Cornell Woolrich published Black Alibi in 1942. His tenth book overall, it was the third in his series of “Black” novels. The Bride Wore Black (1940), later adapted into a film by Francois Truffaut, led the sequence off, succeeded by The Black Curtain (1941), The Black Angel (1943), The Black Path of Fear (1944), and Rendezvous in Black (1948). None of the six books has a continuity with any of the others, but each in different ways mines the dark psychological territory a reader expects from Woolrich.
Black Alibi wastes no time in its setup. We are in Ciudad Real, “the third largest city south of the Panama Canal,” and in the first chapter, titled The Alibi, casino and nightclub performer Kiki Walker, from Detroit, is getting dressed in her hotel suite. Her press agent, a guy named Jerry Manning, shows up with a black jaguar on a leash. After Kiki’s initial fright, Jerry assures her that the big cat is domesticated and that he has borrowed it from its owner for her benefit. Imagine what attention she will garner, the publicity she will get, if she walks down the main city boulevard with it. She is skeptical, but he insists that if she walks it calmly down the avenue, past the cafes and passersby, she will make a splash. When they have driven to the right location, he lets her out of the car and hands her the leash, and as Jerry said, her promenade down the sidewalk draws oohs and ahhs. All goes well. That is, until either a barking dog nearby or a piece of meat thrown by someone at the jaguar startles the feline. The jaguar tears the leash free of Kiki’s grip and takes off down the street. It bolts down an alley. A panicked search for it ensues, but despite the alley it entered seeming to have no escape route, the jaguar is not found. Danger will now lurk in the city until the animal is caught. End of chapter one.
Five chapters follow. Kiki Walker, with whom the story opened, disappears. From this point on, Black Alibi has a plot that unfolds with utter simplicity, but its structure is somewhat unusual, anticipating a type of structure that would become popular decades later, though in films more than in novels. Here is what happens, chapter by chapter.
Chapter 2: We meet teenager Theresa Delgado. Like everyone in Ciudad Real, she knows that a jaguar is loose somewhere in the city. At night, in their modest hut, her mother orders her to walk to the store and get some charcoal they need. Theresa resists, but her mother kicks her outside to force her to go, and on the terrifying trip, Theresa is killed.
Chapter 3: Here is Conchita Contreras, young and pretty. At dusk, under the pretext of wanting to put flowers on her father’s grave, she leaves her comfortable house and goes to the local cemetery to meet her secret boyfriend. But she and her boyfriend miss each other, and she gets murdered in the graveyard.
Chapter 4: We are with Clo-Clo. She’s a woman in her twenties, not a prostitute but someone who makes her money flirting with men and keeping them company in bars. After a typical busy night for her, which has its twists and turns in various drinking establishments, she encounters something (or someone) on a dark, empty street that leaves her dead.
Chapter 5: Sally O’Keefe and her friend Marjorie King ignore the story going around of a “man-eating something or other” that’s loose and take a horse and carriage ride to a park outside the city. After their ride and much suspense, the night ends with Marjorie asking for the police because Sally got “torn to pieces”.
Chapter 6: Jerry Manning has been helping the police investigate the killings. He, Marjorie King, and the grieving boyfriend of Conchita Contreras execute a bait and trap plan in the park where Sally O’Keefe died. Marjorie is the bait. The killer comes and the boyfriend shoots the murderer. Jerry’s theory, as opposed to what the police have been saying, is proven right. The main culprit is not an escaped jaguar but a human being. We have been dealing with a deranged, psycho-sexual killer. As Jerry explains, “The jaguar was the spark. The spark came along and bang! All over the place. Every large city has dozens of his kind. Fortunately, most of them never blow a fuse. One in a hundred gets started off, and then you have it! Jack the Ripper in London. Bluebeard in France. That ax killer – what was his name? – in Germany.”
