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.