Monday, January 14, 2008


***The below post is my contribution to the Val Lewton Blogathon, hosted by The Evening Class. Please go there throughout the week to check out other posts/essays on Val Lewton's work.***

Val Lewton understood that brevity was key in making his RKO horror films successful and entertaining. Cat People, The Curse of the Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man, The Seventh Victim, and The Body Snatcher all clock in under an hour and fifteen minutes. With low-rent sets, soft scripts, fresh actors, and green directors (Tournier, Wise, and Robson) Lewton turned the cutting room floor into an artistic device. (Consequently, I think this lack of quality control is exactly what has made the inexplicably long giallo horror films of the 70's age so poorly...).

The Leopard Man was Lewton and Jacques Tourneur's final collaboration, and it's their best. The film trips a bit in the last moments, but the staging of the first two off-screen "murder by audio" killings is expert Tourneur, drawing fear not even from the shadows, but from the female victim's built-up innocence. The cut from Margaret Landy's face to a dead, extreme close-up, stare of a leopard is overpowering in its babe vs. nature implications.

The first two victims in The Leopard Man are beyond the traditional storybook example of innocence: they are hyper-wholesome (surely an intentional request of Lewton's). By today's standards, the on-screen deaths of these girls would kick up guffaws, hurrahs, and film blog debates for a week. The first, Teresa, is a poor teenager living in a one-room shack with her family. Her mother forces her out on the streets to buy corn meal for her father's tortillas. Consuelo, the second victim, awakens on her birthday to a bouquet of flowers and a love-letter promise from her boyfriend to meet at the cemetery for a surprise. Both girls are violently mauled.

Considering that 1943 was smack dab in the middle of the Production Code years, Lewton and Tourneur got away with much. Beyond the brutal deaths of too young girls, the unveiled killer at the end of the movie alludes to his sexual deviancy:

"...her little frail body, soft skin... and then she screamed".

Then a gunshot goes off, cutting off the sick details before they go further. The girl's boyfriend, shooter of the gun, serving as the surrogate censorship enforcer.

All of this is rather heavy, and unexpected, from a sixty-six minute 1940's horror film titled, The Leopard Man. For certain, this ain't no The Man With Nine Lives.


Maya said...

Mark, thanks for kicking off the Val Lewton blogathon with such a keen understanding of Lewton's techniques and your observation of the prurient interest in the insinuated sexual deviancy of the film's villain!

Fox said...

Thanks! And thanks for hosting the Blog-a-thon. I'm looking forward to checking out everyone's posts.