Woolrich has written a proto-serial killer novel, but it is also as if he peered into the future and came back from it having watched giallo films from the 1960s and 70s. Between the first chapter and the denouement, Black Alibi consists of almost nothing but a series of elaborate set pieces ending with a woman stalked and murdered. Newly introduced characters are developed for us to know them slightly; that’s it. We care a little about them, no more. Then the killer eliminates them. About the police inspector leading the case, Robles, we know next to nothing other than his professional function, and Manning is not drawn in great depth. So we have characters well-sketched but briefly met, and we find no complexity in the episodic plot. All this means that the prose itself, the effects achieved through the writing, has to shoulder the burden of keeping the reader engaged. But Woolrich pulls it off; he maintains his grip through the tension and horror he evokes in the set pieces. In every chapter, as a future victim comes closer to her ultimate fate, the writing is highly descriptive. Woolrich emphasizes what the pursued woman hears, feels, sees, and imagines she sees. He is adept at creating suspense through prolongation, at slowing things down for the reader whenever a character’s terror mounts. And the reader, in his mind’s eye, can see what’s unfolding with a stark clarity. No wonder so many filmmakers over the years have chosen to adapt Woolrich’s works for the screen.
Here’s Theresa Delgado scared, as she passes through a short tunnel:
“They weren’t eyes were they – other eyes? So steadily maintaining their twoness, their equidistance, their taut, stretched-out suggestion of wicked peering – No, of course not. How could they be? What would eyes be doing in here, and – whose would they be anyway, and – Just don’t let them be; don’t think they are; if you think they aren’t, they won’t be. Only light glinting from the wetted projection of two small roughnesses, two unevenesses in the stonework, side by side, that was all.”
And from Conchita Contrares’ scene in the graveyard:
“The trees were invisible against the black sky. But under them, and far too visible, the white of the monuments and the markers made blurred gray ghost shapes here and there. An angel poised on one toe threatened to spring out at her from ambush, seize her about the neck with both arms tightly entwined, bring her down. She screamed, and shied aside, and nearly fell, then went floundering on again.
A wind seemed to come sighing up out of the earth around her, damp and moldy with the aroma of long-buried things. It wasn’t just static, it seemed to pursue her, threading through the trees, winding down the path after her, moaning, trying to claim her for its own. The pathway under her was just a gray ribbon, an indistinct tape, stretched across the dark. It never seemed to end, it never would end – ”
You could say there’s some purple in these sentences, but they are effective.
By 1943, when The Leopard Man was released, Cornell Woolrich was a known quantity in Hollywood. Manhattan Love Song had been made (1934, from his novel of the same name), as well as Convicted (1938, from the story Face Work), and Street of Chance (1942, from The Black Curtain). RKO Pictures acquired the rights to Black Alibi, and the material wound up with the head of their horror unit, Val Lewton. As with the two films Lewton had produced thus far for the studio, Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, both commercially successful, RKO gave Lewton the title he would have to use and left him and his team alone for the film’s writing, shooting, and editing. And again, as with Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, the director would be Jacques Tourneur.
Before entering the film world, Lewton had written novels, poetry, and nonfiction. He was a erudite man, and I have to imagine that one thing that drew him to adapting Black Alibi was the challenge of shaping into screenplay form the book’s unusual structure. How to turn this structure where characters die soon after the audience meets them into a story viewers would want to stick with? Not only was this decades before giallos and slasher films, but it was a full seventeen years before Hitchcock’s Psycho, so shocking in 1960 for killing off its heroine forty minutes into the movie. Audiences in 1943 were accustomed to seeing a film with a defined central character, and that main character would last until the final reel. During that reel, the protagonist would survive or die, depending on the story. The Leopard Man’s narrative deviates entirely from what was then conventional, and to write the script, Lewton enlisted Ardel Wray, who had established herself on his team by the impressive work she’d done on I Walked with a Zombie’s screenplay.
