Toronto Film Society presented The Seventh Victim (1943) on Monday, October 27, 2014 in a double bill with Night of the Demon as part of the Season 67 Monday Evening Film Buff Series, Programme 2.
Production Company: RKO. Producer: Val Lewton. Director: Mark Robson. Script: DeWitt Bodeen, Charles O’Neal. Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca. Music: Roy Webb. Editor: John Lockert. Art Direction: Albert S. D’Agostino, Walter E. Keller. Set Design: Harley Miller, Darrell Silvera
Cast: Kim Hunter (Mary Gibson), Hugh Beaumont (Gregory Ward), Tom Conway (Doctor Louis Judd), Jean Brooks (Jacqueline Gibson), Isabel Jewell (Frances Fallon) Evelyn Brent (Natalie Cortez), Elizabeth Russell (Mimi)
When her older sister Jacqueline disappears, Mary Gibson is forced to leave her private school and travel to New York to look for her. A bit naive and out of her depth, she is not quite sure how to set about finding her. Eventually she meets Gregory Ward, her sister’s husband, who talks of Jacqueline’s fascination with death. She hires a private detective who is stabbed to death under mysterious circumstances, and finally meets a psychiatrist, Dr Louis Judd, who helps her to locate Jacqueline, who has joined a mysterious cult of devil worshippers, but is now in hiding and trying to escape from them. The cult members, who want to eliminate her for having revealed their existence, succeed in kidnapping her and condemn her to death for having revealed their existence; she will be their seventh victim–hence the film’s title.
Jonathan Rosenbaum called it “the greatest of producer Val Lewton’s justly celebrated low budget chillers–a beautifully wrought story about the discovery of devil worshippers in Greenwich Village that fully lives up to the morbid John Donne quote framing the action. Intricately plotted over its 71 minutes by screenwriters Charles O’Neal, De Witt Bodeen and an uncredited Lewton, what begins rationally winds up as something far weirder than a thriller plot This 1943 tale exudes a distilled poetry of doom that extends to all the characters, as well as to the noirish bohemian atmosphere.”
‘C.A.’ in Time Out wrote: “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 light 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 (Kim 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.”
Several critics were particularly impressed by the cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca. An internet writer (Glen Andreiev) isolates two particularly striking scenes: “In one scene, Mary is stalked by top-hatted cultists in a deserted subway; in another, as she showers, a shadowy female cultist confronts her.” Another writes “As Jean Brooks tries to flee her unknown assailant, shadows loom and threaten her at every turn, perhaps as much as the man following her does. I love the way this scene is lit, from the illumination of Brooks’ face to the way light shines out of doorway and windows.”
The film courted controversy by flouting the dictates of the Production Code by ending with a suicide, while ‘C.A ‘ is not the only critic to have detected lesbian undercurrents in Jacqueline’s character and her relationship with her co-worker Frances.
Val Lewton (1904-1951)
Born in Yalta, then in Russia, now in Ukraine, as Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon. His parents were Jews who converted to Christianity and later separated, with his mother taking her children, first to Berlin and then to the United States where Vladimir’s name was changed to Val. He studied journalism at Columbia University as a young man and published nonfiction, fiction and poetry. His best-selling novel No Bed of Her Own was filmed as No Man of Her Own with Gable and Lombard, after which he moved to Hollywood, where he was hired by MGM as a publicist and assistant to David Selznick and worked as a writer on A Tale of Two Cities and Gone With the Wind. In 1942 he became head of the horror unit at RKO with a mandate that each film had to have a budget under $150,000, was to run under 75 minutes, and the titles were to be provided by his supervisors. His first film, Cat People in 1942, was directed by Jacques Tourneur (who made two later films for Lewton) and was the top moneymaker for RKO that year. The success allowed him comparative freedom for later films of considerable subtlety and visual beauty despite the often misleadingly sensationalistic titles foisted on him by the studio. He gave first directing opportunities to Robert Wise and Mark Robson and “rescued” Boris Karloff from constant typecasting as a version of the Frankenstein monster, and always wrote the final draft of his scripts himself. Management changes at RKO after 1946 left him unemployed until he found occasional work at Paramount and then MGM and Universal before dying of a heart attack in 1951 at the age of 46.
Mark Robson (1913-1978)
Born in Montreal, he attended schools there and later studied at the University of California before starting to work for 20th Century Fox and then RKO, where he trained as an editor, working as assistant to Robert Wise on Citizen Kane. He was then given directorial assignments by Val Lewton, beginning with The Seventh Victim. He moved from there to major projects such as Champion and Home of the Brave (both 1949) He was nominated for an Academy Award for Peyton Place (1957) and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958) and produced and directed Von Ryan’s Express in 1965.
Nicholas Musuraca (1892-1975)
Critic Eric Schaefer comments:
“Nicholas Musuraca’s name remains unjustly obscure among the ranks of cinematographers from Hollywood’s golden age. In his prime years at RKO during the 1940s, Musuraca shuttled back and forth between A- and B-films, prestige pictures, and genre potboilers. For this reason and because many of the motion pictures photographed by Musuraca have attained a classic or landmark status only recently, he remains a neglected master.
Along with Greg Toland’s work on Citizen Kane (1941), Musuraca’s cinematography for Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) defined the visual conventions for the film noir and codified the RKO look for the 1940s. Musuraca’s photography begins and ends with shadows, owing a major debt to German Expressionism, and can be seen as the leading factor in the resurrection of the style in Hollywood in the 1940s. The dominant tone in his work is black, a stylistic bias that lent itself to the film noir and the moody horror films of Val Lewton.
But even within the confines of the studio system Musuraca succeeded in transposing his style to other genres. The western Blood on the Moon (1948) and George Stevens’s nostalgic family drama I Remember Mama (1948) are both infused with the same shadowy visuals that Musuraca brought to the horror film in Cat People (1942) and the film noir in The Locket (1946). Through the conventions of varying genres and the differing requirements of numerous directors, Musuraca maintained a uniform personal aesthetic.
Musuraca’s major films include Bedlam, Cat People, Out of the Past, Blood on the Moon, Clash By Night, The Locket, The Spiral Staircase, The Seventh Victim, Born to Be Bad., and The Mad Miss Manton
Kim Hunter (1922-2002)
Born in Detroit as Janet Cole, her first film role was in The Seventh Victim. On stage she played Stella Kowalski in the original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire and recreated that role in Elia Kazan’s 1951 film, for which she won both the Academy and Golden Globe awards for Best Supporting Actress, having in the meantime joined Marlon Brando, Karl Malden and 47others to create the Actors’ Studio. In 1952 she co-starred with Humphrey Bogart in Deadline USA, but was blacklisted from film and television later in the 1950s, having been named by Elia Kazan to the House Un-American Activities Committee as a Communist sympathiser. Despite this, she was able, however, to appear in several television shows in the 1950s and 1960s. Other film roles included Michael Powell’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946), John Frankenheimer’s The Young Stranger (1957) and Robert Rossen’s Lilith (1964). She also acted in the original Planet of the Apes (1968) and some of its sequels.
Notes by Graham Petrie