“Nothing is so transient as sanity and safety . . .”
Free from his past and sufficiently angry to wage war, Germain enlists Vorzet’s talents as psychiatrist — he believes the writer will be a repressed person, sexually frustrated, possibly physically debilitated — and as an amateur graphologist to test all the people who were in the church gallery, which includes Denise, Rolande, their armless brother, and Laura. Even trying their utmost to disguise it, someone cannot write nearly a thousand letters without developing a second writing style that will show up eventually,In Bertrand Tavernier’s 2002 Laissez-Passer (Safe Conduct), a fine fictionalized view of the travails of French filmmakers who, for reasons varying from pragmatic to subversive to treasonable, worked for the German-run wartime company Continental during the Occupation, Maurice Tourneur, the noted director who had for some time been a star-filmmaker in Hollywood, is depicted as so paralyzed by depression over the fate of friends and the wartime miasma, that his top assistant has to direct a film for him. Also mentioned in the film’s course are the difficulties encountered by Henri-Georges Clouzot in producing his Le Corbeau, a film denouncing collaborators, anonymous informants, and the whole Occupation malaise in metaphor. Yet so sharp was its portrayal of small-town hypocrisy that the German authorities gleefully exhibited it as anti-French propaganda. After the war, Clouzot was banned for a short period from making films before re-invigorating the thriller form and predicting, through his realistic mise-en-scene and fatalistic air, the nouvelle vague with films like The Wages of Fear and Diabolique.
Simultaneously, Maurice Tourneur’s son Jacques was forging a career in Hollywood as the first and most artistically accomplished of producer Val Lewton’s directors for his series of cheap yet revolutionary modernist horror films. These films were, in their melding of suggestion for technique, ink-soaked palates for visuals, and psychology for material, early shots in the stylistic shift that would become known as noir in the postwar period. Noir today tends to be defined too narrowly as a branch of the gangster film, but it spread across many genres, and was born in as many, including Welles’ expressionist-tabloid Citizen Kane, Lewton’s horror films, and William Wellman’s lynch-drama Western The Ox-Bow Incident, which is vitally similar to Clouzot’s Le Corbeau in its merciless study of collective guilt and oppressive psychological darkness. Jacques Tourneur himself would go on to direct landmark works in the genre such as Out of the Past. As Martin Scorsese described Cat People, this was a new kind of art, where the mind’s recesses became dominant.
To watch Tourneur’s The Leopard Man and Clouzot’s Le Corbeau is to see two almost concordant minds, within the same year (1943), conjure two films of fascinating similarity, reflecting on the nature of evil, with some moments that are virtual replicas, though there is no possibility of their having influenced each other. It is the artistic reaction to shared sensations in a world that was busy tearing itself to pieces. Macrocosm portrayed through the microcosm of a small-town setting, the unknown menace whose motives are passing inexplicable, the fear and guilt and suspicion and self-incrimination it inspires in otherwise innocent people, are common to both films. In both The Leopard Man and Le Corbeau, a constant dialogue between good and evil, reason and madness, fate, and fight is set in play.
