When Val Lewton went to work making movies at RKO in the early 1940s, he was basically given two mandates: produce scary films and keep the budgets low. While low budget horror wasn’t that much of a trick, RKO didn’t want to release movies that looked like they were produced by a Poverty Row operation that was cheaper than Monogram. He immediately figured out a way to create films that frightened audiences without letting them think they were slumming it for screams. He and director Jacques Tourneur struck legendary status with their first two releases. Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie let moviegoers know that RKO could be as frightening as anything Universal put out. When it came to their third release, they brought back their original star to make The Leopard Man.
At a nightclub in New Mexico Clo-Clo ( Lost Horizon‘s Margo) is stealing the floor show with her dance routine that sizzles up the audience. Kiki (The Seventh Victim‘s Jean Brooks) reminds the audience who is the headliner when she enters the room in a hot black dress and a black leopard on a leash. This intimidating scene goes bad quick when the big cat breaks free and escapes the club. This is not good as her publicist (Las Vegas Shakedown‘s Dennis O’Keefe) had only rented the animal and his owner can’t afford to change his act. The initial search for the missing leopard turns up empty. But the creature has not run into the desert. He’s lurking around town. Very quickly female victims turn up at night with bites and claw marks. But the owner is unsure why his leopard would be attacking people since that’s not it’s nature. During the investigation, there’s a suspicion that it could be a man killing woman and using the leopard as cover. Whether it be human or feline, this New Mexico town is not safe after the sun goes down.
The Leopard Man brings back the leopard from Cat People so the elegant creature can get more screen time. The film itself once more plays with the question of what is really happening. Is the leopard going nuts and killing people or is it a serial killer who uses the leopard as an excuse to kill without leaving tracks? This film sets up Red Dragon or Manhunter with the chance of encountering a transformative serial killer. Lewton and Tourneur once more that a low budget doesn’t mean less scary. Roger Corman once said that scariest thing in a movie is a shut door. The Leopard Man really proves this theory in a scene where all comes into play. This shut door moment is so intense and yet so much of the nightmare doesn’t play on the screen
The Leopard Man is why Val Lewton’s productions are so memorable. They are scary without being schlocky. There’s no rubber masked monsters on the screen. There’s shadows and shut doors to scare audiences. The low budget doesn’t give Val an excuse to cut back on the tension. The Leopard Man is a sleek beast still prowling for victims to scare out of their seats.
The video is 1.33:1 full frame. The new transfer really brings out the darkness of the shadows. This is a remarkable upgrade from the original DVD. The audio is DTS-HD MA Mono. The levels are fine and you can hear the leopard growly clearly. The movie is subtitled in English.
Commentary Tracks include one with historian Constaintine Nasr and another will filmmaker William Friedkin. Nasr gives a lot of background to the film. Friedkin has been obsessed about the film for 45 years.
Theatrical Trailer (1:05) hints that this might be a werewolf, but with leopard traits.
Still Gallery (8:36) has plenty of publicity stills, posters, lobby cards and even the entrance to a theater.
Scream Factory presents The Leopard Man. Directed by Jacques Tourneur. Screenplay by: Ardel Wray & Edward Dein. Starring: Dennis O’Keefe, Margo & Jean Brooks. Rated: Unrated. Running Time: 66 minutes. Released: July 30, 2019
Tags: Scream Factory, The Leopard Man, Val Lewton