Whilst being arguably the strangest and the most dream-like out of all nine of Val Lewton’s budget-priced horror movies of the 1940s (all of them produced over a frantic four year period for RKO studios), “The Seventh Victim” is certainly the bleakest, most heartfelt and hopeless of all the period’s crop of noir thrillers. Possibly, it’s also the most personal in terms of capturing the deep, debilitating pessimism and obsession with the inevitability of death which is so often said to have been a defining characteristic of this producer -- Horror’s most revered B unit producer. A Russian-born ex-novelist and former copy writer, Lewton always wrote the final draft of every film he produced, usually without taking a writers credit, so while the story outline and the screenplay are attributed to his regular writer Dewitt Bodeen and to Charles O’Neil, the morbid tone of total despair -- steeped as it is in a cascade of arcane literary references and the shadowy low light chiaroscuro of cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca -- is all Lewton’s own work. One of the movie’s most memorable suspense set-pieces is said to have been lifted directly from the producer’s own experiences, while some of the film is even set and takes place on the very street in Greenwich Village on which Lewton himself once lived as a young writer; here it becomes the home of a dreamy poet who has lost his ability to write – just one character in what often feels like an over-stuffed cast full of tortured, wretched, lonely individuals, struggling in isolation to find their way in a meaningless world.
So all-consuming is the film’s paranoid atmosphere of dread and futility, that no one seems to have noticed at the time that it flagrantly contravened the Production Code Administration’s policy with regard to the portrayal of suicide: the film is practically a velvet-rich, softly-spoken paean to self-annihilation, that begins with a fatalistic quote from 17th Century poet John Donne (‘I runne to death and death meets me as fast/ And all my pleasures are like yesterday”) and ends with one of the main protagonists finding total peace at last from the horrors of existence … by her own hand. Released in 1943 during the darkest throes of World War Two, “The Seventh Victim” -- not altogether surprisingly, perhaps -- ended Lewton’s run of box office success, and was met with consternation and confusion by audiences and critics alike. People were not in the mood, it seems, for a subversive B-feature whose downbeat shadowy horrors were entirely psychological and self-inflicted. The years have been kind to the film though and its subsequent reputation has only grown, while its influence still cannot be underestimated.
The film is structured much like a detective story, except that the baton of investigation is passed backwards and forwards between various different characters during its brief seventy minutes, leaving a web of tangled relationships and suggestive interactions that leaves much unsaid and unexplored. The film becomes a dark, brooding tone poem, which plays more like an existential investigation into the self-defeating methods by which each of the characters attempts to find a reason not to die rather than just the conventional mystery thriller it at first appears to be. The structure (and the esoteric subject matter) is not unlike that of Dario Argento’s “Inferno”; and it is known that Argento was influenced by the film at the time of the shooting of his version of “The Black Cat” for “Two Evil Eyes”, his collaborative effort with George Romero. At the base of this chain of characters and at the centre of the story for four-fifths of the film (until she practically disappears from it all together!) is Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter), a naïve young orphan at the Highcliffe Academy -- a private school for girls -- who learns that her elder sister Jacqueline (Jean Brooks), the owner of a successful cosmetics company, has vanished, leaving Mary’s tuition fees unpaid. Mary sets out alone for New York to track her troubled sibling down, only to eventually learn that she has succumbed to the malign influence of a well-heeled Satanic society, whose rules require her to take her own life as punishment for breaking their strict vow of secrecy when she consults a psychiatrist.
If ‘Highcliffe’ Academy sounds only coincidently Bronte-esque to you, consider that the headmistress of the establishment is called Mrs Lowood – the name of the school for orphan girls that the young Jane Eyre attends in Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel. The opening scene during which Mary formally learns of her sister’s disappearance from Mrs Lowood (Ottola Nesmith), while Mrs Gilchrist, a fellow teacher (Eve Marsh) looks on nervously, is typical Lewton, and anticipates the doom-laden atmosphere and the resentful desperation of Barbara Fallon, Elizabeth Russell’s tortured character in the following year’s “Curse of the Cat People” (Russell herself plays an important though un-credited role later in “The Seventh Victim”). Gilchrist privately implores Mary to never come back … whether or not she finds her sister. She gravely reveals that she herself once left the school, having come there also as an orphan like Mary, but she didn’t have the courage to make a life alone and had to reluctantly return. ‘It takes courage to really live in the world’ she whispers sadly, before Mary sets out on her own innocent’s trip into the unknown. Many detect an unspoken lesbian subtext to the uneven power dynamics between the numerous female characters in the film: Gilchrist and Mrs Lowood being only the first of many such relationships.
In a realistic stage-bound New York, Mary moves alone through a tightly woven mesh of interconnected locations where, one by one, she meets various people who have at one time known, or might be able to help her find, her missing sister: at her sister’s former cosmetics company she finds the entire business has been handed over to the unsympathetic former manageress Esther Redi (Mary Newton), but one of the beauticians there, Francis Fallon (Isabel Jewel), who appears to have been a close friend of Jacqueline’s, directs her to a restaurant in Greenwich Village where she discovers that Jacqueline has been renting an upstairs apartment; inside number 7 they find an empty bare-boards room, furnished only with a single wooden chair above which hangs an ominous rope noose! A trip to the Missing Persons Bureau (a particularly desolate and forlorn scene) brings her into the orbit of small-time private investigator Irving August, who decides to help and (rather brutally) gives her the idea of checking the city morgue, Mary’s once innocent girlishness is by this point fast becoming mired in portents of death and despondency closing in from all sides! The morgue brings her to the door of lawyer Gregory Ward ( Hugh Beaumont), who has apparently also been asking after Mary’s sister there. It later transpires that Ward is in fact married to Jacqueline, although, as the search progresses, he becomes increasingly drawn to Mary as he helps her build her life afresh in New York – even fixing her up with a job as an assistant teacher at a kindergarten. Meanwhile August’s investigations hit a wall of obscuring noirish shadows at the cosmetics factory, where he meets an unhappy end -- stabbed to death with a pair of scissors. This leads on to the film’s most classically Hitchcockian scene when, on a subway at night, having herself just run from the scene of the crime, Mary gradually realises that the two men on the seats opposite her, apparently helping an insensible drunkard home, are in fact assassins who are in the middle of disposing of the private investigator’s corpse. Lewton knew exactly what he was doing in suspense sequences like this, having got to know Hitchcock while he was working for David O Selznick as a script editor a few years previously.