The Leopard Man is not the most unified of Tourneur’s three works with Lewton, and both disowned it as a misfired experiment after the innovative and beautiful horrors of Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie. Yet, as stated in Phil Hardy’s Encyclopedia of the Horror Film,, “It now looks like a fascinating by-product of the then-embryonic noir genre,” and probably stands as the first psychologically accurate, if improbably plotted, serial killer flick. Based on a novel by major noir influence Cornell Woolrich, Black Alibi, it details the fear that visits a U.S.-Mexican bordertown, perched between moneyed Yankee chrome and aristocratic Hispanic arches, with a chasm of poverty-stricken natives in between. A black panther, kept by travelling Indian showman Charlie How-Come (Abner Biberman), the Leopard Man of the title who sells quack medicines supposedly containing the “essence of the leopard’s strength.” is rented by promoter Jerry Manning (Dennis O’Keefe, not the best and not the worst of the typically dullard RKO leading men Lewton’s films sported) for his pet act Kiki Walker (Jean Brooks) to escort on stage. Specifically, Manning wants Kiki to upstage the more popular flamenco dancer Clo-Clo (Margo), a proud and aggressive girl whose Latin exoticism suits tourists’ ideas of local color more than Kiki’s blonde starlet. Jerry and Kiki, who have both clawed their way up from poverty to the brink of success, are both badly fearful of being seen as “soft” and are driven to beat any opponents. The publicity stunt backfires when Clo-Clo’s retaliatory rattling of castanets at the beast causes it to scare and run off into the night. Clo-Clo is hardly regretful — “I don’t need publicity, I have talent!” she declares — before walking home through the nocturnal town, which, with open doors and windows, offering friendly faces and voices, children skipping through the dark, is a wonderland of life despite its claustrophobic palette. Yet menace is established as a fortune teller offers cards from within her house, without her face being seen; Clo-Clo chooses the death card, which the fortune teller now and consistently through the film attempts to deny.
Simultaneously, Theresa Delgado (Margaret Landry), a teenaged Mexican girl, is sent by her bullying mother to buy cornmeal for the family’s dinner. Finding the local market is closed, the girl crosses a dry riverbed and underneath a railway bridge in the lengthy walk to the next open store, in sparse warrens of light, all-surrounding bare dusty hills overseen by crystal-bright stars and sickly-shading moon, exactly catching the eerie sensation of such a rural landscape in one of those miracles of bogus-yet-beautiful evocations common to Lewton’s films. The girl obtains her bag of corn meal and returns along her moonlight path, and in a great “bus” — that false-scare so named for the bus whose brakes-sound resembles a big cat’s hiss in Cat People — the girl thinks she spies a pair of cat’s eyes staring out from under the railway bridge; then springs a sudden roaring noise, but it’s only a train passing over. Then, reaching the other side, back in the open, the girl walks right into the cat, seen in sudden scary close-up with huge eyes afire and mouth furious. Tourneur cuts to inside the family’s room where Mamacita, irritated by the length of her absence, mocks the girl’s terrified demands to be let in, until she can clearly hear her being torn to pieces by the animal on the other side of the door.
This virtuoso scene gives way to stiff dialogue (never a great gift of Tourneur’s — for his superior film-making skill, his handling of talk is markedly inferior to, say, Robert Wise’s touch in The Body Snatcher), as Jerry and Kiki’s guilty shuffling around at the girl’s funeral, where the local Police Chief Robles’ (Ben Bard) taut smile for them indicates subtle condemnation, whilst the pair does their utmost to pose hardboiled. Jerry meets Galbraith (James Bell), a friendly academic who curates a small local museum of Native American antiquities. Jerry and Galbraith join Robles’ posse for trapping the leopard. Clo-Clo tries to steal a rose from a birthday bouquet headed for coming-of-age señorita Consuelo Contreras (Tula Parnen), who breathlessly leaves her parental villa to meet her lover in the local cemetery at her father’s grave, but he has left by the time she arrives. She remains in sorrow at the graveside after the cemetery is locked up for the night. Realizing she is trapped, she panics, her screams attracting a passerby, but whilst he goes to get a ladder, something attacks her in the dark. The body found the next day seems to be another attack by the leopard, but Jerry suspects a human murderer may have, this time, attempted to cover up by making it look like the cat’s attack. Robles mocks this as Jerry’s evasion of guilt, but Jerry begins, with Kiki’s growingly affectionate aid and regained self-respect, to investigate. Presenting the idea with Charlie to Galbraith, Galbraith humorously warps it by suggesting to Charlie that he might be a psycho-killer who murders when he gets drunk, which scares Charlie so much he gets Robles to lock him up.
