I had to look up the name of those little clicky clacky musical things that you put on your fingers to make noise in musical settings to write this post. I used to play with those little things when I was in the high school band - I don't think I ever used them for real musical purposes, but I did use them like a boss - but I never knew their name. Anyway, they're called castanets (here's what Wikipedia says about them), and they play a crucial role in Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton's wicked little film The Leopard Man.
Imagine yourself at one of those slightly sleazy, slightly exotic, completely captivating naturally beautiful places of the 1940s. There's a not-quite-Rita-Hayworth dancer named Clo-Clo performing, but she's interrupted by a rival named Kiki who walks onto the show floor with a friggin' leopard. Clo-Clo, not one to be upstaged, takes her vicious little castanets - which can definitely deserve a place among the most grating musical instruments under the wrong circumstances - and snaps them in the face of the leopard, who promptly dashes from the premises and escapes into the small New Mexico town.
If you've seen The Leopard Man, you don't need to imagine the setting event that I just described. If you haven't, you might think it's a pretty ridiculous set up for a horror tale. Two showgirls are feuding and bring castanets and a leopard into the fray? Even Elizabeth Berkley wouldn't stoop that low! But, if you know anything about Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur, you know that this type of event isn't played with even a tongue in cheek. This leopard is serious business, and they don't offer any hint that we should think otherwise. The whole incident is played as a straight forward shock to all characters involved - including the waiter who flashes a freshly clawed hand to the camera - which means we aren't surprised the first time we see a character's blood spill as their life is ended. Oh, you didn't think blood spilled in films of 1943? Don't tell Lewton that.
Like many horror films that would follow - even in slasher films released more than 40-50 years later - the first victim in the film is a young woman who we barely get the chance to meet. We know her name is Teresa, and later investigation shows that she's portrayed by a 20 year old actress named Margaret Landry who must have just been trying to make a name for herself. She gets to walk alone, she gets to gasp in fear, and she gets to scream and beg and plead for her life...and that's it. She has to be one of the first actresses to achieve this "honor" in a horror film. Looking back, her work stands up to all the screaming first blood victims we'd meet in horror's bloody age.
With plenty of moments that would later become slasher traditions - from an opening voyeuristic camera outside the showgirls' dressing rooms to a police officer discussing traits of a "man who kills for pleasure" - The Leopard Man has an interesting place in the mind of the horror historian. There are no more than three kills in the film and a few lulls in the proceedings, but Tourneur shows his skill for building tension repeatedly. This was the third film the director made for Lewton - following the far more famous Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie - but Tourneur's skill for storytelling might be at its best here.
It's easy to miss some of the effortless cuts between characters and storylines at work in The Leopard Man. This is a film that runs a mere 66 minutes, and a part of me wants to argue that the plot really doesn't take off until around the 50 minute mark. But a closer inspection shows just how well Tourneur bounces from character to character and involves us in their everyday lives. For example, Clo-Clo seems like our main character in the opening 10 minutes, but the camera simply moves off of her to Teresa as they pass on the street and goes on with her story from there, bouncing back to other characters when necessary. Director William Friedkin does a commentary of the film on its DVD, and hypothesizes that Quentin Tarantino may have been influenced by Tourneur's skill for intertwining character paths when he made Pulp Fiction. Friedkin's assessment seems to be a reach at face value, but I can see his point if I really pay close attention to the story's twists.
The Leopard Man is a fascinating piece of horror history when it's dissected, as there are clear parallels to be drawn to modern cinema favorites. But it's also a great example of the early Hollywood murder mystery and a dark shocker with a surprisingly morbid ending. There are plenty of ways a viewer can absorb The Leopard Man - maybe you just want to admire the "acting" of Dynamite, the actor/leopard who also starred in Cat People - which should make it a fun viewing for any lover of classic horror cinema.