Friday, October 18, 2013



     The Seventh Victim is the sort of dreamy, creepy movie that could only have been made during the 1940s at RKO with Val Lewton producing.
     Jacqueline Gibson (Jean Brooks), a Greewich Village salon worker, has disappeared. Her sister Mary (Kim Hunter) fears the worst and begins scouring the neighborhood for information.  She visits Jacqueline's apartment, and is shocked to find a noose hanging ominously from the ceiling.  According to her landlord, Jacqueline was fascinated by suicide. A seedy private eye ( Lou Lubin) also gets involved in the search for Jacqueline, but is stabbed to death.  Later, Marie sees two drunks dragging a third man into a subway car. The third man, Mary notices, is the dead detective,  propped up as if still alive.
     Mary eventually learns that Jacqueline is under the care of a psychiatrist (Tom Conway). She also learns that her sister once belonged to cult of devil worshipers. The cult is after her, for she has discussed them with her doctor. The punishment for discussing the cult with non-members is death. Six other members have been killed for their transgressions. Jacqueline may be the seventh. 
     Lewton told Hollywood columnist Howard Coons that The Seventh Victim was a departure for him, and that his previous films had been "fairy tales." 
     "This one now is different," Lewton said. "It's just a story of people. There's horror in it, but the horror springs not from some fantastic premise, but from human evil, or the abandonment of good."
     Lewton's films, which already included Cat People, and I Walked With  A Zombie, were among the most stylish and haunting films of the 1940s. Manny Faber, reviewing films for The Spectator, openly admired Lewton. Even though he felt Lewton worked from a formula where "the characters were sweet,   etc." he declared Cat People "about the best film I've seen in three years." 
     Elizabeth Russell, who appeared in most of Lewton films, once told me that she was surprised by the success of Cat People. It was by far RKO's biggest hit of 1942.
     "It was just a low budget picture shot in a few days," Russell said. "We didn't think we were making a classic. Most of us would've preferred to be next door, where  Cary Grant was working on a new picture. We were all very surprised when Cat People turned out to be a success. Our little film was a bigger hit than Cary Grant's picture."
     Lewton created a world were where people whispered their fears, and took long, lonely walks in the night that turned into nightmarish runs toward safety. There's an especially chilling scene in The Seventh Victim when one of the cult leaders breaks into Mary's home while she's in the shower.  The satanist makes quiet threats from outside the shower curtain, her image seen only in dark silhouette, the outline of her fashionable hat resembling devil horns. The shower scene, ripe with menace, predates Psycho by nearly 20 years. 
The film also appeared to influence Rosemary's Baby,  in that the cultists are not depicted as ghouls in hooded robes, but as normal people, old and slightly shabby. Screenwriter  Charles O'Neil          said he researched the story by visiting a cult headquarters in New York. The people, he said, were surprisingly normal.  Some of the older ladies knitted as they chanted to cast a spell on Adolph Hitler.

But even as Lewton hired writers to work on his scripts (from titles suggested by the studio) it was Lewton who finalized everything, always inserting his peculiar touches into the final draft. It was Lewton who suggested the use of John Donne's poetry into the opening credits, and it was likely Lewton, who had once lived in Greenwich Village, who incorporated that particular neighborhood into the story's plot. "Rarely has a film succeeded so well in capturing the nocturnal menace of a large city," wrote Carlos Clarens in An Illustrated History of Horror Films, "the terror underneath the everyday, the suggestion of hidden evil."

Although filmed on a studio lot, the Greenwich Village created for The Seventh Victim feels realistic. It's a bleak nightscape of failed poets,  Italian restaurants, beauty salons and dark alleys, shady private eyes, psychiatrists who harbor secrets, theatrical troops, lesbians, and devil cults. It was into this odd world that Jacqueline disappeared.

Jacqueline is another of Lewton's dark, mysterious women, a distant offshoot of   Irena in Cat People. She openly talks of suicide, not out of depression, but out of a sort of mystical fascination.   Jacqueline,with her straight cut bangs and jet black hair, gives off an aura of not belonging. It's strange that so many people in the movie love her. Along with her husband (Hugh Beaumont) there's a former co-worker who has stronger than normal feelings for her (many of Lewton's films had suggested lesbian overtones). I suspect Jacqueline's psychiatrist has feelings for her, too. 

Jacqueline seems neither friendly nor warm,  and she's certainly not lively. Yet, people are drawn to her. Are they drawn to her death wish? Lewton certainly seemed to be. Many of his films concern unhappy people, women mostly, who don't belong in their surroundings and seek the release that only death can bring. After Jacqueline evades a man sent by the cult to kill her, she ambles back to her room where her noose awaits.

The film was too bleak for war time audiences. Some complained that the plot was difficult to follow. After the war, though,  there was renewed interest in the film, particularly in England. The film's noirish look became a model for a decade's worth of dark suspense films. 

