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Synopsis: Young Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter, in her very first film role) leaves school on a mission to find her beautiful yet melancholic sister Jacqueline (Jean Brooks), who has suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. Following the advice of Jacqueline’s co-worker Frances (Isabel Jewell), Mary soon locates a room her sister has rented – but is horrified to discover that it contains nothing but a chair and a hangman’s noose. Fearing the worst, Mary visits the local morgue and is referred to Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont), who has also been searching for Jacqueline. Mary then receives a mysterious call from Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway), Jacqueline’s psychiatrist. He claims to be hiding Jacqueline from a cult of devil-worshippers who are out to kill her, one of their own, for supposedly revealing the existence of their evil order to the outside world. With the help of Ward, Judd, and a woeful poet named Jason Hoag (Erford Gage), can Mary keep her sister safe from the clutches of evil incarnate?
This mesmerizing film noir was the fourth horror movie produced by the legendary Val Lewton for RKO Pictures. It was also the directorial debut of Mark Robson, who would go on to direct four more horror films for Lewton, receive two Academy Award nominations for Best Director (for Peyton Place in 1958 and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness in 1959), and direct seven different actors in Oscar-nominated performances. Made one year after Lewton’s Cat People, The Seventh Victim is considered by some to be an unofficial prequel to that film, and by others still, to be an unofficial sequel. Whatever it’s relation to Cat People, it does share one character and two actors with the previous film.
As I mentioned above, The Seventh Victim also marks the screen debut of Kim Hunter, who would go on to create the role of Stella Kowalski in Tennessee William’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1947. She would reprise her role in the 1951 film version, for which she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to tell you that Kim Hunter has an incredibly special place in my heart, as she was a friend of my grandparents who would stay at their house whenever she happened to be in town. By the time I knew Kim she was a vivacious, witty, and big-hearted old lady, who would always bring a present for me when she visited from New York (I still have a teddy bear she gave me) and send me clippings in the mail every time she appeared in a new stage production. I didn’t much appreciate this special bond with an Academy Award-winning actress as a child; all I knew of Kim’s film career was that she had played Zira, the female chimpanzee in the Planet of the Apes series, which was impressive enough to me at that age to make her a personal idol. She passed away in 2001 at the age of 79. The reason Kim isn’t more well-known these days is because she was blacklisted in the 1950s for participating in peaceful protests against the Korean War; this ban from Hollywood greatly stunted her career and has caused her to be all but forgotten by classic film buffs today. I’m always looking for ways to raise awareness and appreciation of Kim’s contribution to film, and therefore I consider it a pleasure and an honor to review her very first film today. I’ll try not to get too choked up while doing it.
I have nothing funny or snarky to say. This shot is just beautiful. WORK THAT KEY LIGHT, MUSURACA.
That being said, this film was quite a lot of responsibility to place on the shoulders of the young Ms. Hunter, here only twenty-one years old and being featured with a very prominent “introducing” credit. The character of Mary carries much of the first half of the film – or should I say, is carried with it. While it is Mary herself who takes the initiative to hunt down her missing sister, she is led along and helped by a great number of people, many of whom are complete strangers to her, but whom she trusts completely. It’s not exactly clear how old Mary is meant to be – she starts the film in school, but it’s not stated whether this is a boarding school for teenagers, a teaching college, or what – but while she seems confident about navigating New York’s Greenwich Village all on her own, she has a jarring naiveté and vulnerability about her that makes one uneasy about where she may end up. In fact, it is this vulnerability that makes the character of Mary such an effective protagonist for a horror noir. While her tendency to succumb to outside influences and lack of emotionality in a way make her a weak character, her youth and lack of experience are what truly resonate as frightening. While there’s no explicit indication that these people Mary trusts so willingly are out to harm her, their shadows run a little dark, the camera lingers a bit too long and one is overwhelmed by an inexplicable sense of foreboding. It is an incredible symbiosis between director and cinematographer that brings this portentous atmosphere to life, and it’s so masterfully subtle you may need to watch the film several times to pick up on where that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach is coming from.
What strikes one most about The Seventh Victim is just how darn beautiful it is. Much of the film takes place at night and involves vulnerable women running from unknown evils lurking down every dark alley. The cinematography, expertly done by Nicholas Musuraca, gives one the sense of ever-encroaching darkness and sinister shadows that is so intrinsic to film noir – and so necessary, not only to creating an effective horror movie, but to imbuing the audience with a genuine sense of fear, of dread of the unseen corners of the night. There are some unforgettable visuals here: Mary’s face glowing in the darkness of the factory hallway, the shadows of the letters printed on the glass door rippling across the back of her jacket as she backs slowly and fearfully away from the mysterious door which could contain the secret to her sister’s disappearance; the form of the devil-worshipping Ms. Redi, silhouetted through the semi-transparent shower curtain, in a scene that certainly influenced Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960); Jacqueline as she flees the Satanists’ den in terror, exhausted to the point of hallucination, making every innocent shadow into the embodiment of her own personal doom. It’s just a gorgeous film and there’s no other way I can put it.
It’s either a Satanist or Tony Perkins in a wig; either way you’re screwed.
However, while the visuals are stunning, the plot is convoluted and a bit shallow in the parts where one would hope for the most depth. As you can tell from the synopsis, there are a lot of characters, and it’s easy to get mixed up or forget how two or three characters are related. I still don’t particularly understand what the poet had to do with anything, or why the psychiatrist was palling around with the Satanists. (Actually, they’re not Satanists, they’re Palladists – but who’s counting.) The devil-worshippers want to kill Jacqueline because it’s in their rules that they must kill any one of their members who reveals the existence of their cult to the outside world, which Jacqueline did when she sought psychiatric treatment from Dr. Judd. There have been six recorded deaths in accordance with this law in the history of the order; Jacqueline would be the seventh to die, hence the film’s title. Seems pretty fair to me; dem’s the rules, kid! However, the Palladists are also sworn to nonviolence, so even if they have to kill Jacqueline, they’re trying to be really nice about it. Besides the whole trying-to-force-you-to-commit-suicide thing, the devil-worshippers don’t seem to do much evil at all, except for being sort of snobby. I mean there aren’t even any scenes of debauched orgies or bathing in the blood of virgins or baby-eating or anything. They talk a little about Satan’s majesty and how they have a right to believe in it – which is totally true, as per the First Amendment; but then the psychiatrist and the poet start reciting the Lord’s Prayer as a counter-argument, which in my book makes them dirty rotten Communists! But anyway. Point is, the supposed “villains” of the story, in the end, aren’t very scary at all, and the film barely goes to any trouble to make us see the error of their ways. This film wouldn’t make me swear off Satanism, nosirree. In fact, it all seems quite posh and sophisticated.
The first rule of Satan Club is, don’t talk about Satan Club.
Furthermore, this film has an ending that frankly I am surprised got by the censors. It leaves the audience with quite a bleak message about life, not what you’d expect from any film from the 1940s. It’s a unique and memorable way to close the story, but not particularly fulfilling or satisfying, and left me confused and even a bit disappointed. It was different, but somehow it didn’t feel creative; call me a traditionalist, but there should’ve been a way to wrap it all up nicely in the end. But then, I do feel like that’s more of a personal taste issue for me, and I did appreciate how bold the choice to end the film in such a nontraditional way was.
Overall this is a spectacular-looking movie, a top-notch mystery, with a few details that fall flat here and there. Not as well-known as Cat People or some of Lewton’s other movies, but a brilliantly dark little gem that certainly deserves a look and won’t soon be forgotten by anyone lucky enough to see it.
The Seventh Victim (1943) – 4/5 stars