The Leopard Man (1943): A Work of Sound and Shadow

190px-Leopard_man.jpgIt’s fitting that a pair of castanets act as our entry point into the latest entry from Val Lewton’s RKO unit. Not only do they instantly grab our attention, but they foreshadow the auditory nature of the film and, in the cultural context, provide a little shorthand for where our setting might be.

Because with this stereotypical “Latin flavor” we find out soon enough we are indeed in New Mexico. At the local nightclub, Kiki (Jean Brooks) bemoans the fact her rival Clo-Clo (Margo) is constantly clicking, and it does seem blondes like herself are on the downside. However, her boyfriend, a fledgling publicity man (Dennis O’Keefe), has a new stunt to make waves with the viewing public.

When he walks into her dressing room with a leopard on a leash, she nearly dies of fright, and we have entered into the kind of territory intent on making our B feature a pulpy pleasure. Kiki reluctantly makes a grand entrance with her new pet and makes quite the impression as patrons look on with shivers of trepidation. Except her moment doesn’t last long as Clo-Clo scares the creature off and it goes racing off into the night — a beast off on the loose. One can only imagine what a deadly cat might get up to lurking in the shadows on any given evening…

From this point onward, the picture introduces a plethora of players from a fortune teller hiding in the shadows with her deck of cards just waiting to tell Clo-Clo her fortune. There’s the hapless bloke Charlie who gave up his prized leopard to Manning and wants his remuneration.

Then the local girl deathly afraid of the beast at large and nevertheless gets locked out of the house by her mother until she fetches the cornmeal for her father’s supper. We know the inevitable is about to happen. The creature will find her. Her world is developed almost solely through sound. The drip of water. Feet trudging through the dirt. A train passing overhead. They punctuate the scene immaculately leading into the big reveal. Because we know what is waiting for her…

She makes a mad dash to the front door of her home crying out to her family to open up but she gets no further. Like Cat People before it, The Leopard Man is made as much out of what is not seen and it has one of the most startling cinematic death scenes executed through utter minimalism.

Because although Manning and his girl feel awful about their hand in this girl’s tragic death, they soon realize more might be afoot. Another grisly death follows and then a subsequent evening Clo-Clo…

It is the stripped-down sound design in the picture that reflects the Lewton/Tourneur unit at the pinnacles of their powers. Where pure suggestion is imbued with so much meaning. So little can be so very much. Whereas M was a picture where the killer has a calling card, in this film the murders can be remembered by their accompanying sounds.

The wind whipping through the trees as a woman sits locked in a garden. A car engine driving off to get someone to open up the gate. Rustling leaves being stepped on and then quiet. With Clo-Clo it’s little different with the same repetition of her heels clicking on the pavement in rhythm with her castanets. Then, she too reaches a finality.

Despite the stylistically rewarding elements, The Leopard Man gets less interesting with time as it comes out the leopard might be masking a more mundane serial killer plot. Not to sound overly callous, but this is more of a real-world development. Aside from courting too many characters who dilute the impact of the whole story, The Leopard Man feels more stagnant than its predecessors.

The greatest pity is how there isn’t the same unnerving magic hanging over the picture. It probably has too big a stake in reality. What its predecessors were blessed with, in narrative terms, was the supernatural mixed in with everyday reality. The Leopard Man falls on the wrong side of the fence, unable to leave us with the same type of lingering specter. Its strengths were always in what was not actually there, instead of human beings of tangible flesh and blood.

3.5/5 Stars

Woman on the Run (1950)

Woman_on_the_RunB-films have little time to waste and this one jumps right into the action. In a matter of moments, a man is shot, another man has killed him and a third witness gets away into the night. Although Frank Johnson (Ross Elliot) is rounded up by the police to be a witness he gives them the slip for an undisclosed reason and they must spend every waking hour trying to track him down.

What’s important to this particular story is that he left behind his wife Eleanor (Ann Sheridan) to be questioned by the police and they are hurting for a break. They need answers so they slam her with all sorts of inquiries.

She’s not all that cooperative though and the reasons are rather hard to discern. Is it belligerence, fear, or sheer apathy to the entire ordeal? Because you see, Ms. Johnson for some time had been drifting apart from her husband an accomplished painter who nevertheless put little stock in his own skill.

And that’s where the film’s two themes begin to intertwine.  The police surmise that the runaway man is fleeing a killer, but for his wife the implications are twofold. In her eyes, he’s just as likely running away from a marriage he couldn’t cope with. That is her dilemma which she masks both pointedly and inadvertently with various diversions to keep the police reeling.  After all, she’s not particularly keen on helping them or sticking around for that matter.

