Playing Sun Oct 30 at 3:00 at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]
When asked what The Seventh Victim was about, producer Val Lewton responded “Death is good.”
J. Hoberman playfully proclaims its “still the greatest movie ever made on the subject of devil worship in Greenwich Village.” And who wants to miss that?
(It plays the penultimate day of Lincoln Center’s fifth annual installment of Scary Movies.)
Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader:
It’s my favorite horror film. Some people might argue that it isn’t a horror film because nothing even bordering on the supernatural occurs. Yet it’s pervaded by a palpable sense of dread, menace, and doom, and its believability only makes this more frightening. What’s remarkable about the poetry in The Seventh Victim is that it manages to coexist gracefully with a fast-moving plot, over a dozen important characters who have complex and nuanced relationships, and a running time of only 71 minutes. The narrative is so condensed that there are a few minor lapses in the continuity, though the scenes in the original script that would have provided this continuity–along with a much more conventional ending–wouldn’t have been improvements. The film feels both cozy and oppressive as it deals frankly with one character’s death wish, familial and romantic love, the power of a cult to drive a member toward suicide, the sustaining warmth of a circle of friends, and the seductive allure of both art and oblivion. Here, as elsewhere in Lewton’s oeuvre, belief in the supernatural is used mainly to evoke, contain, or account for a certain kind of emotional excess.
The Seventh Victim has an auteur, but it’s clearly Lewton. He never took a writing credit on his films, but he worked on all the scripts. The story in The Seventh Victim is almost entirely his, making it his most personal film. Its lyrical West Village seems created out of his own early years there, when he was a hack writer in his 20s churning out novels, nonfiction books, and radio scripts. He worked fast, sometimes writing the second half of shows while the first half was being broadcast–which must have taught him something about economy.
What other movie opens with Satanism in Greenwich Village, twists into urban paranoia, and climaxes with a suicide? Val Lewton, Russian emigré workaholic, fantasist, was one of the mavericks of Forties’ Hollywood, a man who produced (never directed) a group of intelligent and offbeat chillers for next-to-nothing at RKO. All bear his personal stamp: dime-store cinema transformed by ‘literary’ scripts, ingenious design, shadowy visuals, brooding melancholy, and a tight rein over the direction. The Seventh Victim is his masterpiece, a brooding melodrama built around a group of Satanists. The bizarre plot involves an orphan (Hunter) searching for her death-crazy sister (Brooks), but also carries a strong lesbian theme, and survives some uneven cameos; the whole thing is held together by a remarkably effective mix of menace and metaphysics – half noir, half Gothic.
Fernando F. Croce for Cinepassion:
The private school is the orphan’s chrysalis, Mark Robson sketches the lines separating sanctuary and mausoleum expressively: Stained glass and opera tryouts over a flight of steps, Kim Hunter walking against the deluge of departing schoolgirls. She enters the outside world to the tune of “Nautilus” (“Build thee more stately mansions O my soul”), Val Lewton’s Greenwich Village is a place of poets and shadows, her sister has vanished. A neighborhood tavern named Dante’s offers gigantic Italianate frescos and, upstairs, the missing woman’s vision of happiness: a bare room with a hangman’s noose dangling and ready. Brother-in-law Hugh Beaumont joins Hunter’s search, conspiracy is hinted at the Missing Persons Bureau, heightened at a deserted subway ride, and confirmed at a secret society meeting. The celebrated shower shot is prepared by an earlier image, no less unsettling, of medical apparatus silhouetted from outside a hospital room, out of which a wizened private eye (Lou Lubin) wanders with a punctured stomach. Lewton’s masterstroke isn’t in anticipating Polanski’s cosmopolitan Satanists, but rather in weaving them with alarming directness into an universe of bohemians and eccentrics where everybody struggles with Thanatos their own way: The devil-worshippers may be bathed in sinister lighting when shamed by the Lord’s Prayer, but really, how different are they from the poet (Erford Gage) who looks at the searchlight in the sky and sees a sword slicing the moon? The Cat People strand is continued in key casting (Tom Conway reprises the psychiatrist cad, feline woman Elizabeth Russell is a tubercular dweller challenging fate), but where oppressed sexuality was Tourneur’s phantom, Robson here deals with the pull of the Reaper. The sister (Jean Brooks) is finally revealed as a Cleopatra-haired sleepwalker lost in a private danse macabre, like Gibran’s “bride of Death standing like a column of light between the bed and the infinite.” The film’s astonishing final movement sends her to her room as her dying neighbor steps out to the streets, different roads (“staircases,” Conway says) for venturing into the night.
