Sunday, 10 May 2009

The Film of Val Lewton - Part Seven

The Leopard Man - part two

The film is structured around three deaths. These are occasioned by the search to satisfy three basic human needs: Food, love and money. As ever with Lewton, life carries with it the shadow of death. The Leopard Man illustrates how this can exert an overpowering fascination. The three women who die are at differing stages of life. Theresa Delgado is a young girl, Consuela is just beginning to approach the first bloom of maturity, and Clo-Clo is a mature woman in command of herself and at ease in her surroundings. Women are often presented as victims in horror films, of course, but here you sense that they are symbolic of different aspects of the life force, succumbing to an almost impersonal embodiment of the opposed force of death (Thanatos, as Freud would have it). This is death in a masculine guise and is also representative of historical and religious forces of conquest and the violent imposition of power.

The scene in which Theresa meets her death is perhaps the most celebrated of the film. It is another of Lewton and Tourneur’s sustained exercises in atmosphere. Theresa’s mother sends her daughter out into the night for cornmeal for tortillas out of a sense of pride – she doesn’t want to be seen to poor in front of guests. Theresa’s evident fear is dismissed out of hand. She is too late for the local shop, the proprietor of which refuses to unlock the door for her because it would be too much trouble for her. These are the small gestures creating the forks in the path which determine someone’s fate. If she had taken the trouble to open up the door for her, Theresa wouldn’t have had to continue over the arroyo to the more distant store, as she does. The arroyo itself is an ominous southern gothic landscape, with a dry desert wind blowing through the dark underpass of the concrete railway bridge which spans the dusty gulch. This imposition of the resolutely artificial on the natural is echoed in the store, where Theresa admires the mechanical toy birds in their cage. The storekeeper has evidently known her since she was a little girl, and the sense of community which this once more underlines is furthered by his insistence on giving her credit, since ‘the poor don’t cheat one another; we’re poor together’.

As she makes the trip back through the arroyo and into the dark shadows beneath the bridge, the wind has died down and the sound of water dripping into the narrow channel only serves to amplify the silence. We see the twin points of light which are the leopard’s eyes. The Lewton ‘bus’ on this occasion is a train, which roars overhead, throwing its light onto the concrete in epileptic flashes. Whereas the original ‘bus’ which arrived at the end of the first nightwalk scene in Cat People (see previous post) served both as a mechanical jolt and a signal that the danger was over, here the intrusion of loud modernity into the wilderness serves to frighten the leopard and make it leap into aggressive action. As Charlie had said of his creature in criticising the police tactics of trying to drive it out with noise, ‘they don’t want to hurt you, but if you scare them, they go crazy’. Theresa runs, dropping the cornmeal which spills out onto the ground. We hear her pounding at the door, but her mother won’t let her in, determined to chastise her for taking so long. When we hear the thud of a body against the door and a scream suddenly cut short by animalistic snarls, we know that it is too late. The blood which flows in a stream under the door, echoing the thin trickle of water beneath the bridge, pools and spreads out in the cracks of the floor paving, following a rigorous path as if this has all been pre-determined by fate.

The inquest is held in a glass-fronted showroom on the main street, and we first see the events through this window, which is in the process of being cleaned. The following scene will make the situation more transparent, it is implied. Theresa’ s young brother makes leopard shadows against the wall. Death is simply not a reality for him yet. Kiki gives a contribution for the funeral to a nun who is in attendance. The church as a convenient outlet for the expiation of guilt. Jerry’s solution is also to ‘slip them a few bucks’, an economic reaction to culpability which elides deeper involvement. It is left to Chief Robles to comfort the family. He is like a secular priest, a humane man who cares about the people in his community. Jerry’s lack of involvement is conversely highlighted when he turns down the offer to take part in a posse to hunt for the leopard, making ‘flip talk’, as Kiki will later refer to it, about being a tenderfoot. Chief Robles pointedly tells Gailbraith that ‘no-one blames you’ after his evident distress whilst Jerry is told ‘no one holds you legally responsible’. Merely morally. These judgements will be reversed by the end of the film. As the family walks down the street, Jerry moves aside. He is apart, distanced from the community which is united in mourning.