Whereas in earlier roles Ann Sheridan was always slightly overshadowed by other performers, most notable of those being the always electrifying James Cagney, here she gives perhaps her finest performance and she’s at the center of it all. That’s not to say she isn’t surrounded by a stellar supporting gallery.

Dennis O’Keefe, remembered as a gritty leading man in pictures such as T-Men and Raw Deal, showcases a new playful side as a journalist trying to nab a scoop on the runaway witness and at the same time making eyes at the man’s bride. But he manages to give the part some life that goes far beyond a one-dimensional characterization. There’s more to him as we soon find out.

The other important player turns out to be Inspector Ferris (Robert Keith) who as the long arm of the law is looking to find his man before his adversary does. But he’s not about to take flack from anyone and if ever there was a cop who was no-nonsense he fits the bill. His croaking voice always interrogating his subjects in a continuous effort to get his job done. Too bad he wasn’t quite counting on Ann Sheridan.

A relentless climax aboard a roller coaster at a local amusement park precedes Hitchcock’s Strangers on the Train when it comes to making carnival games such a deadly ordeal. And there are hints along the way ratcheting up the tension whether it’s a familiar cigarette lighter, a striking coincidence, or a passing remark that initially goes unnoticed.

The script strikes a strange path at times given to clunky expositional dialogue that feels as trite as can be and then in the very next sequence there’s a bit of patter or a dry quip that makes things all the more interesting. Also, a pair of small supporting roles for Victor Sen Yung and Reiko Sato add another layer of authenticity to the characterization only surpassed by the on location shooting that catches the essence of mid-century San Francisco.

In the end, Woman on the Run turns out to be one of those wonderful treasures that has rather unfairly gotten buried in the dusty attic of film noir. But far from being an antique, it plays fairly well today with an underlying tension running through Sheridan’s performance as she not only reflects on her own dwindling marriage but stresses to discover her husband’s whereabouts in fear of his very well-being.

It’s surprisingly entertaining and you get the sense that if Norman Forster (a fairly prolific actor, director, and screenwriter) were someone other than Norman Forster, this picture might have been scrutinized more closely. As it is, it’s just waiting for more people to dredge it up. How did I get here? If you’re a sucker for film noir and Ann Sheridan there’s no better place to go than Woman on the Run.

3.5/5 Stars

4 “Good Girls” of Film Noir

I do not particularly care for the term “Good Girl,” because it feels rather condescending toward the guardian angels of film-noir. In fact, on closer research, I’m not even sure if it’s a widely accepted term. However, they are the ones in stark juxtaposition to the femme fatales, acting as the beacons of light leading their men away from the path of destruction. As such, their roles should certainly not be discounted and here are four such women from four classic film-noir.

1. Anne Shirley in Murder, My Sweet (1944)

Taking her stage name from the plucky heroine out of E.L Montgomery’s perennial classic, Anne Shirley’s Ann Grayle is the one character of high moral standing in a film clogged with all sorts of undesirables. Even our protagonists Phillip Marlowe (Dick Powell) is cynical as all get out and Grayle’s seductive stepmother (Claire Trevor) cares more about her jewelry than her marriage.

AnneShirleyMurderMySweetTrailerScreenshot1955.jpg

2.Jeanne Crain in Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

Leave Her to Heaven is noteworthy for several reasons. First, it is an obvious example of noir that is atypically shot in color. Furthermore, Gene Tierney gives the most chilling performance of her career as Ellen Harland. However, Tierney’s turn would not be so deathly icy if it were not for Jeanne Crain’s angelic role as her sister Ruth. The polarity of the roles, Ellen’s conniving smile, crossed with her sister’s utter sincerity makes the film work far more evocatively.

JeanneCrainLeaveHerToHeavenTrailerScreenshot1945.jpg

3.Coleen Gray in Kiss of Death (1947)

Of all the “Guardian Angels” the late great Coleen Gray (who passed away last year) was perhaps the sweetest, kindest, most precious example you could ever conjure up. Her role as the faithful Nettie, tugs at our heartstrings. Though she doesn’t have a femme fatale counterpoint, the crazed Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) more than fits the bill.

kissof1

4.Marsha Hunt in Raw Deal (1948)

Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal is a film that revolves around a man (Dennis O’Keefe) incarcerated in prison with a girl (Claire Trevor) on the outside ready to help him get out any way she can. But it’s the social worker Ann, who we first gravitate towards because she is the righteous one trying earnestly to reform Joe. It is his evolving character, after all, that is at the core of this one.

