Tag Archives: Jacques Tourneur

JACQUES TOURNEUR’S THE LEOPARD MAN (1943)

The Leopard Man (1943) is the third and final collaboration between producer and his best director, . It is also, erroneously, often considered their least effort. The Leopard Man was clearly RKO’s attempt to cash in on Universal’s The Wolf Man (1941). But, instead of a wolf turning into a man, we’ll have a leopard! Real clever, imaginative types, these 1940s execs were (of course, now that breed has devolved into the independent trailer trash horror film scene).

Based on a book by Cornell Woolrich (who also wrote the story that inspired Hitchcock’s Rear Window), The Leopard Man is a lucid example of how to produce something worthwhile, even when saddled with a studio-mandated drek title. Perhaps somebody with guts and resources enough will round up the countless perpetrators of low budget horror porn and force a Val Lewton festival upon them. The Leopard Man would be a good starting point.

Like Cat People (1942), The Leopard Man has elements of noir. Set in a sleepy New Mexico town, it’s a film soaked in shadows. A black leopard from a night club act escapes from its leash and runs loose in the town.

Young Teresa Delgado (Margaret Landry) has heard about the leopard on the loose and is afraid. Her mother (Kate Lawson) needs cornmeal. Despite Teresa’s impassioned pleas and objections, Ma Delgado forces her daughter out into the night and deadlocks the door behind her. Cut off from maternal arms, Teresa, cornmeal in hand, is returning to the desired safety of her home. Tourneuer’s use of shadow and light to convey tension and dread is as expert here as in Cat People. It is an extended scene. The callous treatment of Teresa by her mother sows a blackened nightmare. Teresa’s frantic knock on the door, begging for sanctuary from the leopard’s death claws, falls on deaf ears. Ma Delgado’s only concern is the needed ingredient for her meal. By the time Ma realizes that, indeed, her daughter is in danger, the blood, trickling in from under the door, reveals that misplaced priorities and apathy has reaped a slaughter. Teresa is killed off-screen. Instead, Tourneur’s focus is on the most frightening monster of The Leopard Man: a cold parent.

Still from The Leopard Man (1943)The murders are the film’s focus, which was daring for its time. In that, The Leopard Man may lack the poetic qualities of Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie (1943), but it evokes a unique quality of terror.

The second murder takes place in a cemetery. Consuelo is visiting her father’s grave. She is also planning a clandestine meeting with her boyfriend. She promises the keeper that she will not stay long. In looking for her boyfriend, Consuelo instead finds her end. This suspense is heightened and conveyed through the rising sound of rustling branches.

The third murder involves the dancer Clo Clo (Margo) who was responsible for unleashing the beast. A dropped lipstick case and a half-smoked cigarette reveal that she has paid the price, evoking far more horror than a machete-yielding serial killer.

And, as it turns out, there is indeed a serial killer on the loose. The sleuthing is less interesting, as are the men in the film. In this, there is a consistency in Lewton: the heroes are usually, and considerably, duller than the heroines.

Unfortunately, the collaboration between Lewton and Tourneur ended here. Tourneur went onto direct the superb Out of the Past (1947) and Curse of the Demon (1957). Lewton would continue with good, but lesser, directors.

We will pick back up on the remaining Lewton films in three weeks. Next week, we will diverge with the first of a three-part look behind the scenes of John Semper’s Creeporia (2012).

JACQUES TOURNEUR’S I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943)

 considered I Walked With A Zombie (1943) his best work. It is an assessment many critics agree with. It is, perhaps, the most apt of Halloween entries. Horror is not at its ripest in 7 foot tall hatchet-welding slashers, brain-eating zombies, or slickly produced libidinous teen-age vampires. Rather, it flourishes in the everyday. Horror is in the droves of people flocking to Wal-Mart to purchase torture porn dressed up as religious dogma, or in the self-made blinders we wear. Producer and director Jacques Tourneur knew this, and delivered a fascinating horror despite being handed one of the most idiotic film titles in cinema history (clearly inspired by pulp sources).