Mark Robson, who had worked his way up from assistant set dresser to editor for Lewton's B-movie unit, made his directorial debut with The Seventh Victim. He would go on to direct several classic films of the era, including Champion, and The Harder They Fall, all the way to the 1970s with Earthquake. He started in an era where people walked in shadows, and ended with a special effects crew trying to shake the planet. He was amazingly surehanded for The Seventh Victim, and there's hardly a misstep anywhere in the film. 

Twenty-year-old Kim Hunter was making her film debut as Mary. Lewton was fond of her. For a scene in the Italian restaurant, Lewton wanted a painting depicting Dante and Beatrice. Since the painting was copyrighted and unavailable, he commissioned an artist from RKO to paint a mural based on an olive oil label. Lewton had the artist base his Beatrice on Hunter. Lewton knew the reference would go unnoticed, but that was the sort of private in-joke that he enjoyed. 

Allusions to Dante Alighieri's Devine Comedy, where Dante is guided by Beatrice through the afterlife, are ubiquitous in The Seventh Victim. When we first meet Jason (Erford Gage), a struggling writer who helps Mary locate Jacqueline, he's at the Italian restaurant, seated under the painting at Dante's feet. Mirroring Dante's unrequited love for Beatrice, Jason seems smitten with Mary and wants to help. Just as Dante claimed Beatrice as his muse, Jason begins writing again after meeting Mary.

Jason's apartment is another of the film's masterful sets. It's a dark place, its angular walls and shelves filled with books, but with a skylight that seems to open up directly to the heavens.  It's the utter opposite of Jacqueline's empty, rented room. Her cold room with its dangling noose fits in with the lines of Donne that open the movie: "I run to Death,  and Death meets me as fast, and all my Pleasures are like Yesterdays."

Yes, this is bleak stuff, but Lewton was bleak. When he was once pressured to describe the message of a particular film, he  grew irritated. "The film's message," he said, "is that death is good."
* * *

Finally, a word on Elizabeth Russell. She was one of Lewton's stock performers, originally cast in Cat People because she happened to have exotic eyes. She appears only once, but as Roger Ebert said in his 2006 appreciation of the film, "her spectre haunts the movie." With her mysterious beauty, she became a kind of totem for Lewton. She also appeared in his Curse of The Cat People, and Bedlam 
She's cast in The Seventh Victim as Mimi, a sickly woman in the apartment next to Jacqueline's. She's seen only a few times in the film, skulking around the hallways, coughing. Russell had a way of looking mysterious and otherworldly. Near the film's end when she's confronted by Jackie on the stairway,  Mimi confesses that she's dying, and is tired of being afraid of death.  Their conversation convinces Mimi to embrace what is left of her life. The last time we see her is as she bolts down the stairs dressed in a glittery party dress. It's an explosive  image of one who is not going quietly into that last good night.

Russell died in 2002, but I had the pleasure of meeting her briefly at a Baltimore film convention in the 1980s. She attended a screening of Curse of the Cat People (which still seemed magical 40 years after it was made) and then took part in a Q&A with the audience. At first she was self-deprecating, hesitant to accept too many compliments. Gradually, though, she seemed uncomfortable.  She  finally threw the audience a curve by saying she'd never thought much of her films. 

"I would have preferred the roles given to Katherine Hepburn," she said.  When one wag asked why that would be better than a horror movie, she grimaced.

"An actor," she said, "wants to try different things. I might have enjoyed appearing in a few musicals or comedies." 

When asked what she was most proud of, she said, "I raised a son, which is far more important than appearing in some silly movie." When asked to name some of her favorite actors to work with, she exhaled deeply. The Q&A was becoming a chore. "I never gave it much thought," she said. "It has never occurred to me to say, 'Gee, Boris Karloff is one of my favorite guys!'" 

Her aloof attitude puzzled the show's organizer.  He was a well-meaning man who organized these events yearly. "We flew her out here," he said. "We fed her, put her up in a room, and now she acts as if she's not interested in being here."  The movie fans, too, were disappointed. They'd wanted to pay tribute to her, and perhaps hear a few stories of Hollywood's golden era. She threw cold water on their evening.   
I liked her, though. I imagine she was tired of hearing about her mysterious beauty.  Acting, she said, was just a job, and the films at RKO were made like automobiles on an assembly line. Still, her brief scene as Mimi in The Seventh Victim gave the movie's climax  a strange, melancholy jolt. Lewton allegedly named the character "Mimi" after another sickly character in literature, the consumptive Mimi in La Boheme. Perhaps acting was just a job to Russell, but she was magnetic. It's no wonder Lewton put her in so many films.

In the final scene of The Seventh Victim, as she runs out the door,  Mimi seemed to be trading places with Jacqueline. Mimi is rushing outside to grab life, while inside Jacqueline's room there is the startling sound of a chair tipping over, Jacqueline at last living her suicide wish. While Mimi races out of the building, it has always looked to me as if she's Jacqueline's soul, finally free.

Elizabeth Russell would probably say I was paying too much attention to a B-picture, but that's what I do.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting and detailed article, it is very clear that this film established a new departure for his production, quite different from other films. I have just watched it for the first time