Mark A. Viera‘s essential essay on Lewton, for Bright Lights Film Journal:
To [Lewton’s hired screenwriter DeWitt] Bodeen’s surprise, RKO quickly located such a group on New York’s West Side. He was allowed to attend a meeting, but only as an anonymous, silent observer. “It was during the war and I would have hated to be Hitler with all the spells they were working against him. They were mostly old people and they were casting these spells while they knitted and crocheted. A bunch of tea-drinking old ladies and gentlemen sitting there muttering imprecations against Hitler. I made use of the experience in that the devil-worshippers in The Seventh Victim were very ordinary people who had one basic flaw, an Achilles heel which had turned them against good and towards evil. (Ibid)”
In his first draft, Bodeen had a character named Natalie Cortez explain why she has become a Palladist. She is a tall, faded brunette whose black party dress cannot disguise that she has only one arm. “Life has betrayed us,” she says. “We’ve found that there is no Heaven on Earth, so we must worship evil for evil’s own sake.” (Mank, Women in Horror Films, 1940s, 258) The Seventh Victim (1943) became Lewton’s darkest story, a quest by innocent Mary (Kim Hunter) to save fatalistic Jacqueline (Jean Brooks), the sister who does not want to be saved.
Lewton’s team made Mary’s search suspenseful with the usual techniques. “Horror spots must be well planned and there should be no more than four or five in a picture,” said Lewton. “Most of them are caused by the fundamental fears: sudden sound, wild animals, darkness. The horror addicts will populate the darkness with more horrors than all the horror writers in Hollywood could think of.” (Siegel, The Reality of Terror, 32) There were more than enough in this picture. “The Seventh Victim,” said Robson, “had a rather sinister quality, of something intangible, but horribly real. It had an atmosphere. I think the actors and the director had to believe very strongly in the possibilities of disaster, that something was there. We believed it ourselves. We talked ourselves into believing it.” (Higham, 237) Lewton’s son, Val Edwin Lewton, said, “I think my father was really very pessimistic, and I think that comes out in his films. They may look cheerful and hopeful enough, but I think the real effect behind them was a dark pessimism and hopelessness. This whole dialogue of death — he was obsessed with it.”
Ed Gonzalez for Slant:
Mark Robson’s work is in top form throughout the influential The Seventh Victim, which is chockfull of some of the most arresting images put out by Lewton’s Snake Pit factory. Where to begin? The two shots are dazzling displays of symmetry and the gaudy backdrops appear as if their chillingly communicating with the characters, seemingly dropping clues about their identities. But it’s the suffocating sense of dread that lingers in the air that the film is best known for—and, of course, its lesbian subtext. (Like the best Cronenberg, the film’s horror seethes beneath its beautiful, intoxicating surface—so much so you’re tempted to scratch it for relief.) Next to Welles, I don’t think any director has shot staircases as menacingly as Robson does here, and the final pessimistic leg of the film—essentially a prolonged death sequence that begins as a forced suicide, transitions into an expressionistic nightwalk, and ends with a self-imposed suicide—rivals the hall of mirrors climax from Lady from Shanghai in terms of sheer force of invention, will, and emotion.
David Thomson in Have You Seen…?:
The Seventh Victim is not so much a horror picture as a yearning for death – and once death has become desirable, fear hardly counts anymore. Little by little, the nihilistic mood takes over the film – not in a macabre way, not as the spell exerted by the witches or devils, but as a necessary conclusion to all the vain fuss of life. Every horror film ever made or planned should look at The Seventh Victim because of its extraordinary grasp of spiritual emptiness, the beckoning alternative to action and activity.
John Ashbery, re-printed in American Movie Critics:
I first heard of my favorite Val Lewton film when a fellow Harvard Student, Edward Gorey recounted its plot in his unforgettable delivery, constantly interrupted by strangulated giggles and gasps […] There is a sense throughout the film that people are saying anything that comes into their heads, and that the apparent mysteries of the plot are perhaps only a smokescreen for other, ill-defined ones. We gradually get the feeling that the ground underneath our feet is unstable.
The spiraling complications of the plot take Mary on a scary trip through a studio-bound Manhattan which, as so often, seems more realistic than location shooting would have produced. Muddled yet marvelous, The Seventh Victim is one of the great New York noir movies. (Though it is classified as a horror film, the horror is kept under wraps; as in all the Lewton films, there is barely a splash of gore.) Een though the backgrounds are artificial they have a compelling authenticity. In his 1929 surrealist novel Hebdomeros de Chirico wrote: “A false beard is always more real on the screen than a real beird, just as a wooden and cardboard set it always more real than a natural setting. But try telling that to your film directors, avid for beautiful locations and picturesque views; they don’t know what you are talking about, alas!” Despite its second-tier casting and modest production values, The Seventh Victim captures the weird poetry of New York in a few that few films have ever done.
C. Jerry Kutner for the Bright Lights Film Journal blog:
Just as John Lennon’s acid cynicism was tempered by the melodic sweetness of Paul McCartney, so the melancholic morbidity of producer/writer Val Lewton was tempered by the subtle spirituality of director Jacques Tourneur. Nowhere is this more apparent than in The Seventh Victim (1943), the first film in the RKO horror cycle that was written and produced by Lewton without Tourneur as director.