Betsy (Frances Dee), a Canadian nurse, has taken a position on the island of St. Sebastian. Betsy’s blinders prevent her from hearing. When a black driver transports her to the Holland plantation, he tells her how slaves were acquired and brought here: “Well, they certainly brought you to a pretty island,” is all she can muster. When she meets her employer, Paul Holland (Tom Conway), he pierces her illusions: “There is no beauty here, the water’s illumination comes from death.” Conway, with his sensual, rich voice, narrates in such a way that Betsy’s love for this tragic figure seems reasonable.

Betsy is to care for Holland’s wife, Jessica (Christine Gordon), who is the title’s alleged zombie (the opening voice over plays humorously with the title the studio saddled the producers with). Paul’s alcoholic brother Wesley (James Ellison) evades his own guilt and harbors a grudge for imagined ills. The plot is loosely based off a literary source: “Jane Eyre,” with Paul Holland substituting for Rochester. Surprisingly, Hollywood hack Curt Siodmak assisted Ardel Wray in writing the screenplay. The film feels more in line with Wray’s other credits (which include Lewton’s 1943 Leopard Man and 1945 Isle of the Dead).

Still I Walked with a Zombie (1943)Even the film’s phantasmagoric qualities are filtered through the poetry of concrete reality. The symbology of the sacrificial St. Sebastian manifests in Betsy. Betsy falls hook line and sinker to the local voodoo lore, fed to her by Jessica’s maid, Alma (Teresa Harris). Although Betsy loves Paul, she is willing to sacrifice her love when she takes his wife Jessica to a voodoo priest for a cure. The ceremony itself is filmed kinetically. The natives are as naïve as Betsy and Wesley, having inherited the misogynistic framework of colonial society and transposed it onto the perennial Eve, Jessica. A frequent theme with Lewton is his refusal to see death solely as a negative. The ambiguous watery catacomb is more gifted relief as opposed to undesired finale.

Tourneur and Lewton’s I Walked With A Zombie is a poetic philter, far removed from Romero’s fantasy apocalypses. And that makes for a refreshing All Hallow’s Eve.

Next week: Tourneur’s Leopard Man (1943).

JACQUES TOURNEUR’S CAT PEOPLE (1942)

RKO Studios, grumbling over their great misfortune with Orson Welles and Citizen Kane (1941), hired  to produce nine low budget horror films. The executives handed Lewton a list of idiotic titles and told him to make some “horror pitchers” that could make money. The RKO execs were looking and hoping for a cheap hack in Lewton. What they got instead was an erudite artist. Numerous directors have imprinted their body of work with their own personality. Few producers have. Val Lewton, did and he began with a film which highlighted two of his own phobias: cats and the fear of being touched.

Cat People (1941) is the first and probably best of Lewton’s nine RKO films. It was directed by. Tourneur’s entries undeniably stand out among the Lewton series, much like Terence Fisher‘s films did with Hammer Films. For the starring role of Irena, Lewton and Tourneur chose the diminutive beauty and temperamental imported French actress . Simon found Hollywood distasteful, and she remained a perennial outsider.

Simon was the perfect choice for Irena. Much Freudian babble has been written about the film, usually focusing on the fear of sex. Undoubtedly, that is an element in Cat People (one that was vapidly intensified in ‘s 1982 glossy MTV-styled remake). However, Irena’s brooding complexity, amidst a world of two-dimensional bores, is the driving impetus. Predictably, the dullards demonize Irena.

Still from Cat People (1942)Her husband, Oliver (Kent Smith) is the worst of the lot: banal, hopelessly bourgeois, unimaginative, and attached to hyper-realism: the impotence is on his part, not Irena’s. Oliver can only wither in the company of such fiery intricacy.

Irena’s psychiatrist, Dr. Judd (Tom Conway) tries to convince her that her world is a hopeless fantasy and that she merely needs a real man to show her the light. Irena’s response is to dim her countenance, brandish her claws, and catapult the condescending idiot into oblivion. Good for her.

If only she could have dispatched Oliver in a similar fashion. Marrying the vacuous, phony puritan Continue reading JACQUES TOURNEUR’S CAT PEOPLE (1942)