On-the-make Clo-Clo is still drawing the death card from the fortune teller’s deck, which also predicts she will meet a rich man who will give her money and that “something black” is on its way to her that will prefigure her death. Shortly she meets an elderly American paterfamilias who is despised by his spoiled offspring but who quickly strikes an accord with Clo-Clo, he in a life crisis and Clo-Clo with her lot in supporting a very poor family with an avowed ambition to rise in the world. The man does indeed give her money, and on the walk home — in a mirror to the early scene, the night streets are now barren and mazelike — she encounters a friendly young American wearing a big white Tom Mix hat, but who drives a black car, which finally catches her superstitious streak and sends her running scared. Then, seeing someone she knows, she hurries to put on her lipstick — but it is in fact the killer. Charlie is released, and soon finds the remains of the leopard, having been shot dead and decayed for at least a week, and therefore surely not responsible for killing Consuelo and Clo-Clo. Jerry concocts a plan to catch the human killer, working on a hunch that Galbraith, who ventured into the same area as the dead animal was found during the posse, is the one who killed the animal and scavenged its body for the physical traces to leave at the murder scenes. During a haunting local parade by hooded monks to memorialize a massacre of Native Americans on the town’s site centuries previous, an unseen Jerry, Kiki, and Consuelo’s lover tease Galbraith to the point of hysteria with sounds to mirror his murders, and finally, Kiki offers herself up for bait in the darkened museum, which Galbraith takes — but Jerry and the lover intervene. Galbraith escapes by hiding amidst the parade, but he is caught and confesses, his sadistic delight unpeeling his genial face, whereupon the lover shoots him.
The Leopard Man‘s chief fault is in the confusion over what killed who, and the killer’s improbable method — both this film and Le Corbeau are kept from greatness by plot aspects that are pure pulp. But The Leopard Man, for its dramatic gaps, has a poetic breath and low-key humanity. Lewton’s auteurist influence on all his films was in obsessive research and love of placing tiny details of no surface importance but invaluable for conjuring atmosphere and depth. Which is why, for their studio-bound states, all his films seem curiously rich and hallucinatory, in the dreamscape New York of Cat People and The Seventh Victim, the Isle of the Dead, the folk-song Edinburgh of The Body Snatcher (one failure in atmosphere was the period England of Bedlam, too ambitious for a film too cheap). Tourneur matched Lewton with a classical painter’s sense of placing those details, and The Leopard Man throws up constant small delights: the landscape that looms around Maria’s doomed journey and her exchange with the store-keep; the grim pool of blood under the door that signals her violent death; the hushed Hispanic birthday song from the household that wakes Consuelo; the cigarette butts that litter the sand signaling Consuelo’s lover has been there a long time before departing; the marching cowled monks who appear the essence of menace, though they are actually icons of sorrowful penance, and their trail of candle-holding men in street clothes.
Le Corbeau also has poetry, but a different, harder brand. Budgetary limitations in French cinema at the time caused much location shooting, and Le Corbeau is filmed in a rural French town, with whitewashed crumbling walls and grandiose church, and whose sun-drenched decay infects every frame of the film. Clouzot was a master of nightmares in broad daylight, as in Le Corbeau, The Wages of Fear, and Diabolique, storing his use of dark and shadow to leak in in crucial moments. Le Corbeau — The Raven — is the nom de plume of the author of an unceasing series of poison-pen-letters directed at the populace of the town of St. Pierre. The first letter is directed at the haughty, unpopular obstetrician Dr. Rémy Germain (Pierre Fresnay, in a brilliant performance that makes his prickly, mysterious character work despite obstacles in the script), who makes it his business to save mothers rather than babies in difficult births. The letter intimates Germain performs illegal abortions, and also that he is having an affair with his friend Laura Vorzet (Micheline Francey), a young, attractive, blonde, but slightly off-kilter woman, who is a social worker and married to elderly psychiatrist Michel Vorzet. Laura and Germain’s platonic relationship does have an attraction arcing beneath despite her marital status and his iron-eyed detachment. He is also a subject of disgust for Laura’s spinster sister Marie Corbin (Héléna Manson), who was previously engaged to Dr Vorzet before he married her sister instead. Now she works as head nurse at the local hospital where Germain works, and where things seem to be going off the rails — as one young man, called Patient 13 because of his bed number, suffers with liver cancer, the morphine to aid his pain has gone missing. Vorzet (Pierre Larquey, who equals Fresnay with his deliciously mocking performance) returns from a convention in Paris muttering cynically, “No one listens to the speakers. It would be too funny. To get anyone to take it seriously we’d need an audience full of patients. The only thing these conventions are good for is for country doctors to cheat with Parisian woman. I’m too old for that so I came home.” The letters begin exposing every cheating spouse, corrupt business dealing, and incompetent official in town, sometimes accurately, sometimes not. The mayor is labeled an “Old Shirker” — “I dealt with this nonsense in my electoral campaign!” he protests.
