Monday, 23 April 2012

The Leopard Man

Cornell Woolrich is a writer whose work was ideally suited for adaptation into movies. And this has been widely recognised by succeeding generations of film-makers – Wikipedia lists over 30 films based on his stories. One of the most acclaimed is a low-budget film noir directed byJacques Tourneur and released in 1943 – The Leopard Man. The source book is Black Alibi, published the year before.

It’s classic Woolrich stuff, with sinister imagery, macabre night-time incidents and a pervasive sense of foreboding. Other than the French duo Boileau and Narcejac, I can’t think of anyone who did this sort of thing as well and as consistently as Woolrich. Back in the 1980s, I went through a Woolrich phase, and devoured every story of his I could find, and I still rate him highly. And Tourneur makes good use of the material, with a short but snappy film, not much more than an hour long.

The setting is New Mexico. A young man, Jerry Manning, hires a black leopard as a gimmick to garner publicity for his girlfriend, who is a singer in a night club. A rival singer frightens the animal, and it escapes into the night. When a young girl is found savagely murdered, the leopard is the obvious culprit. But then another young woman is killed, and before long Jerry begins to suspect that a serial killer is at work.

Today, it’s easy to figure out what is going on, but that does not diminish the impact of the film. It’s pretty well made, and even though by modern standards it is scarcely the horrific film it was billed as 70 years ago, it’s still very watchable.

6 comments:

Sextonblake said...

It's a very good film. To be honest, a lot of the Val Lewton films are only nominally 'Horror' films. There are horror elements in them, but they refuse to be bound by the usual rules of the genre, and can be love stories, thrillers, or philosophical meditations. My favourite is still THE BODY SNATCHER. Great script and a couple of stand-out performances from Boris Karloff and Henry Daniell. Unusually for the era, the line between the good guys and the bad guys is genuinely blurred, and the finale is still scary nearly 70 years later.

Martin Edwards said...

Now I have to admit that I've never seen The Body Snatcher, but your enthusiasm makes me think I need to do so before too long. Thanks very much!

John said...

Excellent flick! Still yearning to see the filmed version of Woolrich's THE BLACK CURTAIN called STREET OF CHANCE. Among Val Lewton's producer credits I count THE SEVENTH VICTIM directed by Mark Robson as one of the most bizarre and morbid crime films of the 1940s. It still holds a potent power over me. While many modern viewers find it utterly boring I find it fascinating and hypnotic.

Richmonde said...

In a weird way, Seventh Victim was remade as Kiss Me Deadly... Seventh Victim is a brilliant film. It's missing several scenes but there's a summary (on imdb?). I remember Leopard Man being good too - saw it on the telly back when they used to play black and white movies. Sigh. Wish I'd taped them all.

Martin Edwards said...

John, that was the first Woolrich book I read - a good one. Never seen the film. I don't know The Seventh Victim - will seek it out!

Martin Edwards said...

Good to hear from you, Richmonde. The good news is that Leopard Man is available very cheaply on DVD.