It's the last of the three films Jacques Tourneur directed for Val Lewton, the others being Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie. Apparently Tourneur disliked it, saying, "It was too exotic, it was neither fish nor fowl: a series of vignettes, and it didn't hold together." It's certainly a fragmented piece of work that at times comes across as more of a mosaic than a movie, but for me it's that very fragmentation that makes the film remarkable. It's also been said that this doesn't have as much going on thematically, but for me this is a rare example of form making up for content.
As with Isle of the Dead, the movie's setting is surprisingly detailed. They're digging down into the region's language, culture and history. We're in New Mexico this time, with impoverished Spanish-speaking locals and comparatively affluent visitors. We've got a memorial march for the Indians who were killed centuries before by the conquistadores, led by priests in what look like the black equivalent of Klu Klux Klan robes. All that would have been interesting in a normal film, but what The Leopard Man does is to flit from character to character in a way that leaves you feeling as if you've been living there for years. Sometimes it's confusing. The camera has a way of drifting from following Clo-Clo to some other local girl in a manner almost calculated to deceive. We start off being taken backstage in a night club, with the bitchy singers and the cigarette girl who thinks she could do their job. Soon though we're meeting a family where the father's got to work late and the daughter's being sent out across town to buy a sack of corn meal even though it's after hours and she doesn't have the money for it. A shopowner eventually lets her have it on credit, saying that "the poor don't cheat each other". There's a rich girl who's unwittingly the cause of a mini-barter economy in the bunch of flowers her servants are buying for her. All these social strata mix and swirl together, until eventually you're remembering passing faces you saw fifteen minutes ago as if your brains have been addled by New Mexico overload.
Critics have called this film "uncertain in structure". Me, I think it bulldozes through "uncertain" and becomes fascinating, with a story shape you'd never see from Hollywood today. What's more, all this is crammed into the shortest of Val Lewton's nine RKO horror films. It's 66 minutes long.
Another thing that might unsettle some people is the way the film doesn't sit comfortably in any genre. Is it even a horror film? It has elements of all kinds of genres, including what could be said to be foreshadowing of Hitchcock's suspense thrillers and Italian giallo. Me, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into. I'd bought the thing simply on the strength of Val Lewton's name. Was it supernatural? The title is reminiscent of Cat People, anyway. Was it a whodunnit with plucky amateur detectives? Was anyone even going to get killed? I'm sure that knowing the answers to these questions in advance would rob the movie of much of its mystery and possibly even let you second-guess it, but personally I found the movie kept surprising me. Its structure is a big part of that, but I'm also talking about things like the sugar daddy scene. I thought I could see where that was going. I was wrong. This may be a 1940s B-movie, but the characterisation here has more realism and shades of grey than you'd expect to find in a comparable film today. Then there's the way in which the characters are capable of suggesting possibilities I hadn't thought of. This is a film that actively resists being pigeon-holed and will keep popping out if you find yourself unconsciously trying to do so.
Don't think you can get much from the title, either. Val Lewton's films were written to fit their titles rather than the other way around, although in this case it feels more like free association.
As far as I'm concerned, the main problem is the acting and a certain amount of cliche in the film's portrayal of its heroes. This was a low-budget movie, as was all of Val Lewton's RKO work, and I suppose the odd weak line delivery from a one-scene character is just one of those things one has to live with. Most of the cast are fine, but the lead characters could perhaps have done more to overcome the challenge of some on-the-nose dialogue. It's frustrating because at the beginning of the film they're downright impressive. To put it bluntly, in the beginning everyone's a bitch. A tragedy happens and the odd thing is that four people could all independently say that it was entirely their fault... and be correct. Dennis O'Keefe and Jean Brooks play such characters, apparently hard-nosed with just a hint of a softer side, but eventually the dialogue starts underlining it all in red pen and the two of them stop being interesting and start making you roll your eyes. Only a tad, mind you. I liked them, but they'd have worked so much better had more been left unsaid.
Oh, and the actor playing Charlie How-Come reminded me of Klaus Maria Brandauer. (He's the Bond villain in Never Say Never Again, in case you were wondering.) I even looked him up on the internet afterwards to see if they were related, but no. His name's Abner Biberman and he worked in film and TV for many decades, initially as an actor but later as a director.
Let's leave aside all that, though. This is a Val Lewton horror film, so how does it stand up as horror? The answer is "nicely". It's doing it all through atmosphere and ambiance, of course. There's one scene where I don't even know what I'm frightened of, with the audience's only direct sensory evidence being a sound that I still haven't identified. What was that noise? Buggered if I know, but I'm happy it wasn't me who heard it late one night in New Mexico. Then there's the first kill, with that ghastly irony giving a final twist to what had already been a spookily effective bit of horror cinema. That train made me jump.
I really enjoyed this film. It reminds me of Thornton Wilder in the way that it seems so dedicated to being a microcosm of its chosen world, sparing you nothing in its understated, slightly eerie way. It's a script that avoids black and white, instead being full of greys and all the more fascinating for it. It doesn't strike me as the kind of film that I'd expect to be a huge hit, but then again this was wartime and this is a movie in which random death seems to fit into some greater, almost metaphysical framework. Note the way in which a fortune teller keeps wandering in and out of the film for no apparent reason, predicting Clo-Clo's future and getting cross with the way the death card keeps cropping up.
This feels to me like an intelligent film. I'm always interested in seeing more of those.