In 1942 Val Lewton was made head of production for RKO's horror unit. RKO wanted to replicate the success Universal was having with its monster movies. Lewton was told he could do whatever he wanted, so long as he used the titles the studio supplied him and stayed within a set budget ($150k) and running time (75 minutes). He agreed, and what resulted was some of the most unique cinema of the 1940s.
I came to Lewton's films - where else! - via Martin Scorsese's A Personal Journey. His analyses of and infectious enthusiasm for Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie captured my imagination, and I made my way through Lewton's filmography. The Seventh Victim might be my favorite of them - it could be Isle of the Dead or The Body Snatcher on a different day, or either of the ones Scorsese discussed - but they're all worth watching.
THE PLOT: Mary (Kim Hunter) is a young woman at a boarding school. One day the headmistress of the school calls her into her office to tell her that her tuition has not been paid for months. Mary is confused - her sister Jacqueline in New York City always pays her tuition. Jacqueline, the headmistress tells her, has disappeared.
|She travels to NYC to find her.|
|First with the aid of a private detective -|
|but not for long.|
|Her investigation leads her to Jason Hoag, a failed poet who falls in love with her (Erford Gage, l), Jacqueline's mysterious psychiatrist Dr. Judd (Tom Conway, c) and Jacqueline's secret husband Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont, r).|
|Mary manages to track her sister down. But before she can catch her breath -|
|she disappears again.|
|Jacqueline confesses to the murder but describes her existential terror of the cult, who expect her to kill herself after revealing their existence. Cult 101.|
They observe strict rules and cannot force her to do so, nor kill her themselves.
|She holds out for hours|
|but eventually surrenders.|
|Which she does, first stumbling in a daze and then running in full panic.|
|Jacqueline visually sympathizes with her and then goes into her room and closes the door.|
Dr. Judd and the poet visit the cult and have a little face-off with them. As they are about to leave, the head of the cult challenges them for one proof that their following the left-hand path is any less righteous than their own. Dr. Judd recites the Lord's prayer (!), and they leave.
|Cut to Mary and Jacqueline's secret but now estranged husband. He tells her he's in love with her.|
"I run to death, and death meets me as fast. And all my pleasures are like yesterday."
As film noir goes, this is one of the purest. The sense of unspoken but pervasive menace builds incrementally, never exploding in any overt act of terror but never receding, even past the last frame. (Did any other wartime film end with a satanic suicide? Maybe what's weirder is that this is the only one.)
And true to form, all the male characters are emasculated and perfect film noir paladins for love as a many-splendored (but doomed) thing- Jason Hoag for the unrequited kind, Gregory Ward for forbidden fruit, and Dr. Judd for a sort of drunken paternalistic interest in all around him. None are able to prevent Jacqueline's slide towards suicide.
If I have one complaint, it's the confrontation between the cult and Judd. I highly doubt reciting the Lord's prayer would shame or silence a bunch of Palladists in a philosophical tete-a-tete. Maybe they were just hypnotized by Tom Conway's remarkable cadence. If that guy hadn't been such a rummy, he'd have had a hell of a side-career in narration.
There are some pointed references to Dante:
|First when Jason Hoag is introduced: "The poet who's sitting at the foot of Dante."|
|and the name of the restaurant next door. (Somewhat obscured in this screencap, my apologies.)|
|As in Rosemary's Baby some 30 years after this one, the members of the coven being seemingly respectable members of the community and not a bunch of unhinged crazies makes it all the creepier.|
THE CAST: Kim Hunter's first role - she is great. Not just the pure orphan vs. her sister's wayward one, she imbues each scene with turbulent but restrained emotion. Grace under pressure, but never without a hint of the disturbed waters beneath the surface.
Tom Conway - who also stars in I Walked with a Zombie and in Cat People, and even plays a character named "Dr. Judd" in the latter, though his namesake dies in that one - plays Jacqueline's psychiatrist.
|Always nice to see. This guy's enunciation was the best.|
|Her Hollywood career didn't last very long, alas.|
|Both she and Tom Conway, actually, peaked with the Lewton films and died from alcohol-related illnesses.|
Not the most easily digestible message after a couple of newsreels of the Allies advancing up the Italian peninsula.
SOME LEFTOVER SCREENCAPS
|"Why are you wearing a tuxedo?"|
"It's after 6 PM, Lemon - what am I, a farmer?"