Friday, October 14, 2005

The Death Card!

Writing about Val Lewton's movies, Gary Giddins has some interesting comments on Lewton's third horror movie and his last with director Jacques Tourneur, The Leopard Man:

A second look is especially warranted by Tourneur's "The Leopard Man," which has turned out to be Lewton's most influential film, though both men dismissed it at the time as cheaply violent... [It] keeps violence off-screen but cruelly focuses on the plight of its victims. In effect, it is the first slasher film, though we never see any slashing. Yet the murders are more disturbing than those in "Halloween" and its imitators, in which death is reserved for the sexually aggressive: "The Leopard Man" dispatches two virgins and one (apparent) hooker, and not when we expect. Twice we follow the wonderfully haughty dancer Clo-Clo (played by Margo), whose castanets augment Roy Webb's superb score, on menacing walks. Each time she escapes while we are sidelined to young women she passes in the street. No one who has seen the puddle beneath the door can forget it.

The Leopard Man is definitely the closest Lewton ever came to making what would later be called an exploitation movie. Most of his films deal more with the threat of violence than actual violence; one murder per movie is usually enough. The Leopard Man has four murders, and while only one character actually dies onscreen, the first three deaths -- all women -- are deliberately made as horrific as possible, with bloodcurdling screams and (in the first, most famous death) plenty of blood.

Each of these deaths is the culmination of a long vignette about the woman about to be killed, establishing who she is, what she does, and what ultimately leads her out into the night to be killed. The first character, a poor teenaged girl, is sent out by her mother to buy something for dinner; we follow her to the store and back, worrying every step of the way that something terrible is going to happen to her. Lewton and Tourneur throw in a repeat of their famous "bus shot" from Cat People (here involving a speeding train whose noise not only scares us but helps lead indirectly to the girl's death) to make us feel like there's a chance that it was only a fake-out, that she's not really going to get killed. And then she not only gets killed, but dies for the most horrible reason: because her mother wouldn't let her back in the house without the groceries. The next death involves a rich teenage girl who goes to a cemetary to meet her lover: as in most slasher movies, having a boyfriend leads to death. And the last death occurs because Clo-Clo loses money in the street and rushes out of her house to get it; she then puts on lipstick thinking she sees a lover, only to find that it's the killer.

The overall impression given by the movie is that the main preoccupations of everyday life -- sex, money, and food -- all lead to death. And the main point of the movie seems to be to show us obviously doomed characters and wait for them to die. These are all things that would be taken up by the violent shockers of the Psycho and Halloween type, the type of movie that, ironically, is considered the antithesis of the Lewton style.

I wouldn't say The Leopard Man is one of the better Lewtons; because so much time is spent on the three big murder set-pieces, the film is unbalanced, never creating a compelling reason to follow the two main characters (who are basically responsible for the first death and, until about halfway into the picture, don't seem to really care). And because it tries, not very successfully, to conceal the identity of the killer until the climax, we don't get much exploration of the killer or of the nature of evil, which are the main things that hold a good slasher movie together. Still, as Giddins says, it has probably influenced more films than any of the more famous Lewtons.

Tourneur himself thought this the weakest of his three films with Lewton: "It was too exotic, it was neither fish nor fowl: a series of vignettes, and it didn't hold together." He also expressed regret that RKO never teamed him and Lewton again after that: "We had the perfect collaboration -- Val was the dreamer, the idealist, and I was the materialist, the realist. We should have gone right on doing bigger, more ambitious pictures and not just horror movies." Certainly Lewton made some terrific movies with other directors, and Tourneur made history with Out of the Past and the Lewton-esque Night of the Demon. But what they might have done together on an "A" picture, we can only dream.

Incidentally, the cinematographer of the film, Robert De Grasse, ended his career as the director of photography for The Dick Van Dyke Show.

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