The next scene juxtaposes the image of the nun from the inquest with a momentarily still tableau of the gypsy fortune teller in Marian pose, head tilted contemplatively to one side, head covered with a veil. The piety of this icon is immediately sullied when she pulls up her everpresent cigarette to her lips. The introduction of such a cheekily profane image makes a point about the way that spiritual solace can be found in the most unlikely of places, however. It is also a reminder that older religious traditions exist from which Catholicism has drawn in order to fulfil the need for a focus of female power. Clo-Clo goes to see the gypsy for more than a mere card reading. Chief Robles is a figure who acts as more than just a police chief. His cells become almost monastic when he admits Charlie to them for the night to allow him to work off what he knows is a baseless feeling of guilt. The fortune teller is a wise woman in proletarian guise. She says that Charlie Howe should be allowed to look for the leopard, since he is an Indian. She believes in the old wisdom, knowledge connected to the landscape and the ancient cultural strata with which it is layered. Of those who have superseded and buried the ancient traditions, she is dismissive; ‘men are all fools – they like to make a big show’. The bad card comes up again in her reading for Clo-Clo, after one which has indicated ‘you will meet a rich man and he will give you money’. ‘For what was I born for if not for money’ Clo-Clo declaims. It will in fact be money for which she dies.

The gypsy passes Jerry as she leaves Clo-Clo’s dressing room and throws him a dirty look. It turns out that he did go on that posse after all, where he met Galbraith (a buried but important plot point). He says that they got on, and right until the end, when he and Kiki are about to leave, he is saying that they must keep in touch with him, suggesting an affinity between the two men (and a shared guilt?) At the ‘supper show’ they meet up with him and learn that he is the curator of the local museum, which has ‘interesting exhibits of Indian arts and crafts’. Galbraith was a teacher of zoology, but gave it up for reasons he leaves unstated. This evasiveness suggests a guarded personality and hits at some kind of breakdown or crisis in his life; Something which has led him to withdraw to this remote town and within himself. He seems hesitant and a little distant, aloof and emotionally disconnected from the life surrounding him. He will remain a mysterious character until the end, to himself as much as anyone. It is his horror at discovering an element of his personality which he is unable to suppress which leads him to do what he does.

The second death in the film is once more preceded by Clo-Clo acting as a linking character, meeting with a servant, Rosita, who is on her way to bring flowers to her mistress, Consuela Contrera. The fact that Clo-Clo cannot even afford one flower acts as a striking contrast with the well-off Contrera household. The interior of the house is grand, with a staircase ascending in a sweeping curve. The roses are laid out on Consuela’s bed for her birthday in a fashion which directly parallels the way in which she’ll lay them out on her father’s grave later on. Once again, the notion that death is a seed contained within birth is put forth. ‘I must go to the graveyard. It’s my birthday’, she says. This is reminiscent of the islanders in ‘I Walked With A Zombie’, who weep at a birth and celebrate at a funeral. Rosita has surreptitiously shown Consuela that she has a letter from her lover, which agrees to an arranged rendezvous in the graveyard. The laying of roses on her father’s grave act as an excuse and makes the equation between love and death, for both of which these flowers are now the symbol.

Having been told by the cemetery gatekeeper of the time at which he will close and lock the doors, Consuela, lays flowers on her father’s grave and talks to him of her lover, Raul. She goes to meet him in mourner’s black, waiting in a grove circled with classical columns. At the centre of such a space, suggestive of ancient sacred traditions, the statue of the Virgin with child appears more like Diana, a goddess embodying female power. Raul has not waited, however, only the butts of his cigarettes indicating his former presence. The cigarette butt on the ground will be echoed in the later scene with Clo-Clo meeting what she momentarily thinks may be her lover. The extinguished butt on the ground is the dying out of the light of hope and life.

