The Leopard Man was the third and final collaboration between producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur, following Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie. On a first viewing I regarded it as the weakest of the three, but having watched it again and listened to the commentary track by William Friedkin I’m inclined to revise my opinion dramatically.
Friedkin’s commentary track isn’t overly informative, but the points that he does make are very important and very striking. He emphasises the very unconventional and highly experimental narrative structure, and considers it to be a precursor of postmodernism and a major influence on modern movies like Pulp Fiction. I must admit that watching the movie and paying attention to the structure it really is noticeable just how revolutionary it is for a 1940s Hollywood movie. The narrative follows one character, the camera follows that character, then the camera suddenly switches its attention to some other character who has been randomly encountered, and that character then becomes the focus of the narrative. The sub-plots have no connection whatsoever with each other, apart from the fact that all become involved in the mysterious series of killings.
It’s also notable that every single event in the film is a result of pure chance, of a random conjunction of circumstances. It’s an amazingly fatalistic movie. Only one character tries to avoid her fate, and it’s her attempt to do so that dooms her. The workings of fate are senseless, random and inexorable. Everyone, both the innocent and the guilty, can be regarded as victims of fate. The second killing occurs purely as a result of an unlucky chance, a situation suddenly encountered that threw a wholly unexpected temptation in the way of one character, who might never have committed such an act otherwise.
Apart from those features there are of course the great visual set-pieces you expect in a Jacques Tourneur film. The first killing is one of those scenes that remains chilling no matter how many times you’ve seen the movie.
It’s a mystery to me why Jean Brooks and Isabel Jewell didn’t become at least minor stars. Their performances in this film and in The Seventh Victim really were exceptional. I especially loved Isabel Jewell’s world-weary fortune-teller in The Leopard Man. Lewton got generally very strong performances from all his actors in his RKO films.
For me The Leopard Man is now right up there alongside Cat People as one of the great American horror movies.