As a boy I was haunted by a dream in which a black panther was on the loose in our apartment over Einstein’s drug store and had killed everyone else in the family, while I remained hidden in a clothes hamper behind the bathroom door. The dream always ended, mercifully, just as he discovered my hiding place. These scenes were somehow connected with a movie I had seen as a child, though until last week I couldn’t be sure that the movie had actually existed.
In my fragmented memories of the movie, a sultry flamenco dancer performs to the haunting sound of castanets, a panther terrorizes a small village at night, and a teenage girl is stalked by the beast on her way home in the dark. When she arrives screaming at her front door, her parents, too afraid to let her in, watch in horror as her blood oozes under the door.
I had searched the movie guides for years for anything with the word ‘cat’ or ‘panther’ in it, but to no avail, little suspecting all the while that a black panther is actually a type of leopard. It wasn’t until I tivo’d a movie called ‘The Leopard Man’ that I finally solved the mystery.
The movie turned out to be a small masterpiece, filmed in 1943 by French director Jacques Tourneur for RKO Radio Pictures. A pioneer in ‘atmospheric’ horror movies, he was heavily influenced by the techniques and ideas of film-noir, which explains the lasting power and undue influence of this film on my childhood psyche; he scared the be-Jesus out of me simply by suggesting the most unspeakable horror. By the way, what was I doing at that movie at that age?
So, at last I get to lift a glass of good spirits to Mr. Tourneur, in deep appreciation for his dark and lasting influence on my life. After all, without the early challenges I received from him, I may not have been prepared to deal with the even greater horrors that would occur in the years to come.