Germain and Vorzet, friendly but never exactly at ease because of the accusations involving Laura, consult on what kind of person the writer must be, whilst standing in the post office, watching the letters come in and go out, as Vorzet teasingly points out any of them could be the Raven, even Germain himself if he is a paranoid self-accuser. “Could you be the Raven?” Germain ripostes. “Why not?” Vorzet answers laughingly. As the scandal bites badly into the town’s reputation and mood, Germain finds himself under-employed due to ostracism by the vinegar-faced madames and under investigation by officials. Vorzet is asked to confront Germain with pointed questions, such as how a small-town obstetrician has a collection of expensive antiques, and his lack of a history. “I wish you a long life,” he tells Germain, “But not to be our oldest doctor. We are given some unpleasant duties.”
Germain’s only real, if temporary, understanding and comfort comes from Denise Saillens (Ginette Leclerc), who doesn’t exactly come up to Germain’s high personal standards of femininity. Denise, who walks with a permanent limp due to a car accident that also claimed her schoolmaster brother’s arm, now lives with her brother in his schoolhouse, where Germain also rents rooms, on the top floor. Denise, to prove her desirability despite her injury, sleeps with any man she can. Initially rebuffed in her pathetic seduction of Germain, she soon ensnares the flailing “surgeon au mon Coeur” in a pungently erotic scene when, aroused, he tries to silence her entreaties with a hand over her mouth, and she promptly bites it. Letters soon label Germain lover of both Denise and her younger sister Rolande, a budding adolescent with a coquettish streak who likes to trick money out of people. Germain worships the “saintly” Laura, who nonetheless shows up to a meeting with Germain arranged with an obscene trick letter written by the Raven, severely disillusioning our prig hero, and also getting him in trouble with Denise, who is pretty well smitten.
Things come to a head when Patient 13, informed he is dying by one of the Raven’s letters, cuts his throat with his razor. He is buried with full vindictive ceremony by the township, and Marie Corbin, suspected by many to be the author, seems to be confirmed as the Raven when a new letter falls from her wreath on the bier. Walking home when dismissed by the hospital, Marie flees through eerily deserted streets, brightly lit in the middle of the day with the sounds of an unseen voluminous mob baying her name echoing after her. Theoretically reaching the safety of her rooms, Marie finds they been trashed, and the mob arrives outside, stoning the windows. Running to the door to escape, Marie’s arm is grabbed — but it’s only a policeman come to escort her to safety. Temporary peace reasserts over the town, and the letters stop, though Germain still plans to leave despite Denise’s entreaties. But a new letter, dropped mockingly from the top gallery of the church during the pastor’s speech about deliverance from the evil-doer, recommences the “campaign of purification.” Patient 13’s mother (Sylvie), quiet, grieving, and black-clad , has vowed to find and kill the Raven. In trying to rid themselves of Germain, the main target, town officials pay a woman to pose as a pregnant mother seeking a humanitarian abortion. Germain instantly rejects the possibility, and finds (unfortunate pulp moment #1) the woman knows him from his previous incarnation, having had her life saved by him when he was Germain Monotte, a brain surgeon born in Grenoble and esteemed in Paris. She confirms the plot although she won’t reveal the men involved. Germain guesses anyway and storms into the local men’s club to state his history; he lost his wife and child in birth to an idiot doctor’s insistence on birthing the baby, and decided to become a good obstetrician. “You suspect Germain, and Germain suspects you’re stupid!”
