Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Transferences in The Leopard Man

A woman walks, 'tween shadow and light.

The gaze in horror films is a terrifying thing – a sign of imminent danger. Imagine a scene in a crowded restaurant. When the camera is neutral, a mere recording instrument taking in a whole group of people, it is no threatening presence. Now a girl leaves the party inside and walks out into the shadowy street. The camera follows her, tracking her long enough to shed off the veneer of neutrality. It is now very interested in her – morbidly interested – so the logic of cinema demands that something ‘happen’. She’s firmly in the gaze, trapped in the unwritten rules of the game, her fate sealed. They say that film is a very male-centric medium; naturally women have to bear the brunt of our objectifying desire.

Something very interesting happens in The Leopard Man (1943, one of the horror films Jacques Tourneur made at RKO for producer/writer Val Lewton). Clo-Clo, the exotic Spanish dancer at a nightclub, walks home after an eventful day. A leopard is on the loose and the police are looking for it. It’s a graceful example of the archetypal Val Lewton proposition: a woman walks alone between shadow and light (the most famous example is in Cat People). The camera matches pace with Clo-Clo as she walks, playing the castanets. She’s stopped by the tarot-reader who asks her to pick a card. Clo-Clo reluctantly agrees. She picks the Ace of Spades – the death card. The setting dictates that something happen to her in this very scene – the rules of the horror genre and Tourneur’s belief in the supernatural coincide to mark Clo-Clo for tragedy – but something strange happens. The camera stops tracking her once it chances upon another girl, Teresa, looking out a window. Clo-Clo greets her and leaves the frame; the camera’s gaze is now fixed upon Teresa. The very next shot is a cut to the interior of Teresa’s home as she closes the window.

Teresa is frightened by the news of the leopard. Her mother wants her to run an errand to the grocer’s shop but she’s afraid to step out. Mother can’t be dissuaded so Teresa has to go across the arroyo to fetch cornflour. This time however, the camera’s insistent gaze on her doesn’t mislead. Teresa is killed by the leopard.
So why does Clo-Clo escape what’s coming to her in the first instance? Is it because she’s happy; unperturbed by the knowledge of the leopard at large? The male gaze in cinema requires that the girl react to it. It is only because Clo-Clo is confident – self-contained, without the need for a protective man (the running joke is that she only wants a rich man for his money) – that the gaze has to be transferred onto Teresa (who’s reacting out of fear).

The Leopard Man is then a precursor in many ways to classic Hitchcock themes. Think of Vertigo: James Stewart tries to model Kim Novak after a lookalike he was in love with, who he believes is now dead, only so that he can consummate their relationship posthumously. The objectifying gaze is what excites him – even inspiring the camera into the most fantastic 360 degree shot of their fatal embrace. Conversely Kim Novak’s ‘actual’ death is sealed only when she participates in her objectification.

Or think of Psycho: another film where we follow a lone woman. The very constant gaze on Janet Leigh during those first 37 minutes – especially when it becomes openly voyeuristic (peeping through a secret hole in the wall) – marks her out for premature death. The audience is an implicit instigator in the world of horror: the death of the woman is our sought-after release.

Which brings us to ‘a very British Psycho’. In Peeping Tom, the underlying tension between death and sexuality is literalized. Carl Boehm’s pet project is to film the dying expressions of his female victims. The terror in their eyes fascinate him, leading him to commit the murders – a detail reflected in all the deaths in Leopard Man.

One can even go so far as to say that Tourneur’s film predicts De Palma’s reworking of Psycho in Dressed to Kill – the aggressor and the psychiatrist are no longer separate personalities, they are alter-egos. Only the first of Leopard Man’s three murders is committed by the animal – Dr. Galbraith, the town’s museum curator and animal psychiatrist, does the other two. Transference isn’t limited to the shifting of gaze, it is evident here in the interchangeability of personas. At various points, Tourneur establishes the equivalence between the key characters. Kiki Walker has her double in the cigarette girl, Clo-Clo and the leopard; Teresa/Consuela/Clo-Clo are the victims and Galbraith assumes the leopard’s role. The doctor’s attempts at understanding animals has leapt off the deep end: if Cat People can be simply summed up in cat/people (alternate states of being), this film proposes leopard/man.