Where The Seventh Victim differs significantly from the Lewton/Tourneur collaborations is in its utter absence of the supernatural or anything suggestive of a spiritual reality behind physical appearances. This is most apparent in the film’s treatment of its villains, a Satanic cult, presented as a group of pathetically deluded tea drinkers, rather than an organization with genuine mystical powers. The Seventh Victim’s cultists are capable of hiring thugs to carry out their dirty work when needed, and they can force a member to kill him or herself. But convincing a member to commit suicide is accomplished through psychological means – mainly peer pressure – rather than incantations or magical spells. (The sudden appearance of a cult member behind a shower curtain as Ms. Hunter is taking a shower prefigures Hitchcock’s Psycho.)
Lewton, like horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, had the conflicted heart of one who was obsessed with the supernatural, but could not accept it on any rational level. It’s amazing to realize this dark, almost nihilistic film – one of the first and most definitive of film noirs – was released in the middle of World War II, when most of Hollywood was churning out support-our-troops, keep-the-homefires-burning type entertainments. It remains Val Lewton’s most personal work.
The invaluable John McElwee analyzes the film’s original reception at Greenbriar Picture Shows:
We must have been the eighth victim; patrons walked out. Business poor. Some of the kids would not sit through it. This from N.C. Hillburn of the State Theatre in Inman, SC. A lot of exhibitors avoided chillers when they could. Too many complaints of kiddie nightmares and headaches all around. Others limited genre stuff to every third or so month. What they hated most were horrors failing utterly to deliver on the promise of poster art. This is without doubt the most unsatisfactory picture we have any recollection of, said A.C. Edwards (Scotia, CA) re The Seventh Victim. Diminished profits reflected exhibitor hostility. $59,000 in black ink was a long way down from Cat People, this despite reduced negative costs for The Seventh Victim ($130,000). The problem arose from domestic rentals reduced by a third from The Leopard Man, itself down from numbers scored by Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie. Marquees trumpeted Tom Conway and little else. For all their moronic scripts and (now) pedestrian sequels, Universal could at least boast of pre-sold horror names in its stables. Often as not, Lewton films were serving as rearguard for rival studio “B’s” — in the ad shown here, it’s Universal’s Top Man. Meanwhile, Lewton was mapping out an “A” comedy to spotlight Conway as Casanova (imagine the possibilities!), but like any number of proposed projects, it came to naught. Could this have been the point where RKO began negotiating its multi-picture deal with Boris Karloff? Lewton’s masterpiece may well be “The Seventh Victim”, declared Carlos Clarens in that groundbreaking 1967 book, An Illustrated History Of The Horror Film (the cover of which shown here). Rarely has a film succeeded so well in capturing the nocturnal menace of a large city, the terror underneath the everyday, the suggestion of hidden evil. Not having seen the film upon acquiring the book, I breathlessly awaited coming TV broadcasts. My bafflement after watching was seeming proof I didn’t breathe the same rarified air as Clarens. Was I was too obtuse to get it? Forty years later, I’m still wondering. Is The Seventh Victim a picture we’re supposed to like as means of demonstrating our grasp of Lewton’s deeper meanings? Play it to general audiences at your peril. Carlos Clarens concluded by referring to The Seventh Victim as a hauntingly oppressive work. 1943 exhibitors might have agreed with him.
My own article for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:
Lewton’s faith in the power of what is not shown or told has resulted in a long string of minimalism in the horror genre. Lewton’s economical usage of the dark and the unseen in Cat People is now industry legend, but the subtlety and oddball elliptical grace of The Seventh Victim has never been duplicated.
Ambiguous lines of dialogue pepper the film, even more disconcerting in repeat viewings as their complete intentions remain unclear. Never has a Lewton work felt so much like a consortium of striking imagery and tantalizing hints of secrets and sordid details rotting under the surface. La Sagasse employee (and extracurricular Satanist) Francis reveals an almost pathological attachment to her former boss Jacqueline, as “no one was ever so nice to me!” A Palladist, played by von Sternberg’s other grand dame Evelyn Brent, is notably missing an arm – eerily hinting at the trauma that perhaps pushed her to the dark side.
The film’s overriding arc is a procession into oblivion. Lewton boldly negates existence with his investment in Jacqueline’s plight. She wanders home after breaking her date with the Palladists’ assisted suicide by poison. Menace seemingly lurks at every angle. With Cat People and The Leopard Man, Lewton proved the unflappable horror evoked by a woman alone in the dark (the image, as beautifully articulated by Manny Farber of “a girl waiting for some noncorporeal manifestation of nature, culture, or history to gobble her up”), but he trumps himself with The Seventh Victim by presenting a a character who embraces that very void. Jacqueline is interruped by a acting troupe exiting the backstage door, but they offer mere revelry and “Beer and Sandwiches!” The hedonists and cultists colletively formulate their own defenses.; but when Jacqueline peers into the ghastly eyes of Russell’s dying blonde she loses her will to combat the inertia of a world where little makes sense but the end of things. David Thomson raps the gavel most resoundingly when he orders “Every horror film ever made or planned” to “look at The Seventh Victim because of its extraordinary grasp of spiritual emptiness, the beckoning alternative to action and activity.”
– Compiled by Brynn White