Wray and Lewton change the Woolrich setting to an unnamed town in New Mexico. They follow the novel’s structure closely apart from this alteration, but what was episodic in the book comes across as free-flowing in the film. Take the character of Clo-Clo. She is the first person we see onscreen after the opening credits, practicing her castanet clicking in her nightclub dressing room. Then we meet Kiki Walker, Jerry Manning, and the black leopard Manning brings to Kiki. The leopard escapes from the nightclub into the night, and after the ensuing pandemonium and the arrival of the police, Clo-Clo reappears. She says something to the upset Jerry. Then the camera stays with Clo-Clo as she starts on her walk home from the nightclub. We get to know Clo-Clo a bit when she goes to a fortune teller, and afterwards, on her continuing walk, Clo-Clo says hello to a teenage girl leaning out her house’s window. Clo-Clo exits the frame and the camera goes inside the house with the teenage girl. This is Theresa Delgado, and we meet her mother and brother. Now the story picks up with Theresa as the focus, and a vintage Tourneur scene unfolds climaxing with her death. After the funeral services for her, we never see the Delgado family again, but the story later will return to Clo-Clo for a significant stretch, ending in her death. In other words, characters drift in and out of the story in a way that was new in movies at that time, and this was a reason the studio heads at RKO were not crazy about the film once they saw it. They had problems with a horror/mystery story (The Leopard Man has elements of both) that does not proceed in a standard, linear fashion. Critical reaction overall was tepid, and The Leopard Man’s box office didn’t match the expectations that had been set by the previous Lewton-Tourneur collaborations. Watched today, though, you’re bound to think that the film’s free-floating structure anticipates such films as Luis Bunuel’s The Phantom of Liberty (1974) and Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1990). Though neither of these films tries to obey the mechanics of a mystery plot while hopping from story to story, they both follow a storytelling logic similar to The Leopard Man’s.
But back to Theresa Delgado for a moment. On the film’s DVD commentary track, William Friedkin discusses the scene in which she dies. As in the book, it’s the escaped leopard that kills her, the sole death the animal causes in the story. Her death culminates with her screaming outside her own front door as her mother and brother, on the other side of the door, frantically try to slide back the stuck bolt lock. They fail in their attempts, Theresa goes silent, and to their horror, a thin stream of blood trickles under the door. It’s a chilling image, and it comes directly from the book, where Woolrich writes that “a tongue of red was licking out at his [Theresa’s brother) bare foot from under the door. Just that in size and shape, the tip of a human tongue. But it was in flux, fluid. Right as their eyes beheld it, it was already widening, lengthening, glittering with its own volatility.”
Friedkin asserts that this scene in the film may have stirred something in the mind of none other than Gabriel Garcia Marquez, lodging in the writer’s imagination. As Friedkin states, Marquez worked as a film critic early in his writing career, and he loved American films. Could it be that the trickle of blood under the door in The Leopard Man served as inspiration for the celebrated passage in One Hundred Years of Solitude when the blood of one slain character wends a path back to his mother?
“A trickle of blood came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, continued on in a straight line across the uneven terraces, went down steps and climbed over curbs, passed along the Street of the Turks, turned a corner to the right and another to the left, made a right angle at the Buendía house, went in under the closed door, crossed through the parlor, hugging the walls so as not to stain the rugs, went on to the other living room, made a wide curve to avoid the dining-room table, went along the porch with the begonias, and passed without being seen under Amaranta’s chair as she gave an arithmetic lesson to Aureliano José, and went through the pantry and came out in the kitchen, where Úrsula was getting ready to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread.”
I suppose we can’t know for certain whether Tourneur’s film, and by extension Cornell Woolrich, inspired Marquez, but it’s an interesting question to ponder. For his part, William Friedkin declares that he met Marquez once and that he has no doubt Marquez saw the movie at some juncture before writing his masterpiece.
As I’ve mentioned, Black Alibi is in part a serial killer novel, though the term “serial killer” didn’t exist when Woolrich wrote the book, and The Leopard Man in turn serves as one of the first examples of a film to tackle this type of criminal behavior in at least a somewhat believable manner. Fritz Lang had done M in Germany in 1931, and though The Leopard Man isn’t on the level of M, it does treat its subject soberly. As with all the films Val Lewton produced for RKO, there is no shirking from psychological darkness. All human impulses, in Lewton’s world, are worthy of serious study. In Black Leopard, we don’t get much insight into what drove the killer to become the person he is or why a leopard’s escape from captivity spurred him to go on a homicidal rampage, sowing terror in the town, but we understand without question that this is a human being driven by an internal compulsion that he will act on until he is stopped. Could this new approach in a Hollywood film have been yet another reason the film did so-so box office business in 1943? Perhaps. But regardless of what audiences thought then, the willingness to delve into aberrant psychology, in however rudimentary a form, has helped the film age well. It has a timeless quality because Lewton and company recognized that no monsters are as scary or ever will be as scary as human ones.