Free from his past and sufficiently angry to wage war, Germain enlists Vorzet’s talents as psychiatrist — he believes the writer will be a repressed person, sexually frustrated, possibly physically debilitated — and as an amateur graphologist to test all the people who were in the church gallery, which includes Denise, Rolande, their armless brother, and Laura. Even trying their utmost to disguise it, someone cannot write nearly a thousand letters without developing a second writing style that will show up eventually, so they are herded into the classroom and made to take dictation of each salacious letter. In this queasily hypnotic scene, Denise, under the close taunting watch of Germain and Vorzet, simple sounds like a tapping pencil and a winding watch hyper-amplified, faints. Is she the Raven? Vorzet says he can’t tell, though there are similarities in the writing.
The last act is a whirl of revelations, and though risking a breathless absurdity, is a superb display of constantly shifting truth. Germain, sneaking into Denise’s room, indeed finds she has written a letter in the Raven’s style, addressed to him to inform him she is pregnant by him. It looks briefly that Germain is about to lose it and kill her — “I don’t want a mad son!” he says with bright scary eyes, advancing on her. Denise protests it was the first letter she ever wrote, to taunt him for his withdrawing from her, and begs him to look into her eyes to see if she’s lying (unfortunate pulp moment #2), whereupon, staring in her teary eyes, he loses certainty. But Denise’s guilt seems more certain when she says Laura received a violent threat — before Laura actually received the threat. Fortunately, Germain stumbles upon a writing pad full of practiced phrases and symbols from the Raven’s pen in Laura’s study, instantly realizing Laura has tried to set up Denise. But Laura claims she also only wrote one letter, the first, to get Germain’s sexual attention, and that her husband Vorzet then forced her to continue at his dictation as a savage and mad joke on the town. Vorzet himself tiredly denies this and convinces Germain to commit Laura to an asylum. Only Denise’s opinion — that she thought Laura knew the Raven but could not be it because she was so afraid of him — causes Germain to return to Vorzet’s house, just in time to see Laura being brutally carted off by the men in white coats. Inside, he finds Vorzet, dead, his throat cut by Patient 13’s vengeful mother with her son’s own suicide instrument, Vorzet’s blood mingling with the ink of a letter in the Raven style celebrating Laura’s “punishment.” Germain watches the black-clad mother walking quietly away down a long white street.
The feel of oppressive evil and paranoia in Le Corbeau is all-consuming, and it conveys the feeling of living in a society where everyone is being watched, where innocuous acts are suspicious, where love seems to be a trap for the most poisonous bitterness, and in which all standards of society and decency seem to be collapsing. Its hero, Germain, lives on a slippery slope of changing values; rigid and unyielding, he loses both his Puritanism and desire to purify as he watches the damage such thinking does to people and how it has so little to do with how those people work. “You come through things like this with your eyes opened,” he concludes, “I hate to say it, but evil is necessary.”
The chief similarity between The Leopard Man and Le Corbeau is in their villains. Intelligent, even professorial villains have never been rare — hello, Moriarty — and were endemic in the serial-killer flick craze after Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs, but the similarities between Galbraith and Vorzet are acute, and present the increasing tendency of postwar films in general, and noir films particularly, to provide their villains — and heroes — with increasingly strange psychological identities, such as the girl-hungry Doc Riedenschneider of The Asphalt Jungle. In these two films, both men are very likable, far more so than the heroes. Both have broad ranges of knowledge — Galbraith, an antiquarian, also has knowledge of psychology and zoology; Vorzet, a psychiatrist, is a graphologist. Both have strongly ironic senses of humor, and ultimately their actions seem extensions of a liking of treating the world as a humorous plaything. Both attempt to inculcate fear, moral uncertainty, and self-doubt in the people around them, and take advantage of their knowledge of people’s fears, anxieties, of mistaken belief. Their status as chaos-causers, as proofs if the irrational imperfectability of even the most educated and sane of men, is timely, and in each film a crucial weakness in that microcosmic world, the small town, is revealed by their actions.
