The Leopard Man

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Shout! Factory;
Horror;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Dennis O’Keefe, Margo, Jean Brooks.

Directed by Jacques Tourneur shortly after he and producer Val Lewton turned The Cat People into one of the most profitable sleepers of the entire World War II movie era, 1943’s The Leopard Man was the third of nine creepy features Lewton made for RKO during his famously remarkable run from 1942 to 1946. It is also, for some, the most problematic due to its unusual story construction, and it didn’t help matters that when Warner Home Entertainment released an overall terrific Lewton box in 2005, The Leopard Man print was the one entry whose print didn’t look very good.

This second problem has been solved by this new Scream Factory release of a new 4K remastering off the original negative; seeing it at its best, one marvels (at least in its interiors and street scenes) how Lewton was able to create an acceptable New Mexico town on 59 cents and a lot of sets/costumes scavenged from past RKO films. Beyond this, was there ever a movie from that studio that didn’t benefit from its Roy Webb score? I only have to hear a few strains from any of them to be transported back to a TV set in the late ’50s and early ’60s, when the RKO catalog got played to death by local stations everywhere. Welcomely.

The structural oddity of this 66-minute feature (which was actually cut some for its re-issue before the footage was eventually restored) has to do with the lobbing of its most chilling salvo so early in the picture. A borrowed leopard from a traveling circus has escaped town and nocturnally kills a screaming young girl (after a late trip to the store and then a desperate chase to her front door). Mom’s inside, and she’s temporarily miffed at her daughter’s tardiness; as a result, she takes her time answering it until the screams and pounding get a little too insistent, by which time, it’s too late. One can easily see why The Exorcist director William Friedkin calls this one of the great horrific suspense scenes of all time, which it is.

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Even though this set piece is powerful enough to carry a bottom-line interesting curio over its short running time, the movie does peak early — though it is interesting to see how the borrowed leopard escapes in the first place. An overeager press agent (Dennis O’Keefe) borrows the creature to upstage in real time the nightclub act of a rival to one of his clients; spooked, the animal escapes and runs out the entrance into the night. It’s really tough to see how the leopard could possibly be rattled; it’s only hit by nightclub lights, well-dressed patrons reveling at their tables and the fact that the rival performer (Margo) is insistently playing her castanets.

Margo, who should have had a better career, is really good as the woman who for a while is the central character — worried about what a local fortune teller’s “cards” might hold. Previously memorable in Lost Horizon and (if memory serves) her screen debut in the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur Crime Without Passion, she was apparently politically blacklisted in later years — though you’d think that just the fact that she was married to Eddie Albert (who reputedly rescued 70 Marines at Tarawa) would have gotten her over that hump. As far as I know, I hosted Margo’s last public appearance of note a little more than a year before her death — an impromptu affair when we pulled her out of the audience at the AFI Theater when I was interviewing Albert in stage during a weekend tribute that included a sell-out Green Acres afternoon. (Footnote: He was so happy to learn that he and Acres were in Gene Sculatti’s must-read Catalog of Cool — along with 3D View Masters and Louis Prima — that I gave him my copy.) But I digress.

O’Keefe was around in bit parts forever before kind of making it in the mid-’40s and early ’50s as a dependable ‘B’-movie regular. He wasn’t an actor of much depth, but he had a likable presence both in light comedies and crime melodramas (I was surprised by how easy he was to take playing an insurance investigator during my recent viewing of the 1949 ‘B’-pic Cover Up, which you wouldn’t really expect to be on Blu-ray but is). With a few exceptions, ‘B’-pictures are what he made, as with the first movie I ever saw him in (a theatrical first-run of 1955’s Chicago Syndicate, a passably time-killing glob of Sam Katzman/Fred Sears cheese whose ad copy could and should have screamed, “And with Xavier Cugat as Benny Chico”). The Leopard Man is one off the few O’Keefe movies whose title might spark recognition by the non-hard core that nonetheless knows a little something about the movies.

Instead of his character being arrested on some kind of charge after the first killing (yes, there are more) or having Nancy Grace put him on her hit list, we’ll note that this was a nowhere Southwestern town away from big-city forces, though you’d think that some of its young men would have been draft-eligible. (WWII is rarely, if ever, a force in Lewton horror, even those few taking place in time settings or milieus where it would apply.) Instead, O’Keefe and the performer he manages (Jean Brooks, a versatile actress who succumbed to alcohol) are allowed to sleuth the case — which becomes a case with each new homicide. The victims are always young women, which gets increasingly suspicious, leading some to wonder if the cat really is responsible. As in the first killing, Tourneur gets a lot out of his “is the creature nearby?” scenes, including a beaut where you can’t tell if a tiny speck of light at night is the cat’s eyes or a reflection of something.

There are two bonus commentaries — one by Friedkin, the other a highly informative nuts-and-bolts one by film historian Constantine Nasr that gives a compelling back-dropper about the kind of miserable-sounding life that source author Cornell Woolrich seems to have led. These voiceovers are complementary, with Friedkin mounting a vigorous defense of the picture while acknowledging certain shortcomings. Even though The Leopard Man tends to take up one story, drop it and go on to another with perhaps a haphazard sense of direction, Friedkin likes this structure and offers a brief that this was one of the first modern Hollywood movies of its type due to its unconventional, non-linear storytelling. As with Alfred Hitchcock pulling the rug out from Janet Leigh a third of the way into Psycho.

