Not all of the films in the Val Lewton Horror Collection have supernatural premises. Two that don’t – despite their titles - are these two, both made in 1943.
The Leopard Man is set in New Mexico. A black leopard (played by Dynamite, who had previously appeared in Cat People) is brought on as part of a cabaret act by Kiki (Jean Brooks). But rival dancer Clo-Clo (Margo) resists the attempt to upstage her. In the ensuing confrontation the leopard escapes. Soon afterwards a young woman is found mauled to death. But Kiki and Jerry Manning (Dennis O’Keefe) wonder if there’s a human murderer at work…
This was Jacques Tourneur’s final horror film for Lewton, and it tends to be ranked below Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, possibly due to less-than-engaging lead characters and sub-top-flight lead actors. But there’s plenty of interest here, particularly in what this film anticipates. Although to call The Leopard Man a slasher movie would be crude – not just because of what 40s censorship would have allowed, but also due to Lewton’s customary good taste – it certain structural elements it is reminiscent of that genre. We have at least two elongated sequences where a young woman is followed by the killer, leopard or human…Lewton/Tourneur “walks”, but ones that end in death. One such scene has a tremendous finale, with the victim behind a locked door pleading to let in. Growls, and screams…and blood trickles under the door. It’s doubtful that anything more graphic (had it been allowed in the first place) would have been more effective. The film also pulls a major surprise by killing off a major character early, and there’s an excellent “bus”, which in this case is a subway train.
As you might expect, the atmosphere of this hot, sleepy town is very well evoked, and Robert de Grasse’s camerawork is appropriately shadowy. Shots of the streets at night, with music coming out of bars, reminded me of a later work by someone who had recently made two films for RKO – Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil. In that later film Welles went further in his famous long opening shot by having different music coming out of different bars as his camera went past, an effect heightened in the version restored to Welles’s intentions, without Henry Mancini’s otherwise fine music score overlaid. This may be complete coincidence, but you watch this and you wonder if Welles was there in the audience in 1943, watching and taking note.
The Ghost Ship, directed by Mark Robson, is a very different film, a battle of wills between two men. Tom Merriam (Russell Wade) signs on to the Altair as third officer. His captain is Will Stone (Richard Dix). At first the two men get on well together, but soon Merriam finds something amiss. Stone is paralysed by fear when having to perform an operation on a sick crewman. Then another crewman who criticises Stone to his face is killed in an “accident”. Merriam concludes that Stone is in fact mad, but no-one will believe him…
This is second-rank Lewton (and Robson), but as ever there’s a lot of interest. The film immediately sets up an eerie atmosphere with an opening sequence that involves both a blind beggar and narration by a mute sailor. The acting is good, especially from Dix and Wade, but also from a solid supporting cast – look out for Sir Lancelot as a Trinidadian sailor. Nicholas Musuraca’s photography is up to his usual standards, and Robson pulls off a couple of excellent sequences, notably the “accidental” death in the chain store. But in comparison to other Lewtons, even the somewhat maligned Isle of the Dead (also directed by Robson), the film seems underpowered. As you might expect for a film set mostly on board a working ship, it’s an almost all-male affair, and is in fact the only Lewton horror film not to feature a woman in a leading role. Edith Barrett receives third billing for a short sequence set on dry land in the middle of the film, where she delivers a line that justifies the studio-imposed title: this is a metaphorical ghost ship rather than a literal one.
For almost fifty years since its premiere in 1943, The Ghost Ship was the Lewton film all but impossible to see. I first saw it on BBC2 some ten years ago, when it featured in their “Lost and Found” season (an excellent idea they’ve never repeated). The reason it became the “lost” Lewton was due to litigation. (Though having said that, the two non-horror films that Lewton made in this period for RKO, Youth Runs Wild and Mademoiselle Fifi, aren’t easy to see either and aren’t on DVD as I write this.) The screenplay of The Ghost Ship is credited to Donald Henderson Clarke from a story by Leo Mittler. However, two other writers, Samuel R. Golding and Norbert Faulkner, sued Lewton, claiming that the film was based on their play which they had submitted to Lewton’s office. Lewton claimed that he had sent the play back unread and instead of settling out of court, went to trial – and lost, and again on appeal. The Ghost Ship was withdrawn from circulation.
The Leopard Man and The Ghost Ship are released on a single DVD-9 disc, encoded for Regions 1 and 4. It is as I write (December 2005) only available as part of the five-disc Val Lewton Horror Collection box set, and not separately.
Both films were made in black and white and Academy ratio, and are hence transferred to DVD in 4:3 without anamorphic enhancement. The transfer of The Leopard Man isn’t the best looking in the set: it’s on the soft side, and there are signs of print damage, such as speckles and scratches. The Ghost Ship is in a better state, but is still a little soft.
No complaints about the soundtrack, which is single-channel mono. (The extras are 2.0 mono.) As ever with this box set, it sounds fine: well-balanced and clear. Subtitles (not the hard-of-hearing variety) are provided for the features only. The Leopard Man has twenty-two chapter stops, The Ghost Ship twenty.
The main extra is a commentary on The Leopard Man from film director William Friedkin. While I can accept that this is a film that means a lot to him, and was an influence on him as a director, this is one of the duller commentaries in the set, much of it being a scene-by-scene breakdown of what we can see for ourselves. The other extra is the film’s trailer (1:03), which is not in the best of states: overly dark and contrasty, with a very noticeable splice and soundtrack jump early on.
There are no extras for The Ghost Ship at all, making it one of two films in the set (Isle of the Dead being the other) not to have one. This is disappointing, as a good commentary might have been illuminating on this lesser-known Lewton production. I particularly would have been interested in hearing about the court case. There’s no trailer either, but that presumably doesn’t survive. Given the state of some of the trailers which do survive, that wouldn’t surprise me.
These two films are certainly worthwhile, but are second-rank Lewton, more likely to appeal to fans rather than the more casual viewer – but then such fans will certainly be buying the box set in any case.