Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Seventh Victim (1943)

Val Lewton was a well-known B-movie horror producer ('The Body Snatcher', 'Cat People'). And 'The Seventh Victim' can easily be lumped into that category, especially because one of the characters from 'Cat People' makes another appearance here, played by the same actor (Dr. Louis Judd, played by Tom Conway). But really, his 'horror' productions were creepy, psychological and atmospheric rather than explicit. This certainly rings true for 'The Seventh Victim' which is not only creepy and atmospheric but also has a sinister gothic/noir feel to it, with perhaps one of the darkest and bleakest endings of all 40s movies. Apparently the screenplay of the movie was written by Charles O'Neal and DeWitt Bodeen based on the title alone. This was the first movie that Mark Robson ('Champion', 'Edge Of Doom') directed, with Nicolas Musuraca ('Stranger On The Third Floor', 'Out Of The Past') doing the cinematography and Roy Webb ('Notorious', 'Out Of The Past') responsible for the musical score.

Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter in her first movie) is a student at a private school paid for by her sister Jacqueline (Jean Brooks). When her tuition hasn't been paid in a while and her sister's whereabouts are unknown, she's forced to leave the school and go in search of her sister, who lives in New York City. Her sister ran a cosmetics salon/company, but when Mary visits it, she finds out the manager, Esther Redi (Mary Newton), has bought it from her sister, which later on turns out to be a lie, her sister gave it to her. Through visiting the Italian restaurant where Jacqueline rents a room from Mary comes into contact with several persons who are somehow connected to Jacqueline, including her estranged husband Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont), her psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway) and a poet who also rents a room there, Jason Hoag (Erford Gage). Eventually she does find Jacqueline, but also the Palladists, a secret satanic society/cult that Jacqueline was a member of, as well as Mrs. Redi. After Jacqueline spoke about them to Dr. Judd, which goes against their rules and is punishable by death, she had to go into hiding, but they're still after her.

This is a very dark and sinister movie which addresses, especially for 1943, controversial subject matter like suicide, self-determination, depression/psychiatric illnesses and satanic cults and manages to do so in a surprisingly thoughtful and respectful manner. The movie is very layered, both visually and in subject matter, and thought-provoking. It also has complex and a-stereotypical characters. Who would have thought that in a 'horror' movie from 1943 a cult of satanists would be portrayed as a group of civilized, well-mannered and eloquent people who have taken a vow of non-violence? Mind you, if they wish death on you, as they do on Jacqueline, they use their powers of persuasion, which leads up to a very eerie scene where they're trying to talk her into drinking poisonous wine, and later on to getting an assassin to do the dirty work for them, in again a creepy chase scene down dark alleyways.

Visually the movie is strikingly well done, especially in the more tense scenes, the environment and the use of shadows really adds to the atmosphere. It is here, as well as in Jacqueline, that the noir-ness of this movie really shines. Film noir is not just about femmes fatales and contrast-rich/chiaroscuro lighting, it is also about human nature and doomed protagonists/anti-heroes. And Jacqueline is doomed, not so much by outside influences, but because of her own mind/emotions. There are also scenes that would probably have been quite stunning and shocking in 1943. For instance when Mary first enters Jacqueline's room, only to find a chair with a hangman's noose hanging above it. Dr. Judd even explains to Mary a bit later how that room with the noose made Jacqueline happy somehow. And I will not divulge the end of this movie, but it is a real shocker, even today, and I have no idea how it got past the Hays production code that was in effect at the time. It is a beautifully done, incredibly dark and thought-provoking ending however. Then there's a (non-lethal) shower scene that predates Psycho's famed shower scene by over 15 years, an eerie subway ride, and so on.

Jacqueline herself not only stands out visually with her pale skin, striking raven-black hair, and her unusually lethargic demeanor, but also with her state of mind. She seems to carry a hefty load of melancholy on her frail shoulders, but it is made clear that she has severe psychiatric issues and struggles with suicidal tendencies. Mary on the other hand couldn't be more different. As her name suggests, she's very innocent and virgin-like, almost naive. It is a huge contrast.

'The Seventh Victim' starts and ends with a quote from one of John Dunne's Holy Sonnets: 'I runne to death, and death meets me as fast, and all my pleasures are like yesterday' and this dark poetic feeling runs throughout this movie. Val Lewton once said that this movie's message was 'Death is good', that is how dark this movie was meant to be, and has indeed turned out to be. Recommended viewing for a late night. It might not frighten you, but it will almost certainly leave an impression and make you think about it.

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