'The Leopard Man' and 'Return of the Whistler' (Double Feature) | Spring 2019
March 30, 2019
The Katharina Otto-Bernstein Screening Room
Lenfest Center for the Arts
615 W. 129 St.
New York, NY 10027
March 30th, 2019 6:00 pm -
The Leopard Man (6:00pm)
1943 / 66 min / b/w
Dir. Jacques Tourneur / Scr. Ardel Wray
Cast: Dennis O’Keefe, Margo, Jean Brooks
Adapted from Black Alibi (1942)
35mm print courtesy of The Library of Congress
Introduced by Jason Stevens, independent scholar
This screening was part of The Second Annual Dr. Saul and Dorothy Kit Film Noir Festival
Into the Night: Cornell Woolrich and Film Noir
Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur, the producer/director team behind Cat People, followed up their 1942 sensation with another slice of feline-focused horror. The Leopard Man adapts a 200-page Woolrich whodunit into an early entry in the serial killer film. Ardel Wray’s script moves the action from a South American metropolis to a small New Mexico town, where a botched publicity stunt at a nightclub incites a citywide panic. As the bodies pile up, the locals wonder if they’re being hunted by a leopard, a man, or some ungodly mix of the two.
The Leopard Man is in many ways an anomaly among the Woolrich films. It takes place in a Southwestern village (not a big city), it contains traces of the supernatural, and its plot isn’t an ingeniously sadistic Rube Goldberg machine designed to entrap its protagonist. Instead, Tourneur and Lewton offer an elegant precursor to the slasher movie. The victims here are young, beautiful women, as they so often would be in serial killer cinema (“Women alone the victims of strange savage killer!” the film’s sensationalist poster screamed). The film, as such, retains the fear of women visible in many noir films from the period.
The Leopard Man changes the identity of the killer from Woolrich’s Black Alibi, but it remains an overall faithful adaptation of the best-selling novel. It also boasts the strongest Columbia credentials in this retrospective: Like Woolrich, Val Lewton studied at CU, where he graduated from the School of Journalism.
Return of the Whistler (7:25pm)
1948 / 61 min / b/w
Dir. D. Ross Lederman/ Scr. Edward Bock, Maurice Tombragel
Cast: Michael Duane, Lenore Aubert, Richard Lane
Adapted from the short story “All at Once, No Alice,” Argosy, March 2, 1940
35mm print courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment
Introduced by Frank Krutnik, University of Sussex
“I am the Whistler and I know many things, for I walk by night. I know many strange tales, many secrets hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows.”
The famous opening lines of CBS’s radio drama The Whistler (1942-1955) could be an almost perfect description of Woolrich’s authorial persona. Yet the show was one of the few mystery radio series of the time that never adapted his work; instead, it used only original stories. Columbia Pictures’ Whistler adaptations (1944-1948) were different, however. Two of the series’ eight films were taken from Woolrich: The Mask of the Whistler (1944), based on the 1942 story “Dormant Account,” and The Return of the Whistler.
The translation of serial properties from radio to screen was part of a trend within the era’s pulp mediascape. Columbia Pictures led the way courtesy of a distribution deal with producer Larry Darmour, who specialized in B pictures with pre-sold appeal, such as the Ellery Queen (1940-1942), Crime Doctor (1943-1949), and Whistler series, all from radio.
As Frank Krutnik has noted, the Whistler films “evoke the … aesthetic specificity of radio drama.” One of the novelties of the radio version was the fact that the stories focused on criminals and their psychological states, with the Whistler narrating the story with an odd second-person mode of address that was a hallmark of the show. The Whistler films approximate this by having the Whistler pop up as a kind of Greek chorus, usually as a shadow on the wall who addresses the characters in the fiction.
The first seven Whistler films had all starred Richard Dix, not as the Whistler, but, unusually, in a different protagonist role from film to film. After Dix’s retirement, Columbia attempted to reboot the series with Michael Duane in Return, but discontinued it after the film’s poor showing.
About the Dr. Saul and Dorothy Kit Film Noir Festival
Short story maestro, former Columbia student, muse of suspense filmmakers: Cornell Woolrich (1903–1968) lived all of these lives. The Second Annual Dr. Saul and Dorothy Kit Film Noir Festival presents 12 adaptations of Woolrich’s fiction: from the canonized masterworks of Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut to lesser known “B” films and Monogram potboilers. Many films will be screened in 35mm.
This festival is the second in a ten-year series devoted to the legacy of film noir. It was funded by a generous gift from alumnus Gordon Kit (Columbia College ’76), in honor of his parents.
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