Sunday, August 16, 2009

Manny Farber On The Leopard Man

"The Leopard Man", a reissued "B" (1942) showing with the rickety "King Kong", is a nerve-twitching whodunit giving the creepy impression that human beings and "things" are interchangeable and almost synonymous and that both are pawns of a bizarre and terrible destiny. A lot of surrealists like Cocteau have tried for the same supernatural effects, but while their scenes still seem like portraits in motion, Val Lewton's film shows a way to tell a story about people, that isn't dominated by the activity, weight, size, and pace of the human figure. In one segment of the film a small frightened senorita walks beyond the edge of the border town and then back again, while her feelings and imagination keep shifting with the camera into the sagebrush, the darkness of an arroyo, crackling pebbles underfoot, and so on until you see her thick dark blood oozing under the front door of her house. All the psychological effects -- fear and so on –were transferred to within the non-human components of the picture as the girl waited for some non-corporeal manifestation of nature, culture, or history to gobble her up. But more important in terms of movie invention, Lewton's use of multiple focus (characters are dropped or picked up as if by chance, while the movie goes off on odd tracks trying to locate a sound or suspicion) and his lighter-than-air sense of pace created a terrifically plastic camera style. It put the camera eye on a curiously delicate wave length that responds to scenery as quickly as the mind, and gets inside of people instead of reacting only to surface qualities. This film still seems to be one of Hollywood's original gems -- nothing impure in terms of cinema, nothing imitative about its style, and little that misses fire through a lack of craft.
--Manny Farber (September 27, 1952, The Nation)

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