Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Leopard Man features "one of the greatest horror sequences ever filmed"

The accolade in the title of this review comes from director William Friedkin, who knows a little about creating horror (The Exorcist) and suspense (the chase scene in The French Connection). Of course, I didn't need Mr. Friedkin to tell me what I already knew. I saw The Leopard Man as a kid and that specific scene etched itself into my brain. Among classic film buffs, it holds its own against more famous sequences of implied horror like the rolling ball in Fritz Lang's M.

Are the screams behind the door a
childish ploy or a frightening reality?
The Leopard Man, though, is more than a one-tricky pony. It's a fascinating suspense film set in a small New Mexico town (atmospherically created on an RKO backlot). The catalyst for the plot is a black leopard that escapes during a foolish publicity stunt. When a young girl is found clawed to death, the leopard is blamed--but was it the killer?

Some critics have complained that The Leopard Man lacks the psychological complexity of Val Lewton's other RKO thrillers, such as The Cat People and The Seventh Victim. There may be some truth to that, but it makes up for any thematic deficiencies with an intriguing structure and three visually chilling sequences.

Clo-Clo cloaked in shadows.
Screenwriters Ardel Wray and Edward Dein break conventional narrative structure by shifting the story focus when characters interact. For example, after being introduced to castanets dancer Clo-Clo (Margo), we follow her as she walks down a shadow-filled street. She talks with the fortune-teller, playfully waves her hand through a ring of cigarette smoke, and smiles at lovers kissing. Then, as Clo-Clo walks past a young girl looking out the window, the plot shifts to that girl. Later, when Clo-Clo stops at a street florist, we follow another customer to the house where she works and, again, the plot shifts to follow different characters. In both instances, the new characters become murder victims. (Interestingly, Alfred Hitchcock used a slight variation of this same narrative device 17 years later in Psycho).

The end result of the film's unusual narrative is that it keeps the viewer in a state of unease by casting aside expectations. Director Jacques Tourneur plays with viewer expectations in other ways as well. In one scene, we follow Clo-Clo down a darkened street. We expect something bad to happen, but then she reaches the safety of her home. Tourneur gives the viewer a few seconds to exhale a sigh of relief before Clo-Clo realizes she dropped something valuable on the street and goes back out into the threatening shadows.

In addition to the almost constant state of unease, Tourneur tosses in the three chilling sequences mentioned earlier. The first--and the one mentioned by Friedkin--involves a girl sent by her irritated mother to buy flour. To say more would be spoil the impact...although the scene has been copied to the point that it may not be as disturbing to new viewers as it once was.

The second of the three scenes is classic Lewton, with a young woman trapped in a spooky cemetery at sunset. She hears a man outside the cemetery wall and asks for help. He leaves to get a ladder, giving us false expectations (again) that nothing bad will happen.

The final scene, during the climax, isn't really suspenseful. It is, though, visually unhinging with a contingent of hooded figures leading a column of men with candles as they march against a gray textured sky (again, amazingly, on the RKO backlot).

Everytime I watch Val Lewton's horror films, I seem have a new favorite. Last year, after watching The Seventh Victim, it moved into my top spot...replacing The Cat People. That said, the one that keeps coming back to haunt me is The Leopard Man. It's a unique, one-of-a-kind thriller and it does indeed feature one of the greatest horror sequences ever filmed. Plus, I just watched it.


  1. Another splendid movie from the Val Lewton collection! I really enjoy CAT PEOPLE and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, but this film may be my favorite of the Tourneur/Lewton collaborations. The scene of which you (and Mr. Friedkin) speak is one that always floats to mind for me when considering horror that is implied. It's true that it's been copied numerous times, but the majority of the clones are not nearly as effective as Tourneur's sequence. Thanks for a most excellent review, Rick. I just added this movie to my viewing list for today!

  2. Rick, I am a huge Val Lewton fan, and I love the Leopard Man. That movie is first class creepy. I won't give away the girl being sent to get flour either, but you are quite right about the power of that scene. I have always thought Val Lewton would not have been able to do such wonderfully atmospheric and scary movies if he had used color. His use of shadow and light of black and white can't be beat.

    I had to laugh at the last line of your post. I do the same thing!

  3. Rick, your review inspired me to watch THE LEOPARD MAN again, and I'd forgotten how terrific the cemetery sequence was. Also, Dario Argento almost recreates the scene in his film, FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET.

    Again, a great write-up of Tourneur's film!

  4. Rick, I have not seen the film, The Leopard Man. The pictures are very interesting.. I will add this movie to my "gotta see" list. Wonderful review!

  5. Sark, now you make me want to see FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET again (which I've only seen once). Dawn, think you would like this one.

  6. Rick, loved reading your review. I haven't ever seen this, but find it interesting that Hitch may have borrowed something from this when filming Psycho--that alone makes me want to watch this film and see.

  7. Rick, this is indeed a very clever horror film. One is bathed in suspense and almost afraid to let one's guard down even for a moment. I love the device of following a character to another and then returning to the original character and then following yet another. The dark alleys offer nail biting suspense but the terror of having a little child pleading with her mother to let her in and then hearing stark silence after who knows what happened, aye carumba! A most underrated little gem is "The Leopard Man."

  8. Excellent review. Filmmakers hope to create things that will leave a lasting impression and "The Leopard Man", especially those scenes, is among the most successful. It continually draws me in.

  9. Great review, Leopard Man is one of my favorites, and Dennis O'Keefe is always good. The whole Lewton set is well worth the dough.