Beware the Darkness – The Leopard Man (1943)

The Leopard Man was a Jacques Tourneur-directed film for Val Lewton that was a perfect example of making do with what you had and it managed to look like a million bucks despite its low budget.  Much like other Lewton films and many more to follow from every other studio, special effects were secondary to the story and direction, not necessarily because they planned it that way, but because they had no money and so a focus upon the former was key to making the best film possible.  So, despite the fact that the movie was about a leopard or as it might have been inferred by the title, a leopard man, you heard about it more than you saw it.  the leopard man 35That ended up being perfectly all right though as Tourneur did some tight work directing and the photography by Robert De Grasse was spot-on delivering a very eerie picture that would begin with a leopard as suspect in the multiple deaths and ending with something else entirely.

It is the mystery and the unknown which really makes this movie work as well as it does.  Never knowing what is going to happen, though you can usually tell when a young lady is walking down a street alone, gives the movie a bit of excitement, as well as upping the tension greatly and as the mystery deepens and more bodies start to turn up, your curiosity grows with every passing minute.  It is a very taut movie and though it is not as well-known as some of Lewton’s other films, notably Cat People, it is just as good with a very interesting ending, especially given the time period when the picture was made.

the leopard man 29For a black and white film, it is also very dark.  Like the best horrors of the time, it makes use of the darkness to effectively jog the viewer’s imagination.  Instead of simply showing the leopard, we are made to imagine it and more often than not and what the viewer comes up with in their mind is far more terrible and scary than what could ever be shown on screen.  It works wonders in this movie because not only are you scared of what might be within that black nothingness; you are scared of it as well.  It creeps up on the characters, enveloping everything like death has come to claim them.  More so than the threat of the leopard, the darkness is what brings the fright and the makers of the film use that to fantastic effect.

Based upon the book Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich and adapted by Ardel Wray and Edward Dein, the story may not have been the most original whodunit nor as thrilling as others, but due in part to everything that went into the picture including actors Dennis O’Keefe, Jean Brooks and Isabel Jewell, the film managed to be highly entertaining with some genuine, if slightly tame by today’s standards, scares.

4 out of 5

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