The Seventh Victim

Halloween and horror movies have come to complement each other in modern times and I suppose it would be possible to spin out a theory asserting that my Irishness taps into some unconscious yet inescapable atavistic connection to Samhain at this time of year. Still, the truth is that I am not a huge fan of horror as a genre, or perhaps I ought to temper that a little and say that the direction the genre has gone in holds little appeal for me. I can find plenty to enjoy and appreciate in earlier works, starting with the Universal cycle in the 1930s and running right through to the best of Hammer, with detours taking in William Castle’s glib gimmickry and Roger Corman’s raids on Edgar Allan Poe. Right in the middle of those four decades of screen terror can be found the nine marvels of the macabre that producer Val Lewton oversaw at RKO in just four golden years between 1942 and 1946. The Seventh Victim (1943) is as much film noir as anything and if it is to be categorized as horror, then it is of the subtle variety where slow-burning dread and crawling unease reign.

The cinematic world of Val Lewton is one where nothing is quite right, where feeling, moods, and even relationships appear ever so slightly off-kilter. And so it is right from the opening of The Seventh Victim, as the camera pulls back from its close-up on a doom-laden quotation etched into the massive stained glass window flanking the staircase at Highcliffe Academy. As the bell rings and groups of chattering schoolgirls descend those stairs a solitary figure climbs in the opposite direction. This is Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter), already figuratively setting out on a different path. The starchy headmistress inform this young orphan that her fees have been unpaid for some time and, more worrying, her older sister Jacqueline has apparently disappeared in New York. Eschewing the opportunity to work off her fees by tutoring younger pupils, Mary opts instead to head for New York in the hope of finding her missing sibling. She knows that Jacqueline (Jean Brooks) was the owner of a cosmetics outfit but inquiries there leave her with the disconcerting news that she had sold up just before dropping out of sight.  The last sighting of her was at an Italian restaurant going by the name of Dante. Can it be a coincidence that an establishment borrowing its name from the author of The Divine Comedy should be located below the street, requiring its patrons to quite literally descend to a lower level? These are the first steps which will lead Mary on a labyrinthine route through the Bohemian world of Greenwich Village and on to the lair of a cult dedicated to evil. This quest for Jacqueline – under the supervision of three pillars of rationalism: Tom Conway’s psychiatrist symbolizing science, the law in the shape of Hugh Beaumont, and the arts as represented by Erford Gage’s poet – may be taken as a quest for the soul itself. Now one could read that as a search for fulfillment amid the cold anonymity of the modern metropolis. Then again it perhaps reflects Jacqueline’s own spiritual journey, one which metaphorically traces Dante’s classic path through sin and penance on the way towards hopefully attaining salvation.

The Seventh Victim saw Mark Robson taking his seat in the director’s chair for the first time. He’d started out as film editor working with Orson Welles and then with Val Lewton before the latter offered him the chance to call the shots. It is an impressive debut feature, unsettling and absorbing in equal measure, raising as many questions as it ultimately answers and benefiting from a well-paced script by Charles O’Neal and DeWitt Bodeen (Cat People, The Curse of the Cat People). Nicholas Musuraca’s peerless cinematography comes to the fore too. Time and again we see his key light picking out the subject, carving some small pool of respite from the deep, inky shadows that forever threaten to encroach and envelop. On a side note, there is a “shower scene” in this movie, a typically  creepy and unnerving interlude which I have seen some people suggest might have been an influence on Hitchcock’s Psycho. Frankly, I don’t really buy that theory – the scene not only plays out in a wholly different fashion but it’s aiming for a moody and disconcerting effect as opposed to the raw shock of Hitchcock’s iconic sequence.

Debutante Kim Hunter acts as the point of view character for the audience, an innocent (albeit a steadfast and determined one) cast adrift in the city and forced to confront all the empty indifference which characterizes it. It’s a sympathetic piece of work from the young actress, refraining from a descent into hysterics during tense passages such as the late night incursion into the cosmetics company’s premises and the subsequent ride on the subway; the latter scene, imbued with a helplessly nightmarish quality, is worth the price of admission in itself. Guiding her through this are the puppy-like Hugh Beaumont, Erford Gage’s vaguely fey poet and a quietly authoritative Tom Conway was Dr Louis Judd. Conway played the same character, or at least a character of that name, in the previous year’s Cat People, and certain comments he makes sound like they are referencing that role although Judd appeared to have died in the earlier movie. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what the timeline involved is, or indeed if there is even supposed to be any actual connection between the films. Anyway, that is not something I attach much importance to. At the center of it all, however, is Jean Brooks as the elusive and enigmatic Jacqueline. She drifts in and out of the picture alternating between nervy panic and listless resignation, a visually striking symbol of existential detachment.

