My horror film class did a Val Lewton double feature, and one of the choices was a movie I’d never seen (the first movie was Cat People which I reviewed during my 31 Days of Horror here). The Seventh Victim is a bizarre movie that I’m still not sure I’ve processed fully. On the one hand, it has a look and feel to it predating film noir, and on the other I found the story to be incredibly muddled. The acting is okay, but the only standout is Tom Conway (who I’m slowly falling in love with in an old-movie-crush sorta way) who returns as his character from Cat People who died in that film, so is this a prequel? Having done some research, four scenes were excised which could have vastly cleared up the plot; instead the movie plays as a confusing, sloppy mess in some parts. I understand producer Val Lewton wanting to comment on life and death, and possibly homosexuality, but the editing causes audiences to be hopelessly lost, drifting in a swirl of beautiful images and a meaning that jumps in from out of nowhere.
Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter) is a young schoolgirl who discovers that her older sister Jacqueline (Jean Brooks) has gone missing. Forced to find her, Mary encounters a secret world of her sister’s acquaintances including Jacqueline’s husband, her psychiatrist and a group of Satanists that might be hunting the woman down.
Let’s get the good out-of-the-way. Lewton and director Mark Robson craft a movie that is pumped full of atmosphere and foreboding. If I didn’t know this was a horror film before, I’d have had no issue believing this was a film noir. I mentioned the idea of pre-noir in my review of The Glass Key, and I see the same things here that I did in that previous film. The use of chiaroscuro lighting, the interplay of light and shadow, stark images of a chair and a hangman’s noose, etc all invite you into this world of mystery and danger. When Jacqueline is walking down a darkened street, being closely followed by an assassin, its ripped straight from the dangerous world of film noir (or it’s of a similar scene in Cat People).
The deeper meanings of the story itself are labyrinthine and could fill a college essay; I had that idea, but decided to nix it. Val Lewton said the theme of The Seventh Victim is that “Death is good.” That might be a flippant way to describe the movie overall, but it works. Jacqueline spends the movie being suicidal (although I’d consider it lethargic the way Brooks plays the character) and ultimately follows through on her plans by the end. Is it better for her in the long run, especially compared to the slow death being led by next-door neighbor Mimi (Elizabeth Russell)? As Mary delves further into her sister’s life she starts to wonder if she ever really knew her. Do we really know anyone, though? The people who are a part of the cult, the Palladists, are all productive members of society, and don’t appear to wear Devil horns. Part of the message of The Seventh Victim could be about identity, and whether the lines between good and evil are blurred. The movie came out right in the midst of WWII and the Red Scare, so I have to wonder if screenwriters Charles O’Neal and DeWitt Bodeen injected a touch of commentary on Nazis and Communism here? There’s also an elaborate discourse on homosexuality that a classmate of mine noticed immediately. The obvious relationship displayed is between Jacqueline and her friend/employee Frances (Isabel Jewell), but there’s another one between poet Jason (Erford Gage) and Gregory (Hugh Beaumont). Watch the speech about Jason discussing his “friends” and you’ll see it, plain as day. The muddled storyline has Jason and Frances disappearing abruptly, but it’s a stark portrayal for 1943. Ending on a suicide alone wasn’t allowed under the Hollywood Production Code, establishing The Seventh Victim as a shining hero during this period.
Sadly, the story is left floundering in a sea of confusion. For starters, the Palladists are the happiest group of Satanists I’ve ever seen. They refuse to use violence, yet all vote to have people killed who speak about them to others. Jacqueline is an easy target since she already exhibits suicidal tendencies, but when she refuses to kill herself they send an assassin out for her; and we never hear about the previous six victims, did they die violent deaths? Not to mention, we never see them do anything Satan-ish. What do they do all day? How do we really know they’re Satanists and not just boring rich people? It’s been stated that four major scenes were excised from the movie to shorten the runtime down to 70 minutes to make it a B-title (on a double bill). The four scenes, according to what I’ve read on IMDB, explain character motivations, as well as include everyone in an addendum that sums up the entire plot of the movie! Remember how I said Jason just disappears, well apparently he has a little monologue at the end after Mary and Gregory and everyone else go off into the sunset. It frustrates me when I read stuff like this because these scenes would have colored my entire perspective on the movie. I found the plot to be confusing, stilted, and stuffy as it is now. Furthermore, the movie struggles to create a romantic triangle between Jacqueline, Mary, and Gregory that is creepy and unbalanced. For starters, Mary is about 17-18 to Gregory’s 30something. Second, he says he’s been married to Jacqueline for a short time, then immediately falls in love with her sister? I’d be questioning him as a Satanist; as it is the movie makes us suspect Gregory of something, but never follows through on it. I did find it to be a quirky piece of the movie that we have Elizabeth Russell who played the mysterious Cat Woman in Cat People playing a different character that lends an equally important piece of advice to our main character. Russell is such a distinctive woman in her features that I spotted her right off. We also see the return of Dr. Louis Judd who vowed to solve the problems of the vulnerable Irena (Simone Simon) in Cat People, which came out the year before. Sadly, Dr. Judd died in that film and yet the movie has no qualms resurrecting his character here. It’s a funny little tribute if you’ve seen both movies.
In terms of the acting, there’s not much that’s worth a slew of praise. Kim Hunter plays a far more forceful character here than she does in Streetcar Named Desire where I saw her first. Her character of Mary is tenacious in a way Stella wasn’t, but she’s still an actress reliant on dull expression. Beaumont and Gage play the staid man Mary encounters and neither particularly differentiates himself from the other. The only standout is Tom Conway who returns to the role of Dr. Judd. Here, Judd is toned down from what he was in Cat People. In the previous film, his character was lecherous but intoxicating. Here, Judd’s lecherousness is severely toned down, and really he plays a diluted detective. Every time he was on-screen though I was hooked. I’m slowly starting to consider Conway to be the best English actor of the 1940s!
Overall, The Seventh Victim is not my favorite Val Lewton film; and I’d consider it one of the weaker efforts in his time as producer. The story is confusing due to choppy editing and the removal of scenes that are necessary, the acting is stagey, and I never felt the Satanists were that threatening. With that being said, Tom Conway is fantastic and there is a lot of taboo subject material that’s discussed. If you’re a Lewton completist it’s worth a watch. If you’re expecting Cat People, or something on par, don’t bother. Off-topic, but I find it awesome that I’ve reviewed a Tom Conway film in the same week as a George Sanders film, and the two were brothers!
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The Val Lewton Horror Collection (Cat People / The Curse of the Cat People / I Walked with a Zombie / The Body Snatcher / Isle of the Dead / Bedlam / The Leopard Man / The Ghost Ship / The Seventh Victim / Shadows in the Dark)