Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton made three films together in the early 40s, and while Cat People (1942) is beloved and I Walked with a Zombie (1943) is often derided their final collaboration is sometimes forgotten about all together. Acclaimed director William Friedkin (To Live and Die in LA, 1985) remains one of its biggest fans, though, so when the film came to home video he jumped at the chance to record a commentary track.
So, of course, we gave it a listen. Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for…
The Leopard Man (1943)
Commentator: William Friedkin (fan)
1. “I have certain insights to the film, certain thoughts and ideas about it,” he says while adding that they may differ with what other viewers see and think about the movie. He hopes listeners are provoked into thinking about the movie the way it “has been provoking me consciously and unconsciously for about forty-five years now.”
2. The film may be set in a small New Mexico town, but it was “clearly” shot on the RKO studio lot.
3. The black leopard brought in by Jerry Manning (Dennis O’Keefe) is “the same animal that was the villain in Cat People (1942), his real name — or her name, I’m not really sure — is Dynamite.”
4. Friedkin says the film’s “much deeper than the B-picture” that it was perhaps intended to be. His immediate example is the ball tumbling atop the fountain of water as the film later suggests that our lives are like that ball in the lack of control over our own existence.
5. Clo-Clo, played by Margo — “one name, just like Cher or Madonna, that was Margo” — is marked by the little boy with the flashlight. “That is an interesting psychological touch that Lewton and Tourneur often used. The light on her legs marks her, in a way, as fate would mark a character. And she’s marked for death, obviously.”
6. “The film is actually many, many films in one,” says Friedkin, adding that it’s horror, it’s a mystery/thriller, and it’s a tale about fate.
7. The studio heads weren’t fans of the film as they couldn’t quite grasp its intent or structure.
8. The young woman who’s seen in the house with the mother and little boy playing shadow puppets leaves “on a strange journey that will lead to what I believe is one of the greatest horror sequences ever filmed.” He’s referring to her death on the other side of the door as her mother and brother try desperately to open it only to watch as blood pools at their feet.
9. He credits the film as being an inspiration towards Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1995) in how it follows characters we believe to be the leads only to leave them behind for long stretches as we shift to other characters instead. “They’re simply pawns in a greater structure that was at the time completely unpredictable and therefore suspenseful.”
10. Lewton was a master of invoking terror without actually showing anything truly horrifying or graphic, and “that’s something that we as filmmakers have lost. We now feel we have to show everything. Every plunge of the knife, every moment of pain and agony that the victims have to go through, that’s what you see in horror films today. People cut up by hacksaws, people ripped apart at the hands of alien creatures.” He says the things we don’t see live longer in our nightmares.
11. “What are the elements of a Lewton/Tourneur collaboration that makes them great, that makes them last?” The most important to Friedkin is their application and manipulation of expectations.
12. Tourneur believed that, in wartime, moviegoers want to be scared by the unreal.
13. Friedkin used to walk to and from school as a child in Chicago, and he recalls passing by one house every day that was the scene of a horrific murder — “the murder of young girl called Suzanne Degnan whose body parts were found… all over the lawn and in the gutter and in the street next to where she lived. I walked past that house every day for four years feeling like I was in a Val Lewton movie.”
14. Lewton’s production team at RKO were given the titles in advance by the studio heads, and then he and his team were responsible for finding a story and making a movie around that title.
15. Friedkin suggests the victims in this film “seem to echo details of Lewton’s unconscious or psychological autobiography.” Each is let down by an absent father or father figure, and Lewton himself was without a father as a child. Clo-Clo’s fate is sealed after the old man at the club, a man who’s father to another woman but who treats Clo-Clo even briefly as if she was his own, gives her money — she makes it home safe but realizes she dropped it in the street and heads back out to find it, thus meeting her end.
16. Everyone in town shares some degree of guilt for the deaths, from Jerry bringing the leopard into civilized society to Clo-Clo scaring the leopard, and from the parents who ignored their children to the inadvertent bystanders. “I think this was Lewton’s idea that there’s a collective guilt in society, that society itself in its shortcomings, in its lack of real compassion for our fellow human beings, is often responsible for their tragic ends.”
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“I hope some of these comments will be useful to you.”
“In my opinion, this is Dynamite’s most effective performance.”
“The film is filled with portents.”
“It looks about as much like New Mexico as Queens does.”
“What will happen to Raoul? What will happen to Kiki and Jerry? Will they remain together? Will their careers continue? Nothing is really resolved in this film.”
William Friedkin is both a filmmaker and a film fan, and he’s clearly a movie-buff with vast knowledge about films, filmmakers, and film history. It makes for an engaging listen as he offers insight and history alongside his obvious affection for the movie and its makers. Fans of Friedkin or the film itself should give it a listen for more.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.