Consuela sits disconsolately on one of the benches, lost in a world of her own misery. She misses the closing time and when the bell is rung, is lost amongst the pathways of stone and evergreen shrubbery and locked in. We see the small fire outside the gate, the precious and tenuous flames of life, which contrast with the cold moonlit stone inside. As Consuela runs through the evergreens which seem to form the walls of a maze which actively seeks to misdirect her, she passes a statue of what may be St Peter, but which in this context is more resemblant of Pan. And indeed, he exerts his influence, as Consuela begins to panic. Cultures are layered atop one another, never wholly disconnected from what has come before. Traces of the past will always leach through the surface coating to form a palimpsest of myth and symbol. Consuela also comes across a small recess in the wall, a votary or shrine which, in the shadowed night, looks more like an ancient oracular site, like the mouth of the stone face at Delphi; the dark entrance to a dank underworld. The wind has started to blow, as it did during Theresa’s trek across the arroyo, a sign of the immanence of the uncanny. The landscape itself seems to conspire against her. Consuela momentarily connects with the world of the living beyond the cemetery as a passerby promises to return with a ladder, but she is now shut off from it by a barrier of stone, just as the concrete bridge proved to be a boundary between life and death for Theresa. In that case, a ball of tumbleweed blew past in the wind as if hurrying between worlds. Here, nature becomes animate again, a branch bending down as if the trees are reaching out to grasp her. Her screams end the scene as we are spared the sight of her end.

The police are joined by Jerry and Galbraith at the graveyard where Theresa’s body has been discovered. Jerry is sceptical about the nature of the crime, which is being ascribed to the leopard. Galbraith opines that ‘caged animals are unpredictable. They’re like frustrated human beings’. He draws the link between human and animal nature, and between a nature upon which captivity is imposed and one whose confinement is a more complex and at least partially self-created form of repression. Meanwhile, Charlie has been reduced to hawking charms and miracle potions. As he tells Jerry, ‘I can’t make a buck without my leopard’. Jerry has appropriated the economic basis of his living. The effects of a careless act reverberates way beyond its initial impact. As Chief Robles, the film’s moral voice puts it, ‘people who want publicity and don’t mind how they get it...what agony and sorrow they bring to other people’.

Jerry and Charlie accompany Galbraith to his museum. It is more like a mausoleum. Outside, a woman in traditional Indian costume sits adjacent to a postcard rack weaving on a handloom. The two are implicitly equivalent, objects of local colour for the edification of tourists. The woman stands (or sits) in contrast with Charlie, who with his silver belt buckle and felt hat looks like a much more modern native inhabitant of the New Mexican landscape, influenced by subsequent developments. The visitors’ footsteps echo and voices reverberate in the interior of the museum, merely serving to underline the deathly emptiness of the space. Galbraith talks to Charlie, trying to interest him in his heritage by showing him a ceremonial leopard head, but he doesn’t respond. Galbraith shows them his latest exhibit and relates how he went back after the rest of the team had packed up and gone home and dug it up himself. The whole museum has the air of a solitary pursuit in which no-one else is interested. Jerry is voicing his suspicions that a man carried out the latest killing, and Galbraith deflects suspicion onto Charlie, under the guise of levity. The whole museum, curated by an American, is a testament to the disappearance of a culture and the erosion of self-esteem which has led to such neglect. Galbraith now plays upon this to arouse Charlie’s native self-doubt. He is so appalled by the very thought that such impulses might be present inside him that he demands he be confined to jail, something which Robles is happy to do for him in his ‘clerical’ guise, even while emphasising his utter disbelief that Charlie has anything to do with Consuela’s death.

We see Charlie in jail and then hear Clo-Clo’s castanets once more providing the link between scenes and emphasising the connectivity of characters in this community. Clo-Clo now walks down a very different street to that in which we first saw her, however. It is dark and depopulated, with only the police and some delivery men for her to greet. Once more we witness the effect of Jerry and Kiki’s careless act on the community. It has become a street of fear.

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