As a film enthusiast, I have been remarkably remiss in watching the works of Val Lewton. In the 1940s this film producer and writer supervised a string of cheaply-made B-movies for RKO Pictures. These were films that punched well above their weight, and far surpassed the general quality expected for what was essentially filler for movie theatres; cheap entertainment to screen before a much more prestigious main feature. Cat People (1942) is likely Lewton’s most famous production. Others included I Walked with a Zombie (1943), The Ghost Ship (1943), and Isle of the Dead (1945). I have started with The Leopard Man (1943) – basically because it is a film I picked up from a charity shop a few years ago, and which has been sitting on the shelf ever since.
In a New Mexico nightclub a stunt with a leopard goes awry, leading the animal to escape from the venue and into the wilds outside a small town. When a young woman is killed, seemingly by the escaped leopard, the local police force set out to hunt the animal down. Music promoter Jerry Manning (Dennis O’Keefe) is not so sure, and suspects the killer may be a human being.
Before heading into territory that will give away the film’s plot, it is worth pausing to admire director Jacques Tourneur’s excellent work on The Leopard Man‘s visuals. The shot composition and lightning are admirable and effective, and gives a nice sense of menace to the film’s more suspenseful scenes. The performances are relatively broad and do not particularly impress, but then this is quite typical for a B-movie that was produced on a tight schedule with little money for extensive takes or rehearsal. The film also has a fairly short running time, again something typical of this kind of low-budget fare, but it does mean that the narrative feels less complex than it could have been. On the other hand, these restrictions do inspire a film that means business: the story does not let up for a minute, and both starts at a run and exits as early as it can manage. This is entertaining pulp fiction produced with a keen visual eye.
What makes the film stand out in retrospect, however, is the nature of its antagonist, and discussing that aspect of the film regrettably requires openly disclosing the ending. That the killer, who murders several women over the course of the movie, is human is not in itself a surprise; it would make for a weird thriller to have the sole voice tracking down a human killer to find out it was simply a leopard all along. What is remarkable is that the killer is psychologically compelled to it. They are not acts of revenge or jealousy but simple compulsion. The killer is not described in the film as a serial killer, simply because the term did not come into use until the 1970s. The Leopard Man is nonetheless one of Hollywood’s first-ever serial killer thrillers – indeed some historians have claimed it is the very first thriller of its kind. When viewed by a 21st century audience, it feels unusually contemporary for a film from 1943. When viewed in its original context, it becomes a tremendously progressive and inventive thriller indeed.