I run to death, and death meets me as fast, and all my pleasures are like yesterday. Holy sonnet VII, Jonne Donne
The Seventh Victim (1947) is my least favorite of producer Val Lewton’s early films. In fact, I think I’d rank them in the order they were made: Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943), then The Seventh Victim. This is not to say I don’t like it; I just don’t get as much out of it. You’d think I would, though. As an early 1940’s Satanic cult story, it’s a precursor to many 1970’s Occult Age thrillers. The main reason I can think for its lack of “oomph” for me might be the director. Jacques Tourneur directed the first three movies and Mark Robson directed this one.
Let’s say that’s it… that he’s the reason. His credits seem to substantiate the explanation. His other Lewton films also reside at the bottom of my list of favorites: The Ghost Ship (1943), Isle of the Dead (1945), and, in particular, Bedlam (1946.) As The Seventh Victim demonstrates, there are attempts to match the light-and-shadow style associated with Lewton, but they’re only occasionally successful. There’s one effective scene near the end after (spoiler alert) the aforementioned Satanic cult releases Jacqueline Gibson (Jean Brooks) from their “clubhouse.” As she walks home through dark alleys, there are a number of suspenseful, scary moments.
Writers Charles O’Neal and DeWitt Bodeen share the responsibility. The overall plot is compelling and is put in motion immediately: Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter, in her very first movie) learns that Jacqueline is missing. Being the spunky young woman that she is, Mary heads to New York City to look for her, starting with the cosmetics company that Jacqueline founded. Esther Redi (uncredited Mary Newton) informs her that Jacqueline sold the business to her, and she hasn’t seen her since. This starts a pattern of characters lying about seeing her or saying they don’t know where she is when they really do.
This is where The Seventh Victim strays for me. It all becomes a little dull and confusing. There’s little suspense, no real escalation of events, and no twists or turns for a payoff. Jacqueline comes and goes from undisclosed locations and literally disappears in the time it takes a door to open and close. Plus, what is the real threat to her because the Satanic cult is peaceful; they’ve vowed no violence? Their method of disposing of Jacqueline (because she told others about them) is trying to force her to drink poison. When she refuses, they let her go. Also, the cult is treated matter-of-factly. It just exists; there’s no perception of danger from them.
What I do like about The Seventh Victim, though, is how dark it is. Jacqueline is obsessed with death. When Mary finds the room she rented above an Italian restaurant, the only things in it are a chair and a noose hanging above it. Chatting with her neighbor, Mimi (uncredited Elizabeth Russell) in the hall, Jacqueline tells her she’s always wanted to die. Mimi is actually dying, and Jacqueline asks her, “Why wait?” This sets up an ending that I need after the forced and unnecessary declaration of love that comes just before it. I’m comforted thinking that the final shot somehow comments on which is more significant: life/love or death.
Suddenly, I like The Seventh Victim more than I thought I did.
Written by Charles O’Neal and DeWitt Bodeen
Directed by Mark Robson
Starring Tom Conway, Jean Brooks, Kim Hunter, Hugh Beaumont, Isabel Jewell, Evelyn Brent, Erford Gage
RT 71 min.
Released Aug. 21, 1943
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