Warner Brothers released The Seventh Victim on DVD as part of a Val Lewton box set many years ago, paired on the same disc with a feature length documentary on the producer’s career. As far as I’m aware, there hasn’t been any upgrade offered since then. While the image is pretty strong as it stands, a Blu-ray would only enhance Musuraca’s evocative cinematography. Bearing in mind the studio has been gradually putting Lewton’s films out in high definition, it can only be a matter of time before The Seventh Victim is afforded the same treatment. For those not entirely sold on the concept of the horror film Val Lewton’s tales of subtle solicitude are highly recommended, at Halloween or any other time of year for that matter.

48 thoughts on “The Seventh Victim

  1. Great review Colin. It is a truly extraordinary film. Very dark, very bleak and that John Donne quote really is morbid. I think you picked the right one out of the 9 films, it’s truly unmatched in 1940s cinema. The region A Blus are coming out very slowly but I have LEOPARD MAN and CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE and they look fabulous, as does the Criterion CAT PEOPLE that has an excellent doc on Lewton narrated by Scorsese.

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  2. There are very, very few films that match this for atmosphere. Bearing in mind that this is essentially meant to be a commercial B-movie thriller, it’s an astonishing piece of work that (for the time) doesn’t hold back at all.

    And, yes, one of those films that you think: “Wait? This isn’t out on Blu Ray yet?”

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    • Yes, the RKO B unit was doing some impressive work at that time and this is a highlight.

      As for it not being on Blu-ray yet, I think, in all fairness, that restoration/clean-ups will have played a part.

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    • Don, I’ve no doubt the current trend in the horror field has plenty of fans, and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone the pleasure they get from their movie viewing. That said, it’s not a direction that appeals to me and I really miss that emphasis on creepiness, dread and moodiness.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Colin
    And here I thought I was one of the few people who liked this film. Well done as always, As for horror films, b/w just adds that extra layer of creepiness to the production. I love the look and feel of b/w right down the line.

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    • Lewton has a healthy following although I did notice someone online recently whose considered assessment of Cat People was expressed in the single word “boring.” While I’m not one for denigrating anyone’s opinion of a film, that kind of response is beyond witless.

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  4. it took me a few days longer than expected, but I finally finished my weekend film, THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE from 1961. I had forgotten just how good this sci-fi film is. A good stab at the end of the world genre. Well worth a look if you are a sci-fi fan.

    Gord

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  5. Nice choice of movie to write a good review on. I have that afore-mentioned Lewton box set as I love what he created on a quite small budget. “SEVENTH VICTIM” is my favourite of them after “CAT PEOPLE” (boring!!!!!!). Such moody, intelligent, beautifully-lit work.
    I first saw all the Lewton films in a wonderful season of his RKO work at London’s National Film Theatre in the 1970s. The NFT introduced me to many movies and so increased my filmic education enormously.
    Tom Conway was at his peak at RKO in the 1940s, before the demon booze imprisoned him.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Colin, I really enjoyed your “Hallows Eve” write-up of THE SEVENTH VICTIM(1943). I’m with you where it comes to horror movies. I enjoy the Classics and I like your description of this Val Lewton small budget wonder, “as much film noir as anything and if it is to be categorized as horror, then it is of the subtle variety where slow-burning dread and crawling unease reign.” Yes, that is the appeal of a Lewton production. Val Lewton was a B-Movie Master at RKO-Radio Pictures with artistic freedom as long as he brought in horror movies at $150,000 or less, which his horror B-Unit did and they made a lot of money. These were well crafted entertaining atmospheric movies, which concentrated on the psychology of fear. People’s fear of the shadowy darkness of the unknown.

    I first recall viewing THE SEVENTH VICTIM on AETN’s THE GOODTIMES PICTURE SHOW(1977-98) on Halloween weekend in 1995. Ray Nielsen was the producer/host of this PBS affiliated station’s wonderful every Saturday night trip through 1930’s-1950’s movies. I last viewed this movie on TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES in 2016. I like this movie and I’m glad to see that other readers of this blog like it. That said, my favorite Lewton movies are still CAT PEOPLE(1942) and THE BODY SNATCHER(filmed 1944, released 1945).

    I don’t want to give away too much, because some readers may have never seen this movie, but it is a bleak and eerie story right down to the quick ending, which the production code censors allowed. One plot device of a covey of devil-worshipers reminded me somewhat of a famous/infamous late 1960’s movie. Lewton had screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen attend a devil-worshipers covey meeting. This was during World War II and DeWitt said that he would’ve hated to have been Adolf Hitler with all the spells they were casting on him. About Mary Gibson’s(Kim Hunter) “shower scene” being creepy and unnerving, I go along with that, especially when devil-worshiper Esther Redi’s(Mary Newton) devilish shadow appears on the other side of the shower curtain.

