Based on the book Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich, The Leopard Man is one of the first movies to depict a serial killer. Written by Ardel Wray and Edward Dein for producer Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur, the master artist behind Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and Night of the Demon.
Somewhere in New Mexico, nightclub owner Jerry Manning hires a black leopard as a publicity stunt for his girlfriend, Kiki Walker (Jean Brooks, who is also in Lewton’s The Seventh Victim). She uses the giant cat to interrupt her rival, Clo-Clo (Margo, the wife of Eddie Albert, whose career was decimated by the blacklist), as she performs. Clo-Clo uses her castanets to scare the animal which runs into the night.
A series of murders happens, all blamed on the leopard, but when its body is found, the hypothesis that a human being may be at the center of these killings becomes fact. This film may be only sixty-six minutes, but each moment is infused with dark terror and dread. The beast waits for nearly everyone in the darkness of town and even moments in the daylight are offset with reminders of how North America’s indigenous people were treated by explorers.
This film was critically savaged when it came out, which astound me. It was also re-issued in 1952 along with King Kong, as RKO needed another movie title that sounded like it could have a creature in it.
The Leopard Man appears as one of the movies on The Church of Satan’s film list, perhaps as much for its subject matter as the fact that a big cat — one of LaVey’s favorite things — appears. It’s also a movie in which nearly every character is responsible for the murders, no matter their intentions, not just the one doing the actual killing. That’s quite a Satanic notion.