Happy Halloween! In the spirit of the season, I decided to watch the Val Lewton-produced horror film The Seventh Victim. This is not a very well-known movie, but it has received some accolades from critics and film buffs. And since I have a soft spot in my heart for obscure, critically praised films, I couldn’t resist checking it out on the Criterion Channel.
The Seventh Victim is a very bleak noir film. It’s not a lush, nuanced classic, nor is it a dose of cheap exploitation. The movie started out as an A-list Val Lewton production. Val insisted that his film-editor friend Mark Robson make his debut in the director’s chair for the film, which RKO Radio Pictures was not happy about. They eventually relented, but only after slashing the budget (and eventually the running time) of the movie. The result is a curious little film that succeeds in being equal parts creepy, disorienting, and bizarre.
I will say that the movie gets off to a fantastic start. Immediately following the opening credits, we are thrust into a compelling mystery: Teenager Mary Gibson (future Academy Award winner Kim Hunter) is told that her older sister Jacqueline has gone missing. This news sends a naive Mary off to the streets of New York City to trace down the whereabouts of her sibling. This is an irresistible premise—we are given almost zero background information on these characters, yet we are drawn into the story. A plucky young girl leaves her modest boarding school to travel to the seedy streets of New York to investigate the disappearance of her sister? I’m already hooked. As the film progresses, Mary meets some of her sister’s co-workers and friends in the city, inching closer and closer to finding out the truth. Soon there is a mysterious death, and the plot blows wide open—it turns out that Jacqueline has a fetish for the macabre, as well as a secret husband, and is a member of a Satanic cult! This was pretty heady stuff for cinema in the 1940s.
We are introduced to a vast assortment of oddball characters:
•Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway), Jacqueline’s psychiatrist. The character of Dr. Judd had been in Lewton’s Cat People one year prior (played by the same actor). But that Dr. Judd was killed by a woman who transformed into a panther, so how he turns up alive and well in this film is anyone’s guess.
•Gregory Ward (Leave It To Beaver’s Hugh Beaumont), Jacqueline’s secret husband. He is intent on finding his missing wife, yet he still finds time to fall in love with Mary, because you can’t have a Hollywood movie without a romantic subplot. This forbidden love for his wife’s sister is one of the “disorienting” things about the movie that I mentioned earlier. It comes out of nowhere and adds absolutely nothing to the story, but here it is nonetheless.
•Jason Hoag (Erford Gage), a patron of the local Italian restaurant near Jacqueline’s apartment. He becomes intent on helping Mary find her sister while concurrently trying to cure his writer’s block (another weird subplot that seems like it’s going to go somewhere but, alas, does not). Oh, and for what it’s worth, he also falls in love with Mary. I am getting the impression that it didn’t take much to fall for someone in the 1940s—after spending twenty minutes with someone moderately attractive and pleasant in demeanor, you suddenly decided that you had to write her love poems and spend the rest of your life with her. A perfectly rational approach, I suppose.
•Esther Redi (Mary Newton), the new owner of Jacqueline’s cosmetics company. She seems like just an ancillary character who exists to advance the plot. Then later in the movie she pops up in Mary’s bathroom and shower-threatens her (the definition of shower-threat: to intimidate someone while they are standing naked and defenseless in a shower). Ultimately, she turns out to be one of the leaders of the Satanic cult. I admit that I did not see this coming.
•Frances Fallon (Isabel Jewell), Jacqueline’s friend, co-worker, and possible secret lover. Many film historians seem to think that there is an implied lesbian relationship between Frances and Jacqueline. While this would add an intriguing subtext to the film, personally I just don’t see it. Near the climax of the movie, Frances freaks out and intervenes during Jacqueline’s suicide attempt, screaming, “The only time I was ever happy was when I was working with you!” That’s hardly an admission of a love affair. Another female character claims that she and Jacqueline were “intimate,” so lesbian undertones exist. However, being “intimate” does not confine itself to a sexual definition, so there’s some reaching involved.
The enigmatic Jacqueline (Jean Brooks at her most stunningly beautiful) pops up early in the movie in a wonderfully cryptic scene but vanishes again just as quickly. The search for her continues until nearly an hour into the film, when a group of our main characters catch up with her, watching as she slowly descends a staircase. I was on the edge of my seat, waiting to meet this woman who was at the center of the mystery. She did not disappoint, although the ending of the movie did, if just a little.
All is revealed once Jacqueline is reunited with her husband and sister. As it turns out, Jacqueline had recently confessed to her psychiatrist about her involvement in the satanic cult, and the Satanists somehow found out about her defection. In a normal film about devil worshippers, they would have just killed her. But in The Seventh Victim, the cult has taken an oath of non-violence, so they kidnap her and try to convince her to commit suicide (these peace-loving Satanists are a rarity in motion-picture history).
