Monday, 18 November 2013

The Seventh Victim

Val Lewton’s 40s genre productions have become much more renowned thanks to Warner putting together their fabulous DVD collection of his work quite a few years ago now. But long before that his pictures for RKO studios were considered quite special, formulating as they did quite chilling little tales of the morbid without resorting to overt manifestations of the supernatural. This was always a pleasing contrast to the output of Universal and helped to push forward the idea that the genre didn’t really need inhuman monsters to succeed critically and commercially. In fact their conception was partly the result of the failure of the mighty Orson Welles productions so we could say we have Citizen Kane to thank, as if its legacy hasn’t snowballed enough. The Seventh Victim begins with young college student Mary being called up to be informed that her Manhattan-based sister, Jacqueline, is no longer paying her tuition fees. In fact nobody can seem to get in touch with Jacqueline so Mary packs up and heads off to the great city of NY to find out what’s happened to her older sibling. First stopping off at the restaurant once owned by Jacqueline, Mary finds out she was seen at a local boarding house and goes off to enquire. There it seems the missing woman has hired a room - seemingly not to stay in, rather it’s there as some sort of haven for a potential suicide that forces Mary to realise her sister‘s situation is much more sinister than the innocent youngster‘s mind would like to have contemplated. She comes into contact with the man who loves Jacqueline and with the help of a private investigator (who is soon murdered for his curiosity) they delve deeper into a plot that leads to a satanic cult that has drawn Jacqueline into their macabre world.
A very noir-esque atmosphere is established once Mary arrives at the city: shadowy streets, darkly lit corridors, harsh contrasts (cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca was clearly an expert technician and artist) - it’s an ideal world to conceal the goings-on of a group of devil-worshipping people. In fact the cult reminds me of the sinister neighbours that later turned up in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, and are quite a creepy bunch considering this was the forties. Mary (Kim Hunter’s feature debut, amazingly the same woman who went on to play Zira in the first three Ape movies) is lovely and innocent, making her treacherous journey a tad more engaging as she stumbles into a threatening city that could almost consume her, though it seems as though something is watching over her shoulder as more harm comes to those around her than to Mary herself. An interesting moral seems to have been wound into the narrative that makes itself apparent by the end, and one which possibly reflected the way Val Lewton pondered upon his own existence (a cardiac illness was making itself known at the time, this eventually leading to a premature demise): humans may at some point, or with eventual inevitability, come to question whether they wish to continue living and both angles are represented by two characters. Jacqueline herself (resembling Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction) evidently possesses a fixation with her own death, perhaps fantasizing about suicide itself until it becomes an on-going obsession, whilst crossing her path is a woman who is terminally ill but would prefer to avoid death - one person is living but wants to die, the other is dying but wants to live. Indeed the opening statement of the film (about running to death but death meeting one just as fast) suggests to me that the story is ultimately an exploration of man’s relationship with death, something which underpins all of horror in some ways. This gives what once began as B movie material (in fact, just a title really) a certain degree of greater depth than what might have been anticipated by the funding studio (the last thing they wanted was conceptual depth after Orson Welles had drained them of cash). Along the way we come across a number of smartly thought-out sequences; Mary and the PI standing at the end of a dark corridor, both afraid to advance before she persuades him to effectively walk to his doom, Mary’s subway ride where three ‘drunks’ stumble on to the train only for the hat to fall from the one being carried revealing him to be the very PI that was murdered earlier - his body obviously in the process of being disposed of, and not least the shower scene that surely must have influenced Hitchcock years later, such is its similarity to Psycho's most famous murder sequence. The Seventh Victim is a movie than can be appreciated by both fans of the macabre and noir alike.

Warner’s 1.33:1 black & white transfer was exemplary given the movie’s 1943 period of creation, and it came accompanied with a highly informative 53 minute documentary on producer Val Lewton. Perhaps some of the interviewees (the likes of William Friedkin, Joe Dante, etc.) go a little overboard in their praise, as is often the case with back-slapping Americans, but appreciation for Lewton will certainly flourish as a result of viewing this comprehensive piece. There’s also a feature commentary from historian Steve Haberman that is sometimes a little quickly spoken, though this also means that there’s a large amount of information and considered opinions divulged. He discusses an omitted subplot concerning Tom Conway’s character as well as the critical and commercial response to the film following initial release, among many other things. One thing Haberman drew my eye to during listening to the commentary was the point when Mary is offered the bad news by the school’s headmistress - watch her silent assistant who is staring at Mary throughout the dialogue, it’s a pretty creepy image as she continuously looks Mary up and down in far too suggestive a manner. The region 1 disc could be picked up as part of the superb boxed set that came with Lewton’s other RKO genre productions - note, a later release of this also includes a Martin Scorsese documentary as an additional bonus.

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