Thursday, April 18, 2013

THE SEVENTH VICTIM

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Mark Robson, 1943
Starring: Tom Conway, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, Kim Hunter

“I run to death, and death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday;
I dare not move my dim eyes any way,
Despair behind, and death before doth cast
Such terror, and my feebled flesh doth waste”
—John Donne, Holy Sonnet #1

A young woman, Mary, leaves boarding school to travel to New York and find her missing sister, Jacqueline, who is the only parent she knows and is her only surviving family member. She learns that Jacqueline has sold - actually given away - her cosmetics business, and the only residence associated with her is an empty apartment, number 7, that contains a chair and a noose. She meets Jacqueline’s friend Gregory and later learns that Gregory and Jacqueline were secretly married and Gregory is also searching for her. Mary also meets Jacqueline’s oddly controlling psychiatrist, who initially obstructs Mary’s search for her sister. A private detective takes pity on Mary and they break into Jacqueline’s old business to discover what lies behind a locked door. In the dark, the detective is fatally stabbed and Mary flees. 

It turns out that Jacqueline was once involved with a satanic cult known as the Palladists and she is now hiding from them. It seems that the cult has a habit of doing away with anyone they view as betraying them. Jacqueline would be the seventh of these victims. Mary, Gregory, a local poet, and Jacqueline’s psychiatrist all begin a search for her to save her from the cult and, most of all, from herself. 

The Seventh Victim is probably Lewton’s most inspired and original film. It is also somewhat difficult to watch, as it is a film obsessed with loneliness, isolation, alienation, and a longing for death. It may confuse some viewers, because of the numerous characters and winding, occasionally changing plot structure. There are a lot of incredible, vignette-like scenes and snippets of characters, but these are led by an almost dream logic that prevents a clear narrative structure with one, clear protagonist. This is one of the film’s chief strengths, but also something that will frustrate viewers expecting a straightforward mystery or noir tale. Make no mistake, this is a horror film with noir stylings, but the horror is not the physical or supernatural threat of death, it is the longing for death and the fear and hatred of life. 

There are many excellent horror set pieces throughout the film, such as when Mary and the private detective walk down shadowy corridors searching for Jacqueline, Mary’s dizzying subway ride, and the claustrophobic scene where one of the satanists threatens Mary while she is in the shower. Unlike other horror films from this period, the sense of dread, despair, and morbidity is visceral, disturbing, and often outright shocking. It is amazing that Lewton got away with both the tone of the film and the concluding suicide, which brazenly flaunts the production code. The film is set up like a murder mystery, as if Mary is looking for the corpse of her sister. In fact, her search begins at the morgue, and Jacqueline’s absence for much of the film implies that they are looking for a body. Jacqueline, in many ways, is already a corpse. Though she almost dies several times throughout the film, she is simply waiting for death to be on her terms. 

This is not really a film about a satanic cult and if you expect it to be something along the lines of the earlier, fantastic Karloff-Lugosi vehicle Black Friday, you will likely be disappointed. The satanists themselves are physically non-threatening. They sit around and drink tea, own businesses, and are otherwise a bunch of middle-aged, middle-class people interested in the occult. But there is a miasma that runs through the group and Lewton makes us wonder how they all came to be there. One woman without an arm has a breakdown and sobs when they try to convince Jacqueline to drink poison. In a later scene, they send an assassin after her, unable to murder her themselves, though they hold the threat of violence throughout the film. This hint of violence, death, and unpredictability is one of the genius elements of the film. Though we don’t get to know many of the characters intimately, Lewton hints at a complex, unhappy backstory for nearly every character. 

“I’ve always wanted to die – always.”

Character, as in many of Lewton’s film, is subjective and changeable. Jacqueline is the pinnacle of Lewton’s strong, independent, lonely, and damaged female leads. Jean Brooks, who worked with Lewton on other films, is transformed into a sepulchral vixen, a literal femme fatale. The characters all speak of her beauty and sex appeal, but none are able to really know her, to penetrate her mystery. Her severe Cleopatra wig and heavy, black fur coat sets her apart visually. She barely acts, barely speaks, and yet is the dominating presence of the entire film. Mary pales beside her sister, though her sometimes selfish, almost immoral actions provide a nice twist on the typical “good girl” detective character and romantic interest in many noir films. The beautiful, haunting Elizabeth Russell, who appeared as disturbing side characters in many of Lewton’s films, is at her most powerful here as Jacqueline’s ill neighbor, a woman on the brink of death. She and Jacqueline discuss their conflicting urges to die and to live, and the inevitability of death for both. 

As with almost all Lewton’s films, the other male characters are weak next to their female counterparts. Both Gregory and the poet suffer from unrequited love, first for Jacqueline and later for Mary. Tom Conway, a regular Lewton actor, appears here as the psychiatrist, in seemingly the same role he had in Cat People. He first controls Jacqueline and his relationship with her does not seem strictly professional, much like his psychiatrist character in Cat People, who made sexual advances on Irena. 

This is a film that could not have been made in a major studio or enjoyed by a somewhat baffled public without the horrors of WWII as its subtext. It is one of Lewton’s best films and comes highly recommended, particularly for the stunning cinematography from regular Lewton collaborator Nicholas Musuraca. The editor for Lewton’s previous films, Mark Robson, was promoted to director for The Seventh Victim, and does a masterly job. He and Lewton would go on to do several more films together, though none would reach the heights of Robson’s debut. The Seventh Victim is available as a single disc DVD with the excellent Lewton documentary Shadows of the Dark, and as part of the Val Lewton Horror Collection box set.

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