The Strange Pleasure of the Leopard Man: Gender, Genre and Authorship in a Val Lewton Thriller

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The recent release by Turner Home Entertainment of the entire Val Lewton horror collection on DVD is both a cause for celebration and an incentive to reevaluation. As one film (The Ghost Ship, 1943) has long been unavailable, this is the first time in sixty years that all of the great RKO producer's influential thrillers can be viewed together as an oeuvre. While a few of the films have stood the test of time, recognized as classics for decades, others have been paid little notice, and a few entirely forgotten. What follows is a close look one of the latter, 1943's The Leopard Man, adapted from the great pulp novelist Cornell Woolrich's Black Alibi. (1)

This story of the hunt for a disturbed serial killer who uses a cat's claw as his weapon of choice was the third film produced by the unit, following their masterpieces Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1942). Jacques Tourneur, who directed all three, would go on to make the film noir classic Out of the Past (1947). Auteur studies of the unit's films, whether focused on Lewton or Tourneur, normally mention The Leopard Man only in passing; Cat People and Zombie are the great works and Leopard was a misfire. Three books published on Val Lewton share a dismissive attitude toward the film. The only sustained analysis in English is in Chris Fujiwara's book, Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall. (2) While it makes for an excellent starting point, there is much more to say about this flawed yet fascinating work.

I agree with the consensus that Leopard lacks the transcendent poetic quality of its two predecessors. Yet, there are a number of reasons why it deserves a closer look. A proper examination does not exist of the film's source material and the team's work of adaptation. Woolrich remains to this day an underappreciated figure in America literature, arguably contributing more material to film, radio and television than did any other pulp writer of his generation. His best novels of the 1940s, of which Black Alibi is one, can easily stand alongside those of his more celebrated contemporaries. Leopard also marks a number of firsts. The fusion of Woolrich, Lewton and Tourneur make the film arguably the first noir-horror hybrid, entangling generic, stylistic and thematic elements that remain in place in cinema to this day. Additionally, the rise of the serial killer as a significant figure in American popular culture lends importance to what is perhaps the first realistic representation of this modern monster in American movies.

It is the unique relays between authorship, genre and 1940s gender issues that animate this modest thriller, priming it for close study. My analysis of The Leopard Man will concentrate on three areas: affect, theme, and character. In all of these, the film has clear intentions, but its success with each is limited. At the level of affect, Lewton and his team have set out to create an atmosphere of terror and suspense, much as they had so successfully done with their first two attempts at the horror genre. In its best moments, the film equals its predecessors for nail-biting tension and frights. Yet, its unique approach in this area limits its ability to develop a narrative as thematically rich as those earlier works. The film's central theme of doomed fortune is both a legitimate poetic approach to sadness and loss, and a disturbing evasion of the real social issues of gender and violence tied to its representations. The tension between allegory and history plays out in the development of the story's central characters: Jerry Manning, the protagonist/investigator; Clo-Clo, the doomed dancer; and, Dr. Galbraith, the serial killer.

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By comparing the film to its source novel by Woolrich, considering its relationship to horror and film noir, and reflecting on its representation of men and women, I hope to arrive at a better understanding of its ideological tensions as well as an appreciation for the film's strengths in spite of its weaknesses. …