4a2f4-rawdeal1

T-Men (1947)

fb214-tmen3T-Men looks like it could be a dated 1940s procedural right out of a stuffy newsreel. It’s complete with an omniscient narrator overlaying everything. He gives us all the juicy bits without relaying all the superfluous details because, after all, this is a composite case. Also, a lot of effort is made to bring up similarities with the Al Capone case.  So, in other words, it does feel like a heavy-handed newsreel at times.

However, thanks to director Anthony Mann and the pure cinematography of John Alton, T-Men sheds its shallow top layer and gets interesting.

We are given a bit of dry exposition to kick things off. We are following a couple T-Men named Dennis O’Brien (Dennis O’Keefe) and Tony Genaro (Alfred Ryder), complete with full personal bios, who are called on to infiltrate a counterfeiting ring. They get in with the Vantucci mob and make their way from Detroit to L.A. O’Brien aka Vannie Harrigan goes to all the steam baths across town and finally comes across a man named the Schemer. After putting his phony dough in circulation the plan is set in motion as he gets in with the thugs of L.A. too.

And that’s what the rest of the film entails, with O’Brien keeping his cover, while also staying in contact with his superiors and being joined by Tony, aka Tony Galvani from Detroit. It would be run-of-the-mill if not for a few scenes and Alton’s images as previously mentioned.

One day Toni runs into his wife in the most awkward and potentially deadly of circumstances. A well-meaning friend nearly blows his cover in front of a thug and Mary Genaro (June Lockhart) bravely protects her husband. It’s a painful moment.

All too soon Toni’s in trouble and O’Brien soon after, but he’s almost gotten to the top. The digging and prodding have nearly reached their apex. A bit of luck and some timely police support get to O’Brien soon enough so he survives. It’s a show of heroics and gutsy police work like we have undoubtedly seen many times before.

T-Men is kind of like The Departed without all the thrills and plot twists, and cursing if you want to see it that way. But the images are so moody and beautiful that it’s hard not to at least tip your hat if you had one. Do yourself a favor and see Raw Deal, a film with many of the same components and probably a slightly better payoff.

3.5/5 Stars

Raw Deal (1948)

5453f-rawdeal2Anthony Mann may be most widely known for his westerns often headlined by Jimmy Stewart, but he most definitely honed his craft earlier on. Raw Deal is everything you want and expect from film-noir. Our protagonist is a man who breaks out of the State Penitentiary, you have your potential femme fatale, the moral ambiguity, and most of the other necessary hallmarks.

As a lover of black and white cinematography, Raw Deal is highly appealing with its chiaroscuro, silhouettes, and framing of characters. But after all, that’s often part of the allure of noir.

Claire Trevor’s matter of fact voice-over backed by the theremin is highly effective in dictating the disconcerting mood for the entirety of the film. All our previous predispositions tell us the stage is set for a chilling ending but we can hardly imagine what it is at this point.

After Joe (Dennis O’Keefe) busts out of prison, we get much of what you would expect. A tense manhunt involving a dragnet crossing multiple state lines and a fugitive at large with accomplices. There is violence and melodrama galore as Joe dodges the police while also trying to reconnect with a crooked mob boss named Rick (Raymond Burr), who leveraged an escape attempt so Joe would get knocked off.

With the circumstances as they are, he’s not too keen on giving Joe the 50Gs that he is owed and so Rick wants the fugitive knocked off if the cops don’t get to him first. Put in this light, the film feels analogous to many other noir staples like White Heat, Out of the Past, Gun Crazy or The Big Heat to name a few. However, it has its own wrinkle that makes it interesting.

Joe has his femme fatale to be sure, but the kicker is that there are two dames pulling at his heart strings. Pat (Claire Trevor) is more the dame since she was born in a bad area and has been waiting around for Joe a long time. She’s faithful even to the point of helping him escape, but she’s not the most endearing of characters. Ann (Marsha Hunt) on the other hand is the tender social worker who has been trying to help Joe the legal way. When he breaks out she is taken as a sort of hostage and has difficulties reconciling her feelings for him with what she sees in front of her.

However, he’s certainly not all hardened criminal and so that is part of what makes the rest of the film so interesting. Each character walks the thin line of morality and each one crosses over to the other side even if its only for an instant.

For, Pat the clock continues to tick and her conscience ultimately catches up with her. As the drama reaches its near apex we see Joe’s true feelings, and in a sense, who he has become compared to who he was earlier. However, we cannot help feeling a tinge of remorse in the end. So you see, the film succeeded in doing the near impossible, making me sympathize for Claire Trevor’s character. She seemingly often plays undesirables, but they are never cookie cutter and the same can be said for Raw Deal.

4/5 Stars

“You’re something from under a rock” ~ Ann Martin