Friday, October 30, 2015
Spooktacular Savings #25/26: Val Lewton Block: THE LEOPARD MAN & THE SEVENTH VICTIM
Val Lewton has one of the major, practically irreproachable reputations in Hollywood history, though probably, mostly, in the retroactive sense. When movies like Cat People and The Leopard Man came out, they made a lot of money for RKO (according to TCM TV, 'Leopard' made four million on less than a 100 grand budget), but they were still seen as 'B' movies, meant to be on one side of a double bill - the length of the films, often if not always under 80 minutes (maybe less than 70), had that direction to them - and Lewton's career couldn't come back following the end of his horror movie run in the 40's.
But thanks to Lord Scorsese (sure, he's a Lord now, why not?) in his American Movies documentary and the Val Lewton: Man in the Shadows film he produced, and just lots and lots of heartfelt nostalgia for the days when films could suggest more and show less with effectiveness, he's a household name for certain movie geeks. For a short while, he created true quality work that subverted the expectations of horror movies as just silly movies with people in costumes. In other words, he was like a classier Jason Blum.
I'd seen Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie years back, but not the two features following it, and thanks to TCM I got that chance. First up, The Leopard Man. This is not so much about a Man Who Becomes a Leopard (one might wonder anyway), though the connection to the prior Cat flick is inescapable. Especially because both films have the same director: Jacques Tourneur, who loved dark alleys and women walking down streets with loads of dark 'value' (or in less art-school speak, shadow) as they may or may not be stalked by something, or clicking and clacking some small musical maracas. For the story there is and isn't much: by this I mean there is some plot with Clo-Clo (played by, not kidding, just Margo was her name) and a club promoter (Dennis O'Keefe), and what happens when O'Keefe's leopard goes on the loose.
I think there are things to recommend this movie for and some things that keep it from being less than when Lewton and Tourneur were firing on all cylinders with their previous films. On the one hand, there's a sequence about 5 to 10 minutes in when a young woman is walking home alone at night, and somehow winds up under an overpass, and she feels like some eyes are on her.
Basically, any time that Tourneur gets to work on simply seeing his characters, without much (if any) dialog) on a street, at night, with some thing following them or in pursuit, it's a treat to watch. But on the other hand, the characterizations are weak, even for a B movie where you don't expect much. O'Keefe is fine but pretty one-note, and when it comes to the 'investigations' of these murders and other happenings with this Leopard (or a "Leopard Man" as it were). It's frustrating since it's a mixed bag that I can recommend - if you can get past some of those day-time "talking" scenes, when it comes to the sort of "pure" cinema (I hate to use that word in quotes, but come on, you know what I'm talking about I hope) of the act of watching human being reacting to what they can't see, following them, seeing their hope dwindling, it's wonderful. Oh, and those footsteps near the end...
If a major set-piece-type of reason to watch The Leopard Man is the opening (or I should say about 5-10 minutes in), the reason to watch The Seventh Victim would be the last twenty to twenty-five minutes of the run time. It would be too much (or not necessary) to reveal story-wise about the why of its power, but I do want to dig into how it's done, cinematically speaking, and hopefully I'll leave some mystery for you to discover. In the simplest terms, a cult is taunting a woman to kill herself, and this woman, Jacqueline, is at a point where she is laible to do whatever is told to her - she doesn't really want to do it, but she has been with these Satanists (they could be anybody though) for so long she doesn't know what to do. They let her go - for the time being - and she gets to walk the streets.
It's here that producer Val Lewton and director Mark Robeson strike where the cinematic iron is hot: Jacqueline has to find her way back to her sister's place, but she feels/knows she is being stalked (mostly likely, no it is, one of the cultists). She tries to hide by running down a dark alley and ducking into a dark doorway, and narrowly misses the stalker; then she tries to get some (brief) help with an acting troupe going to a cafe, but she doesn't join them. This could just be due to budget, like not being able to shoot inside the cafe. But I think that they have to continue with this woman on her run from what is (to her in that moment) certain death. The build up isn't to action though - it's to an interaction with some person in an apartment building, and... well, you'll have to see what kind of existential malaise has fallen over in that moment of time.
I liked the story better for Victim than Leopard, though the performances are generally just a little better. I did like seeing Hunter here as the one sort of innocent figure here, or rather the one person who is in this new world for her - we can tell she's been sheltered from anything remotely sinister or even urban in her life - and the fact that she is totally confused at times makes things stronger for the drama and horror. When she goes to a place and the sleazy dick is with her, and he goes to see these, uh, 'people', when he comes out he walks in a sort of trance state. Then she gets on to a bus and he is... back, but being propped up by these darn cultists(!)
I say cultists because the Satan element doesn't seem to really be a major factor here; this isn't Rosemary's Baby, or one of those movies from the 70's. It's not even 'Zombie', where one saw voodoo rituals done with aplomb and a sense of eerie atmosphere. Not that this isn't eerie, on the contrary seeing a group of people sitting silently, with malevolence, waiting for someone to do something they don't want to do via their cult-peer-pressure fills me with dread. As far as depicting a group of people who all get so lock in step that they appear as like one BIG group of killers, The Seventh Victim is terrifying and has an ominous tone that makes that final passage so masterful.
I mentioned the film noir element, and I should close by noting that Lewton's brand of horror had some over-lap with that. Maybe it was the low-budget side of it, as many film noirs were in the 1940's, but because filmmakers had to get creative and take their characters into dark places with little resources, they needed to be creative. There was no choice, and whether it's a woman running from some criminal or a cult leader or a leopard, it all fills one with a degree of suspense that in sharp black and white is something that carries some magic to it.