Val Lewton’s third horror film, The Leopard Man (1943) initially seemed promising. Based on Cornell Woolrich’s novel Black Alibi, it had more pedigree than Lewton’s previous movies. He reunited his previous team: director Jacques Tourneur, writer Ardel Wray, even Dynamite, the black leopard from Cat People. Forced again to film on the RKO lot, he sent Wray to photograph Santa Fe, New Mexico and crafted meticulous sets around her snapshots. Despite this attention to detail, The Leopard Man is one of Lewton’s weakest efforts.
The plot is simple enough. Nightclub entertainers James (Dennis O’Keefe) and Kiki (Jean Brooks) arrive in Santa Fe with a leopard in tow; Kiki’s rival Clo-Clo (Margo) scares the cat, which escapes into the city. The leopard kills a Mexican girl, sending the city into a panic. Several other women die, but James grows convinced that the leopard isn’t behind them. He enlists the help of Dr. Galbraith (James Bell), a naturalist who seems a little too interested in the killings…
The Leopard Man eschews supernatural elements altogether. Auteurists can find familiar Lewton touches: Clo-Clo visits a fortune teller several times, again showing human weakness for superstition; Dr. Galbraith is another seedy intellectual, like Cat People‘s Dr. Judd. Unlike that film and I Walked With a Zombie, viewers struggle to connect with the characters. Perhaps, as Glenn Erickson writes, it’s because the protagonists are show folks rather than working stiffs; perhaps it’s because they’re so thinly sketched, boring ciphers watching bit players become leopard chow. Either way, The Leopard Man feels like a rote thriller.
All that’s left is atmosphere – but what atmosphere! Tourneur tops his previous work with a marvelous set piece. A Mexican girl is stalked through an overpass by the leopard. Tourneur makes his usual brilliant play of shadow and silence, punctuated by dripping water and tumbleweeds; this time, a train that interrupts a nerve-tingling silence. This dissipates tension until we spot two shining eyes staring down… The girl pounds frantically on her front door, ignored by her mother until blood seeps under the doorframe. It’s such a knockout, just ten minutes into the movie, that the rest of Leopard Man can’t compete.
Despite its shortcomings, The Leopard Man proved another success. Nonetheless, Lewton and Tourneur split soon after; Tourneur graduated to A-list projects (Days of Glory, Out of the Past) while his collaborator remained in B Movies. “We had a perfect collaboration,” Tourneur remembered. “Val was the dreamer, the idealist, and I was the materialist, the realist.” Tourneur’s success in film noir showed Lewton’s influence, while Night of the Demon (1957) pays affectionate homage. A shame that their final collaboration proved so routine.
For The Seventh Victim (1943), Lewton tried avoiding the routine. Initially, screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen planned a serial killer drama; Lewton and Charles O’Neal rewrote it into a Satanic conspiracy. Directing chores went to Mark Robson, who’d edited his previous films but never directed a feature. The RKO brass weren’t impressed with Lewton’s choice; allegedly, they offered him an A-grade budget if he’d select a more seasoned director. Lewton stood by his protégé, an honorable move but unwise in his battle against RKO.
Teenaged Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter) flees a repressive boarding school to find her missing sister Jacqueline (Jean Brooks). She follows a breadcrumb trail throughout New York, meeting her husband Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont), melancholy poet Jason Hoag (Erford Gage) and Dr. Judd (Tom Conway), her psychiatrist. They discover Jacqueline’s involved with the Palladists, a Satanic coven furious with Jacqueline for killing an outsider. As the Palladists debate whether to kill Jacqueline, Mary and her allies try to rescue her.
It’s a stretch calling The Seventh Victim a horror movie; it’s an ensemble thriller in the Alfred Hitchcock-Fritz Lang mold, with the Palladists providing supernatural flavor. The screenplay introduces a half-dozen major characters, whom Lewton enjoys sketching in broad but humanizing strokes. Mary’s character arc is folded wonderfully into the narrative; she gains independence, finds a job and romance while searching for Jacqueline. Other characters are red herrings: Lou Lubin’s private eye becomes a victim; Dr. Judd, miraculously recovered from his mauling in Cat People, goes from lecherous cad to honorable doctor.
The Seventh Victim isn’t more supernatural than The Leopard Man, despite its Satanic antagonists. Lewton again views human failings – belief in superstition, psychological turmoil, or simple ambition and dishonesty – as the real villain. Mrs. Reddi (Mary Newton), the head Satanist, is evil not for devil worship but wanting to steal Jacqueline’s business. Ultimately the Palladists aren’t the main threat, despite having switchblade-wielding goons on standby. Instead, it’s Jacqueline, a depressive “sensationalist” with a standby gallows in her apartment, who thwarts attempts at rescue.
Kim Hunter makes a fresh-faced, determined protagonist who can’t penetrate her sister’s psychosis. Jean Brooks steals the show; between her Louise Brooks wig and somnambulist mannerisms, how couldn’t she? Always good with female characters, Lewton again stumbles with his men: Tom Conway’s fine, but Hugh Beaumont (years before Leave It To Beaver) and Erford Gage are hopeless squares. Bit players include Evelyn Brent as a one-armed dancer and Isabell Jewell as an hysterical cultist with a strong, possibly sexual fixation on Jacqueline.
While Robson’s direction seems more conventional than Tourneur’s in its long takes and dialogue scenes, he still shows a knack for nervy set pieces. One early scene has Mary and detective Irving August (Lubin) staking out a locked office, a scene transitioning neatly to a prolonged suspense piece on a subway train. The film comes closest to horror when the Palladists try bullying Jacqueline into suicide; Nicholas Musaraca’s camera transforms them into a tableaux of sinister ghouls. Best of all is Jacqueline’s terrified walk home, with assassins lurking around corners and emerging from the shadows. Horror or not, Seventh Victim is a superlative piece of filmmaking.
Not surprisingly, The Seven Victim proved a favorite of filmmakers. Michael Powell and Carol Reed obtained a print in war-torn London which they screened repeatedly for friends and colleagues. Powell cast Kim Hunter in A Matter of Life and Death (1945) two years later, while the Palladist thugs materializing from shadowy doorways anticipates Reed’s The Third Man (1949). One can also see precursors to Psycho (with Mary menaced in a shower), Rosemary’s Baby (the genteel Satanists) and Dressed to Kill (the subway scene).
If The Seventh Victim impressed Lewton’s peers, it baffled everyone else. Studio editors cribbed several scenes clarifying subplots and character backstories, making it even more elliptical. Critics largely panned it: Bosley Crowther complained one could only understand the film if run backward. It didn’t score with audiences either, handing Lewton his first flop and giving his nemeses ammunition for future battles.