B&W, 1943, 66 mins. 4 secs.
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Starring Dennis O'Keefe, Margo, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, James Bell
Scream Factory (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Warner Bros. (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)

Mere The Leopard Manmonths after the release of Cat People, this The Leopard Manatmospheric adaptation of Cornell Woolrich's gripping and surprisingly ghoulish crime novel Black Alibi would mark the third of nine influential RKO horror films produced by Val Lewton. In contrast to the preceding two films (which also included I Walked with a Zombie), this entry introduced the idea of lacing horror elements into a story that didn't necessarily fall inside the genre, a tactic Lewton and company would reprise in Bedlam, The Ghost Ship, and The Curse of the Cat People. In this case the horror sequences are so powerful they dominate the film, namely a trio of eerie nocturnal murder sequences and an uncanny candlelit procession climax.

In a New Mexico town, nightclub promoter Jerry Manning (O'Keefe) startles one of his leading ladies, Kiki (Brooks), with a new gimmick: a live leopard she'll bring out on a leash as part of her act. After some convincing she agrees, but jealous fellow performer Clo-Clo (Margo) startles the animal during its public debut and it escapes through an open door. Soon after a young girl is murdered while running an errand at night and is barred from safety by her mother, which instigates a hunt in the area for the leopard while its owner demands compensation. However, another slaying soon after raises suspicions that there might be something more cunning and dangerous at work than a mere wild animal.

Though The Leopard Manits title may seem to capitalize on Lewton's first and most famous hit, The Leopard Man never even pretends to be a monster movie of any kind. Instead it deals in psychological aberration and the attitudes of the many Latin American residents, clearly aimed at tying in with the The Leopard ManU.S.'s Good Neighbor Policy at the time like such other, more benign films as Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros, and scores of Carmen Miranda musicals. That aspect also helps the film stand out from its peers with the use of percussive music and somber clothing adding to the spooky atmosphere even in some of the quieter scenes. Of course, director Jacques Tourneur really pulls out all the stops during the big scare scenes, including the much-discussed first killing (with its indelible shot of blood seeping under a door) and a tense graveyard stalking scene that clearly inspired a later one in Dario Argento's Four Flies on Grey Velvet.

As part of the RKO library, The Leopard Man has been a home video perennial and made its DVD debut around Halloween of 2005 from Warner Bros. as part of a comprehensive Lewton set and as a separate single disc paired up with The Ghost Ship, with its special features including the theatrical trailer and an audio commentary by William Friedkin that does a solid job of touching on some of the major players (like Mark Robson) and picking apart some of its cinematic language and trademark RKO elements. The Leopard ManAs usual he can lapse into basic plot narration at times, but it's still worth a listen. This was actually one of the stronger transfers in the set, The Leopard Manlikely because the source used hadn't been used to run off scores of prints, but it's easily outdone by the 2019 Blu-ray upgrade from Scream Factory sporting a new 4K scan of the original nitrate camera negative. It's a real beauty, especially when it comes to the darker scenes with the more delicate lighting scenes really popping here like never before. (Just check out those water reflections prior to the first murder.) The DTS-HD MA English mono track is also in excellent shape, with optional English subtitles provided. The Friedkin commentary and trailer are ported over, but you also get an excellent, very well-researched audio commentary by Constantine Nasr. It's a fascinating history of the film's evolution from the novel (including a change in locale, human motivation, and animal predator), the minor changes required by the Production Code, the intention to make this film as Cat People, the potential casting of Lon Chaney Jr., and lots more. Finally the disc closes out with a still gallery (8m36s) including some fun promotional shots and a wide variety of poster art.

Scream Factory (Blu-ray)

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Warner Bros. (DVD)

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Reviewed on July 20, 2019.