The most crucial similarity comes in matching scenes in which the villains present a metaphorical vision of life in chaos. In The Leopard Man, a small rubber ball is held aloft and in permanent and permanently precarious balance by the pressure of the water of a fountain in the cabana. Having a drink after returning from the posse search, Galbraith and Jerry converse:
Jerry: Oh say, there’s something I wanted to ask you it’s er . . . it’s about the leopard.
Galbraith: Are you worrying about its killing someone else?
Jerry: Not me — I’m not worried about anything.
Galbraith: Then why did you come on the posse this morning? You’ve got some strange notions Jerry. Why do you feel you must seem hard and disinterested? This morning I heard you tell Robles you didn’t want to come and yet you came along. That wasn’t easy for a tenderfoot like you.
Jerry: Listen Galbraith — where I was brought up you had to be tough. It was a tough neighborhood. I learned it didn’t pay to let anybody know how you feel or really think . . . Alright. Alright so I feel rotten — nervous. I want to go out — be everyplace at once — be sure that that cat doesn’t hurt anyone else.
Galbraith: Don’t feel concerned Jerry. I’ve learnt one thing about life. We’re a good deal like that ball dancing on the fountain. We know as little about the forces that move us — and move the world around as that empty ball does — about the water that pushes it into the air — lets it fall and catches it again. You shouldn’t feel too bad about Theresa Delgado.
In the Clouzot film, Vorzet, after the writing test, talks with Germain in the schoolroom, long after dark, with a single light bulb giving scant light to the room:
Vorzet: I meet one in the mirror every morning, in the company of an angel. You’re wonderful. You think people are all good or all evil. You thinkgood is light and evil the shadow.
(He pulls down the light bulb and starts it swinging; light and shadow flicker wildly in the room)
Vorzet: But where’s the light? Where’s the shadow? Where does evil start? Do you know which side you’re on?
Germain: It’s of small importance. But we must stop the light swinging.
(Germain reaches to halt the light bulb, but recoils with burnt fingers) Vorzet: (laughs) You hurt yourself! That proves something. There . . . I like you, so let me confide something. I take drugs. I inject myself. It’s because of me Marie Corbin spirited away those vials of morphine. She has an old passion for her ex-fiancé. But I don’t take myself to be a monster! Think about that, and check your conscience. The results could surprise you.
Germain: I know myself.
Vorzet: You’re proud. Since the winds of hate blew through this town all values have been more-or-less corrupted. You’re stricken too. You’ll fall like the rest. Oh I’m not saying you’ll strangle your mistress, but you’d go through my bag if I wasn’t here! You’d sleep with Rolande if she were in love with you! One simply has the choice.
This is the dramatic crux of the film, and also one doubts there is still a more self-lacerating assessment of a Frenchman’s position during the Occupation. The subversion in this film wasn’t just the sort that could get you sacked or blacklisted but could get you shot, and reveals not just the German censors but the French postwar authorities as lacking. Yet it’s not a cuddly message for any side. It is an accusation that in the end humanity in general is failing, and will not be repaired until, as Vorzet recognizes in Germain, good people go on the warpath.
