Seventh Victim, The (1943)

The Seventh Victim (1943), produced by Val Lewton, directed by Mark Robson.

First review:

Schoolgirl Kim Hunter, in her first film role, searches for her missing big sister and runs afoul of devil worshipers in New York City. Tom Conway reprises his role as Dr. Judd, the dapper, cynical and intermittently sinister psychiatrist who was killed in Cat People (1942).

Structured as a detective story, this is the most despairing of the Lewton pictures. It anticipates themes from Psycho (1960) and Rosemary's Baby (1968). Somehow they snuck suicide past the Code censors.

The DVD also features the documentary Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy, a 50 minute appreciation by directors, writers, family and film historians.

This completes my Lewton RKO marathon. Nine pictures in five years, and he did two more non-thrillers that are not on DVD.

He is my hero, the patron saint of all those who labor for bosses who don't give a damn, who produce more than was ever expected or required of them.

Whenever the phone rang he would say "I'm fired." He was loyal to his friends and the actors gave him their best. Given the choice between a "B" picture he could do his own way, or a project with more money and prestige and studio interference, he stayed with with the low budget quickies with stupid titles. He produced these within budget and on schedule and they made money. Cat People earned 40x its cost the first year.

He used darkness and shadows to be suggestive rather than explicit. He used John Donne (1572-1631) for epigrams and William Hogarth (1697-1764) for art design. He realized that the movie lives in the imagination of the viewer.

Here they are:

Second review:

When her big sister goes missing and her tuition is not being paid, a young woman is ejected from her boarding school. She could come back and work, but a kindly member of the staff says: "I did that when I was young. Never come back here".

So it is off to forbidding New York City to find the vanished sister. She gets hints and ominous intimations of secrets and warnings to stop looking. The mysteries all seem "female" and the authority figures male. She finally locates an apartment her sister rented but never used. Behind the locked door: a chair and hangman's noose.

Finally she is told her sister became involved with a secret cult of devil worshipers and now they are after her.

This has great ambiance with Roy Webb's lovely score and Nicholas Musuraca's inspired shadowed photography. As a story you have to meet it halfway. At only 70 minutes long it can only hint at some plot points, and some love triangles confuse us. We have a detection and romance middle of the movie, when what we really want to know is what are the satanists up to?

The cultists seem like normal, if upscale and intense, people. They claim to be pacifists except when dealing with traitors, when they aren't. Hints of lesbianism. Else, I'm not sure what choosing evil instead of good means to them.

The wikipedia article has details on cuts made; the scholar on the DVD commentary track think those were probably worth cutting.

He describes the whole tone as "bleak" and "nihilistic" but I think the romance subplots muddle that. The wayward sister becomes a moral object lesson: apparently a thrill seeker she finally went too far and now must pay the price.

Tom Conway is the non-quite-reputable psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd, the same character he played in Cat People (1942), where he died at the end.

A typical episode in the career of producer Val Lewton: he and director Jacques Tourneur had become a productive team but RKO split them up figuring they could make twice as money with them on different projects. Lewton chose Mark Robson, who had edited his previous three films, to be first time director on this one. RKO: we're willing to give you "A" pictures in the future but you can't pick such an inexperienced director. Lewton: I'll stick with "B" pictures and use the directors I want. And he was very happy with Robson's work.

Available on DVD with an enthusiastic and helpful commentary track.

He says one of the writers researched by visiting a group of devil-worshipers in New York: old people knitting and casting curses at Hitler. Again, I'm befuddled by the whole concept.