutes long while the longest is three hours longer than that. Informative, entertaining and engrossing, “Shadows: The Val Lewton Story” is an ideal deep dive for hardcore Lewton fans; everyone else can just enjoy the movies he produced,such as the 1943 chiller The Leopard Man.
For the most part a very good film, The Leopard Man doesn’t quite rate highest marks because it fails to live up to the two things it has going for it: a snappy title and an opening sequence that is easily one of the most terrifying scenes in all of horror cinema, a scene so breathtakingly brilliant that the rest of the picture almost inevitably cannot match its intensity. Dennis O’Keefe stars as Jerry, a publicity hound in a New Mexico nightclub (arguably the most improbable element of the story) who rents a leopard to accompany his gal Kiki (Jean Brooks); big surprise, things go awry and the large kitty escapes, thus setting in motion the rest of the story. Next thing you know, women–and only women–are turning up dead. Either that’s one very selective leopard, or something else is going on….
The solution to the mystery will probably be a bit unsatisfying for those who saw the film’s title and expected something on the supernatural side, which is probably the very expectation RKO was planting in audiences’ minds with that title (the picture is based on a Cornell Woolrich story titled Black Alibi), fueled no doubt by the success of Lewton’s Cat People. Leading viewers to expect one kind of thriller and then handing them another kind of thriller might leave some feeling cheated; and if the climax of the film was as pulse-pounding as its earlier scenes, it would be one of the greatest thrillers of Hollywood’s golden age. But while director Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past) creates an appropriately shadowy and spooky atmosphere, the story doesn’t really hold up all the way through and the ending feels like a bit of a letdown.
The new Shout! Factory Blu-ray (as part of its Scream Factory imprint) faithfully reproduces that shadowy look–the aural and visual elements still look very good after over 75 years. The extra features include two commentary tracks: a new one with film historian Constantine Nasr, the other an older (and somewhat more enthusiastic) one with director William Friedkin that originally appeared in a Lewton box set about fourteen years ago. Rounding out the extras is a trailer that is amazingly even more misleading than the film’s title, although to be fair nobody ever accused Hollywood of truth in advertising.
The Leopard Man is Tourneur’s third and final collaboration with Val Lewton after Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie (but only the second collaboration with the film’s leopard–they worked together in Cat People); while he worked in several genres, these films are likely the ones Tourneur will be remembered for best. Such is the power of Lewton. Maybe some of Lewton’s films–like this one–come up short here and there but his RKO productions remain treasured and influential among horror aficionados. It is kind of remarkable that Warner Bros., who owns the RKO library, has begun licensing his films to Shout! Factory (they also released The Body Snatcher earlier this year) and the Criterion Collection (who grabbed Cat People) instead of creating their own Blu-rays on their Warner Archive imprint; then again, putting Lewton’s work in the hands of companies who seem to have a real affinity for it is a gift horse whose mouth we would do well to keep shut. There are several more Lewton productions yet to be upgraded to Blu-ray but I’m sure they’re on the way; until then, why not have some fun with this one?