I can’t say I totally agree, though I do see his point, which had not occurred to me before. And besides, Lewton follow-up The Seventh Victim doesn’t cohere particularly well, and yet it’s probably my favorite of the series (out of four or five contenders) because I can think of few Hollywood films from the 1940s that so get under your skin. This is a great service that Shout/Scream Factory is performing, getting this milestone collection out in even better prints than I was able to get for the AFI Theater when I was programming. I would really salivate to see Victim and I Walked With a Zombie, in particular, get their Blu-ray day.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Klute’ and ‘The Leopard Man’

Raw Deal: Special Edition (1948)

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

ClassicFlix;
Film Noir Drama;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Dennis O’Keefe, Claire Trevor, Marsha Hunt, Raymond Burr.

Despite enough prowess shooting in color to have won an Oscar for photographing the ballet sequence in An American in Paris, the still revered John Alton ranks way up there with, say, RKO, real-life rap-sheet artiste Lawrence Tierney and the young Anthony Mann as an automatic word-association touchstone when it comes to even rudimentary discussions of film noir. Much of Alton’s photographic work was for Mann himself before the latter went all big-time to direct James Stewart, Charlton Heston and let us not forget Mario Lanza (in Serenade, to save you an IMDb.com stop-off) in major studio endeavors with real budgets. Raw Deal is one of the pictures on which Mann and Alton collaborated for the tiny, relatively short-lived but always-resourceful distributor Eagle-Lion. Running a tight 84 minutes before Raymond Burr takes a memorable big bounce in the climax, it had been preceded by the team’s T-Men, which became one of the standout movie sleepers of 1947 (maybe the sleeper) after that undercover treasury agent melodrama rated a spread in Life magazine, not your everyday occurrence.

Both films shared the same male lead, Dennis O’Keefe, who had recently come into his own with, among other projects, a couple well-received comedies after a long apprenticeship grind. He now suddenly found himself an ideal actor of noir, thanks to looks on the high-side of “Average Joe” and a demeanor that suggested he could take care of himself. I became kind of a fan early on as a child courtesy of Chicago Syndicate (featuring Xavier Cugat as “Benny Chico”) and Inside Detroit — both of them metropolis-underbelly exposés that I caught at my nearby Lane Theater in 1955 and ’56 in a possible attempt to gauge whether five-a-year director Fred Sears (who also had five films in the can when he died of a heart attack at 44) was an auteur. OK, I’m kidding with the auteur crack, but not so about O’Keefe, who’s something of a comfortable presence throughout Raw Deal despite its occasional pronounced brutality, including a pair of wall-mounted antlers that put featured henchman John Ireland’s face in need of Michael DeBakey’s best suture kit. One unexpected extra in this release’s bonus section is an interview with O’Keefe’s son. Nice.

This said, Deal has been equally positioned by some as a “woman’s picture” — notwithstanding the still eye-opening bit where heavy-in-both-senses Burr heaves a flambé at a nagging live-in who’s getting on his nerves (something apparently easy to do). Truth to tell, the picture is a love triangle as much as it is anything, with sympathetic narrator/moll Claire Trevor frustrated that breaking O’Keefe out of jail hasn’t been enough and that Marsha Hunt (employed by O’Keefe’s lawyer) is falling for him against her better judgment and with some small degree of reciprocity. Hunt, an interestingly complicated character, even finds herself a tad excited over entering a world of crime — not nearly to the degree of say, Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy but enough to make us wonder what’s going on in her complicated head. Helping the audience not to be complicit in these shenanigans as well is the fact that O’Keefe has actually taken the rap for Burr and has been stiffed on money owed to him, which explains the latter’s nervy state.

Like most Eagle-Lions, Deal has been fairy seeable for years but in prints of varying quality — none of them capable of showing what Alton could do and does here. I remember a longtime friend of mine coming out of a mint 35mm print of John Ford’s black-and-white My Darling Clementine years ago and raving about how Joe MacDonald’s photography showcased 50 shades of gray (back when there was a different vowel in “gray” and the phrase a purer connotation). Something like that happens here in the nocturnal woodsy scenes in which the permutations of foliage spread out in minute detail — this, of course, in addition to the expected shadowy photography of actors. Which, in this case, is also full of surprisingly complex and situation-revealing blocking that Mann was also great at, even amid a short shooting schedule.

Deal is the newest release from ClassicFlix, a distributor that really knows how to ask for money. But it has also done a stellar job making films that have for decades being seeable in compromised form and making them look the best they have since their original releases, which usually date back to somewhere around the time when I was spitting up on my crib bumpers. There’s some really first-rate talent on the bonus extras: Jeremy Arnold for the voiceover commentary, who, in news to me, is a protégé of Mann expert, movie expert and all-around great person Jeanine Basinger; Twilight Time’s Julie Kirgo; director/historian Courtney Joyner; and arguably dominant Alan K. Rode, who’s had a great recent run benchmarked by his mammoth Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film — a 700-pager I was rolling along in, lickety-split, when Michael Woolf’s stop-the-presses Fire and Fury put me on a Rode pause button (absolutely temporary) just as I was getting to The Adventures of Robin Hood. There’s a before/after digital restoration comparison — your eyes will tell the story — and an essay by Max Alvarez, who wrote The Crime Films of Anthony Mann, which constituted most of the director’s early career. And by the way, an on-camera Rode gets off a really good one here about the size of Burr’s shoulders.

Mann would soon branch out in his subject matter, even as his skill with black-and-white briefly sustained itself before he mostly began working in color. Criterion did a wonderful job with the DVD for The Furies — a Mann Western I’ve always liked a lot and one that would almost certainly make a great Blu-ray. And it also would be something to see at least a foreign-region attempt to transfer the outdoor grit of Winchester ’73 into the high-def format. William Daniels shot it for Mann, 36 years years after laboring on (and that must have been the verb) Stroheim’s Greed, which definitely showed he knew a thing or two about photographing Western dust.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Raw Deal’ and ‘Belle Epoque’