Checking Proofs: Black Alibi & Leopard Man

Transforming Black Alibi’s Jaguar into The Leopard Man K. A. Laity, College of Saint Rose Abstract: Woolrich’s 1942 novel Black Alibi takes place in South America and offers up a series of suspenseful vignettes following women destined for bloody deaths. The alibi for the killer is that everyone assumes the murders to be the work of an escaped black jaguar. The set pieces offer mini-portraits of the doomed women that encourage our identification with them as individuals, the better to mourn their fate. Woolrich has far less interest in the identity of the person behind the murders than in a final plunge through the old Inquisition dungeons where the killer lurks. The 1943 film adaptation The Leopard Man, directed by Jacques Tourneur and produced by Val Lewton, offers an opportunity to once more use the black leopard Dynamite familiar to audiences from Cat People (1942). The narrative moves to New Mexico and the script by Ardel Wray highlights how human evil hides behind an animal mask. Woolrich focuses on the shadowing contrast between dark and light, on shapes and repeating motifs, to give an impression of almost surreal images. Wray’s script borrows much from the novel to visualise the action of the film. Keywords: adaptation; animal lore; Ardel Wray; Cornell Woolrich; film noir; serial killers; Val Lewton.

In an email that looked surprisingly like a phishing attempt, I got the link to my proofs for the forthcoming collection on Cornell Woolrich. I get to jazz enthusiastically about Black Alibi, Leopard Man, Val Lewton and Ardel Wray so that’s fun. There’s not a whole lot of academic work on Woolrich (and some of it is rather oddly biased) so this should add a lot to the conversation.

Jaques Tourneur’s film allows Jean Brooks and Dennis O’Keefe to find fissures in their hard American carapaces, and the change of location from South America to New Mexico brings out a lot of the local folk horror resonances well. There’s a beautiful recurring image of a fountain that offers existential comfort.

The film doesn’t get the same love as some of Lewton’s other productions but it has so much to recommend it. Not to downplay Woolrich’s novel! The Grand Guignol touches he brings into a very chilling serial killer story are magnificent. So what I’m saying is read the book, watch the film — and then make sure to read this forthcoming collection from Edinburgh UP edited by Robert King.

a woman in a black evening dress walks a black panther on a leash
Kiki (Jean Brooks) walks her new ‘pet’ while an axious Jerry (Dennis O’Keefe) looks on.