In both films there is an angry wrestle with determinism, involving different subjects. In Le Corbeau the concern is chiefly with sexual evil, and the film has a thick erotic air. Vorzet, on the surface a sexless aged intellectual, beneath an angry lecher, marries a much younger woman, then busily engages in raping her asexually, first mentally, by forcing her to write endlessly sick letters, and then physically, by having her dragged off with brute force and slammed in an asylum van. Germain is associated with birth and death, the recurring anxiety of evil and madness born of immorality, with death in childbirth and abortion hanging like a noxious scent about him. His worship of his deceased wife, a “real woman,” and Laura, whom he “imagined far above all that,” is contrasted with the baldly sexual and amorally honest Denise, with whom he is afraid he might have “a mad son”. “People are what they are! An honest man stays one! A womanizer stays one!” Fresnay shouts in a marvelously acted scene, himself taut and terse, Leclerc loving one moment and then smirking contemptuous. Denise stands for the right of an individual to make and define themselves in whatever terms they choose, and she interrupts his tirade: ” And a slut stays one. You may be right doctor. But I feel sorry for you. You are what is saddest and strangest in life.” “A fool?” “No, a bourgeois.”
In The Leopard Man, the determinism is social and economic. Jerry, Kiki, Clo-Clo, and most of the populace of the town are now or have been poor, and each is hungry for a way out. Jerry and Kiki react recklessly and despairingly to their “first big break” being ruined by Clo-Clo’s popularity, and then by the pall of the leopard’s escape. Theresa, when she has to get the corn meal on credit, is trusted by the weary store-keep, who reckons, “The poor don’t steal from each-other, they’re all poor together.” Clo-Clo trumpets herself triumphantly — “For what was I born if not for money?”, whilst tempted to give up and marry some nice penniless youth. In both films characters are fighting their place within larger schemes, and facing an even worse terror caused by people breaking the schemes. Which, really, was the general scheme of history between the Depression and the War. A consistent theme of the Lewton films is in the necessity of choosing life even amidst an air of a perpetual sadness, which here manifests in the monks’ memorial of a long-gone but still crucial slaughter, a blood guilt in which the world is implicit. Lewton’s films are all subtly subversive, with their quietly anti-racist slant, the mockery of militarism in Isle Of the Dead, the fear of repressed lesbianism that drives the heroine of Cat People, the ghosts of slavery in I Walked with a Zombie that have bound all the islanders, black and white, to the same undeniably tragic identity, and the overarching theme that nothing is so transient as sanity and safety, that the worst horrors are held inside one’s head, ready to smash any utopia if you’re not on your guard.
This is a theme also common with Clouzot, who was even more fatalistic than Tourneur or even Hitchcock, his great rival whom he beat gaining the rights to film Les Diaboliques by a matter of hours. In the course of Le Corbeau there’s hardly an institution or ideal that isn’t ridiculed or found wanting; the church, the state, marriage, medicine, the rectitude of the educated and privileged, the innocence of children. In both films it is only love and individual honor and responsibility that give hope.
There are also, of course, great differences. The American film is free of the honest, if not undated, sexual exploration of the French film, and also Le Corbeau , though made on a stringent budget, is made by generally higher-level collaborators (the only technical standout of The Leopard Man is Robert De Grasse’s superbly hard-sheen photography that crisply captures Tourneur’s poetic dabs). The Leopard Man is also a far less witty, well-written, and well-acted film than Le Corbeau. The coolly literate, almost metric dialogue Lewton encouraged with writers like Ardel Wray and DeWitt Bodeen sounded fine coming out of classically skilled actors like Jason Robards Sr., Boris Karloff, Henry Daniell, but they did not always have actors of that caliber. Jean Brooks found her greatest part not in Kiki, too dewy to be convincingly hardboiled, but as the ghost-eyed, black-haired femme fatale Jacqueline in The Seventh Victim. James Bell’s avuncular yet indefinably sleazy Galbraith is the best performance in the film. On the other hand, the mood of subtle dread, of quiet despair and longing in The Leopard Man has its own integrity.
Both films stand at an emotional and metaphorical crossroads, describing the aching, doubtful, evil-infected landscape of 1943 seeping deep as DDT into even the most idyllic of settings, and also pointing to the postwar landscape in which the mind-space of heroes brought their own poison to a theoretically peaceful world, in which the danger came not from the mobster with the Tommy gun or the hulking Frankenstein but from the bitter wife with a gun, the pleasant-looking but sexually perverse old man, the community with the mindset of the lynch mob.