Ward is visited by a psychiatrist, Dr Louis Judd (RKO contract player and Val Lewton stalwart Tom Conway, who appears here to be playing the same character as he was in “Cat People”); he claims to know where Jacqueline is and wants money from Ward to look after her. Judd also knows the poet Jason (Erford Gage), whom Wendy has already met back at the restaurant, and who is equally as smitten with her as Ward is. Anxious to do anything to please her, he brings both Ward and she to a dinner party that he knows Judd will also be attending -- which turns out also to be frequented by a host of unusual though respectable-looking characters (including a one-armed society girl!). Jason’s own investigations at the library lead him to the discovery that many of the respectable-looking people who were at this gathering (which also include Mrs Redi and Jacqueline’s friend Francis) have all taken out the same books – on witchcraft and secret societies! They are all, of course, members of a secret coven calling itself the Palladists. Sensing that Mary is getting too close to the truth, Mrs Redi somehow gains entry to Mary’s flat and, in a curiously queasy and invasive sequence, threatens Mary while she’s in the bath. Filmed with Redi seen only in silhouette behind the shower curtain, while the naked and vulnerable Mary is rendered powerless beneath the showerhead, the similarities to a specific later Hitchcock classic are obvious.
The way this tangle of characters and suggestive situations tag each other is dreamlike and bizarre in the extreme, creating a cold, isolated atmosphere that is only enhanced by Kim Hunter’s unusually still and fragile performance. Apparently, Hunter, who was appearing here in her very first cinematic role after an early career in the theatre, was terrified of ‘over acting’ after being told that everything is magnified by the camera, and that in consequence, she must underplay everything as much as possible. Director Mark Robson, now promoted from editor after Jacques Tourneur’s recent removal from Lewton’s unit by RKO, has the players almost whisper their dialogue; the effect is to promote an incredibly doom-laden and sonorous atmosphere. Jacqueline herself finally appears half-way through the film – at first only briefly in Doctor Judd’s office – and then, over the course of the final fifteen minutes, the film seems to be ‘handed over’ to her, whereupon, it really does become something quite remarkable and unique. Jacqueline Gibson is the voice of Lewton’s own sense of fatalistic pessimism; she’s played by another of Lewton’s regulars, Jean Brooks -- dressed throughout in enveloping mink fur and with an angular Cleopatra wig. The shadows take over once Jacqueline arrives on screen: desperately unhappy, she has been searching for anything to cling to and was brought to the Phalladists cult through the influence of Mrs Redi. After deciding that they didn’t answer her needs any more than did anything else though, she tries to leave, turning instead to Doctor Judd for help. The devil-worshippers discovered this ‘betrayal’ and want her dead. Their own blatantly contradictory creed forbids overt violence (because violence sometimes accidently leads to good!) so they require her to kill herself. They spend a considerable amount of time trying to goad her into the decision.
The fundamental irony at the heart of this bleakest of bleak films is of course that Jacqueline wants nothing more than to die and to be released from her torment. By kidnapping her and trying to force or terrorise her into drinking from a glass of water laced with poison, or having her stalked through the night-shrouded streets by a flick-knife wielding, trench-coated assassin, they are only prolonging the suffering that she herself fully intends to end given half a chance anyway – she would simply rather do so on her own terms. Meanwhile, Mary and Ward seem more and more interested in each other than they are in getting Jacqueline out of harms way. The reunion of the two sisters in no way seems able to breach the elder sibling’s spiritual isolation. The final scene is one of the most chilling and unexpected of all, and features Lewton’s great muse Elizabeth Russell as a terminally ill, consumptive prostitute who meets a suicidal Jacqueline on the stair of the upstairs apartment where she keeps her rented ‘suicide room’, with its ever inviting noose. When the film was released, many were baffled by this cryptic death knell of a film. The New York Times reviewer complained ‘we have no more notion what “The Seventh Victim” is about than if we had watched the same picture run backwards and upside down!’ Actually, the film’s narrative all fits together perfectly well if you concentrate on its somnolent progressions, although rather than dream logic as such, it has more the logic of a depressed philosophy student. But as it happens, Lewton himself summed up what the film is about in one snappy sentence after receiving a memo from head office reminding him not to be tempted to burden the film with any messages. ‘There is a message …’ he is alleged to have responded, ‘It’s “Death is Good”!’
This is the first UK release of “The Seventh Victim” brought out as part of Odeon Entertainment’s Hollywood Classics line. It’s a bare bones release with just a trailer as an extra, meaning that the R1 version with a commentary and a Lewton documentary is the one for aficionados to get hold of if they can – this simple UK disc will serve as a quick and easy way for anyone just wanting to see a decent print of a bona fide classic of the studio system for the first time, though.