Leopard Man, The (1943): Jacques Tourneur-Val Lewton Horror Noir, Dennis O’Keefe, Jean Brooks, Margo

Jacques Tourneur directed The Leopard Man, a striking, superbly mounted horror film, starring Dennis O’Keefe, Jean Brooks, and Margo.

The Leopard Man
The Leopard Man (1943 poster).jpg

Theatrical release poster

Based on the book Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich, it follows a series of violent murders in small New Mexico town, which coincide with the escape of a leopard from a nightclub.

It is one of the first American films to offer a more realistic portrayal of a serial killer, though that term did not exist yet.

In a sleepy New Mexico town, nightclub owner Jerry Manning hires a black leopard as a publicity stunt for his girlfriend, Kiki Walker, a performer there. Kiki uses the opportunity to interrupt the act of her rival, Clo-Clo, by storming into the restaurant with the leopard on a leash. Angered, Clo-Clo frightens the leopard with her castanets, and it escapes, fleeing into the night. Charlie, the Native American owner of the leopard who leased it to Jerry, begins pestering him for money to replace the cat.

That night, a young local woman, Teresa, goes to purchase corn meal for her family’s dinner. Under a bridge in an arroyo, she encounters the leopard, and flees to her house. She is killed at the door just before her family is able to let her back in the house. The medical examiner rules Teresa’s death an accident, presuming she was mauled by the leopard. Shortly after, Consuela, another local, goes to visit her father’s grave in the cemetery on her birthday. Lost in thought, Consuela fails to leave before the gatekeeper locks the gate, and finds herself trapped with the cemetery’s stone walls. When help arrives, Consuela is found, another apparent victim of the leopard.

After the second murder, Jerry asks the police why the leopard has remained in the city, instead of fleeing to wilderness. Charlie also questions whether the leopard killed Consuela, but is gaslit by the historian and museum curator Galbraith, into believing he may be responsible, committing murders during nightly alcohol binges in which he blacks out.

At his request, Charlie is kept in a jail cell, while Clo-Clo spends the night with elderly wealthy man at the club, who gives her a $100 bill.

She visits fortune teller Maria, who warns her that “something black” will come to claim her.

En route home, Maria loses the bill, and when she goes back to find it, she is murdered.

Kiki and Jerry prepare for a trip to Chicago, coinciding with  annual procession there that commemorates the mass murder of the Natives by the conquistadors.

Departing for their train, Kiki and Jerry get bouquet of flowers from Galbraith, which Kiki wishes to place on Consuela’s grave before they leave town.

At the cemetery, they are met by Charlie, who informs that a leopard was found shot dead in the arroyo, with its fur taken. He presumes the cat has been dead for at least a week, and that a human may be responsible for the murders. Charlie recalls having seen Galbraith, and suspects he killed the leopard.

Jerry attempts to turn Galbraith in to police, but they do not believe him.

That night, Galbraith hears woman’s scream at the cemetery. He subsequently enters the museum, where he hears the sound of the castanets echoing. Shortly after, Kiki arrives at the museum, where she offers to accompany Galbraith in viewing the procession.

She convinces Galbraith to turn off the lights, so that they will be able to watch the procession. Galbraith agrees, and, once the lights are off, Kiki drops a pair of castanets. Galbraith attacks her, but she is saved by Jerry. Galbraith flees into the street, where he is eventually stopped amongst the procession marchers.

Confronted by Jerry and Raoul, Consuela’s fiancé Galbraith confesses to having murdered Consuelo and Clo-Clo, claiming he was “inspired” after witnessing the leopard maul Teresa to death. Seeking vengeance, Raoul shoots Galbraith to death.

The ending is set at the funeral parlor, where Jerry and Kiki reaffirm their mutual love.

Among many distinctions, Leopard Man is one of the first American films to deal with the issue of serial killing.

Critical Status: Then and Now

Upon initial release, The Leopard Man received mixed reviews, some of which dismissed as a feeble horror flick, failing to recognize its effective storytelling and impressive production values.

However, over the years, as a result of evaluation by major critics such as Andrew Sarris, the movie has acquired a cult following and is now considered a cult horror classic, one of the greatest horror films ever made


Dennis O’Keefe as Jerry Manning
Margo as Gabriella “Clo-Clo”
Jean Brooks as Kiki Walker
Isabel Jewell as Maria, The Fortune Teller
Marguerite Sylva as Marta
Margaret Landry as Terésa Delgado
Abner Biberman as Charlie
James Bell as Dr. Galbraith
Tuulikki Paananen as Consuela Contreras
Fely Franquelli as Rosita Contreras Uncredited
Ariel Heath as Eloise Uncredited


Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Written by Ardel Wray, Edward Dein, based on Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich
Produced by Val Lewton
Cinematography Robert De Grasse
Edited by Mark Robson
Music by Roy Webb
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures Inc.

Release date: May 8, 1943

Running time: 66 minutes