In a final, desperate (and sort of hilarious) attempt to get Jacqueline to kill herself, the Satanists sit her in a chair with a glass of poisoned wine. Then they surround her and try to gently persuade her to drink it. After this genius plan fails to work, they just hire a hit man to kill her (proving that every devil-worshipper has a breaking point). She manages to evade the assassin, making her way back to her apartment, where she decides that suicide isn’t such a bad idea after all and hangs herself in the last scene of the movie. I can’t believe that the filmmakers got away with such a grim ending. Making it even worse, Mary and Gregory are under the impression that Jacqueline is safe and on her way to meet them. It’s a stereotypical Hollywood ending until it’s completely subverted in that final, desperate scene. It’s shocking and unexpected, and it completely salvaged the movie for me.
The Seventh Victim is a good movie that teeters on the edge of greatness. It is like a soup that has all the right ingredients but was made by a chef who didn’t stir the pot often enough, resulting in a burnt aftertaste. The central mystery of what happened to Jacqueline carries the film until we actually do find out what happened to her, when I experienced a small letdown. In a way, this was like watching a version of Mulholland Drive where all of the random plot threads get wrapped up in a neat little bow at the end. I felt as though speculating about the answers was more fun than actually finding out the answers. I realize that not everyone may agree with me on this, as all art is subjective. Nevertheless, this is a captivating and essential movie. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys film noir, especially that of the nihilistic and bleak variety.
Frequently, movies of this era can be plodding and slow. But director Mark Robson moves the proceedings along at a brisk pace. He is especially fond of giving us the meat of a scene and then quickly dissolving into the next scene. At one point he dissolves while Mary is fainting, which is a pretty odd and daring choice. This directing style keeps you on your toes. There’s no time to relax, because at any moment what you are watching may dissolve into something else entirely.
The acting in this film is passable, but not outstanding. It gets the job done—nothing less, nothing more. The same goes for the musical score by Roy Webb: It’s not particularly memorable, but at the same time, it’s effective. I’m a little salty about the relegation of The Seventh Victim to B-movie status. One can only wonder what small improvements would have been made with a larger budget.
In order for The Seventh Victim to fit onto a double-feature bill, a few scenes were cut from the film before it was released. The majority of these excised scenes involved Dr. Judd trying to infiltrate the satanic cult. It seems that nothing integral to the plot was lost, although it would have been interesting to get a little more detail on the inner workings of the cult. In particular, I would have liked to hear the “philosophical discussion” that Judd has with a cult member that ended up on the cutting-room floor. Unfortunately, there were no DVD extras back in the 1940s, so any scenes not used in the final print of the movie ended up being destroyed.
Other things I thought about while watching this movie:
•One of the owners of Dante’s Restaurant comes over to the table where Gregory and Mary are sitting to tell them to “stop looking so sad.” She tells them how being sad will give them indigestion and make their wine sour. I’d be like, “Listen, we are mourning the disappearance of our family member. Please don’t tell us what kinds of faces to make in your restaurant. We will look as sad as we want to. We are paying customers, after all. Mind your own damn business.”
•Mrs. Redi needs a new logo for her cosmetics company. So she decides to use the same “secret” symbol that her satanic cult uses for their devil-worshipping rituals. As if that isn’t enough stupidity, she accidentally leaves a drawing of the symbol in a freaking library book for anyone to find (with her name linked to everything). Then she has the audacity to get angry when Mary comes around asking about the symbol. Personally, I’d be pretty upset if I was in a satanic cult and saw our insignia on a bottle of L’Oréal shampoo. “Oh I’m sorry, I just couldn’t think of anything else to use on the shampoo bottle. I hope this doesn’t draw attention to our secret cult.” Forget trying to drive Jacqueline to suicide, the cult should be thinking of ways to push Mrs. Redi over the edge instead.
•During Mary’s stint as a kindergarten teacher, she teaches the children a rhyme that goes, “Here comes a candle to light you to bed/Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.” I guess that the grime of the city has seeped inside of young, innocent Mary after all.
•During the big chase scene near the end of the film, Jacqueline is running away from the hitman. He chases her down the busy sidewalks of New York City. Does she try to get help from any of the people passing by? No, she just looks at them and runs into a dark alley. Guess what? The hitman follows her into the alley and catches up with her, pulling out a knife, and now she’s defenseless and alone (can you sense the pervasive theme that everyone in this movie acts like a total moron at all times?). Fortunately, Jacqueline is saved when a theater troupe exits into the alley and pulls her along with them, thinking she is one of the actresses in their play. That really happened. Yeah, this movie is weird in so many ways.
•Unlike the way they are depicted in most films, these Satanists seem like pretty nice people. They are anti-violence, and their secret gatherings are basically just fancy cocktail parties. The worst thing they do is attempt to drive former members to suicide, and that happens only occasionally. At the end of the film, Jason the Poet tries to shame them by reciting the Lord’s Prayer. They just sit there and hang their heads. I actually sort of felt bad for them. Why can’t everyone just leave them alone so they can practice their peaceful worship of the devil? In hindsight, this entire movie is totally bizarre. How it manages to be simultaneously creepy and laughable is a testament to its excellence.
Val Lewton said this film has a message, and that message is: Death is good. Make sure you watch this movie on a cold October night around 1 a.m. so that the despondency at its core can truly sink into your soul.