    I enjoyed the several character actor cameos that are really good and memorable(several appear in other Lewton movies). The one-armed devil-worshiper Natalie Cortez was portrayed by silent and pre-code movie star Evelyn Brent. The striking Elizabeth Russell from CAT PEOPLE as Mimi.

    I think THE SEVENTH VICTIM is worth viewing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Evelyn Brent as the one-armed witch is an excellent touch, there is something incredibly disturbing about her and indeed the meetings of the coven we get to see are unnerving for their blandness and superficial ordinariness.
      And of course the striking Elizabeth Russell is always memorable. Lewton used her a number of times and gave her a bigger and quite fascinating part in the wonderfully oneiric and touching The Curse of the Cat People.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I really do not need to see heads flying into the air and guts spilling out to know that a terrible event has happened. i get more seeing someone enter a room, the door swing shut behind them, then a scream. My imagination can take it from there.

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    • There’s clearly a market for gross-out material and it certainly has its fans. However, my preference is for movies which employ mood and the implication of something nasty lurking round the corner. Ulmer’s The Black Cat, for example, is very effective in this regard but nothing graphic is ever seen.

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    • I still cannot believe Lewton got away with The Seventh Victim. It may be the single bleakest Hollywood movie of the 40s. This was what was so great about B-movies – there was a lot less studio interference because the studios just didn’t care that much about B-movies. It could never have been made as an A-picture.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. At the end of the AETN THE GOOD TIMES PICTURE SHOW, host Ray Nielsen would have a telephone interview with someone from the movie. After the airing of THE SEVENTH VICTIM he interviewed Elizabeth Russell, who was 79 years young at the time. I recall her saying that she really liked Val Lewton and that he really liked her. Lewton hired her on the spot for CAT PEOPLE(1942), because he saw her as the Cat-Woman. Russell related that she had been on a double date with friend Maria Montez(ARABIAN NIGHTS-1942). Maria’s date was screenwriter Peter Viertel(SABOTEUR-1942). Viertel told her that his friend Val Lewton was looking for a woman who looked like a cat for a movie that he was producing at RKO. He suggested that Elizabeth go see Lewton, because she looked catlike. . Needless to say, she went to see Lewton and the rest is B-Movie Cinema History. Elizabeth Russell was a strikingly beautiful actress who could look scary on the screen. What a memorable scene with her in CAT PEOPLE. She said that she tried to look as mysterious as she could. Russell acted in 5 Lewton produced movies.

    Concerning the unnerving blandness and superficial ordinariness(I like these phrases, Colin) of the coven. Screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen visited a devil-worshiper coven in New York City and found it to be made up of mostly old ladies and gentlemen drinking tea. The ladies were knitting and everyone were cursing Hitler.

    I agree with Gordon about splatter movies. I think the imaginative power of dreadful suggestion with less seen can be more suspenseful than just viewing blood and gore. Also, I agree with Gordon about the use of black and white in horror movies, “that extra layer of creepiness to the production. I love the look and feel of b/w right down the line.”

    Dfordoom is so right about what B-Movies could get away with and THE SEVENTH VICTIM did get away with a lot in its glorious bleakness.

    I envy Jerry for being able to view the Val Lewton movies at London’s National Film Theatre in the 1970s. That must have been a grand experience.

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    • Even in the 60s and 70s low-budget film-makers could get away with taking risks and making offbeat movies that the major studios couldn’t touch. Sadly that’s all gone now. The demise of low-budget film-making has been a great loss. Film-makers just cannot take risks any more.

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      • Dfordoom, believe it or not there are still some small budget movie makers out there, but it gets harder every year to get financing and then a distribution deal. What is considered a small budget movie today? $10 million or less? $5 million or less? Take a look at the movies made by writer/director Jeff Nichols, SHOTGUN STORIES(filmed 2004, released 2007) cost $250,000 to make; TAKE SHELTER(filmed 2010, released 2011) cost $5 million; MUD(filmed 2011, released 2012) cost $10 million; and LOVING(filmed 2015, released 2016) cost $9 million. Nichols received $18 million to make his MIDNIGHT SPECIAL(filmed 2014, released 2016) from Warner Bros. The studio considered this a small budget.

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        • Yes, it’s crazy. Edgar G. Ulmer allegedly made Detour on a budget of $6,000. And it’s one of the greatest noirs ever made. Even in the 70s film-makers like Jean Rollin were making movies for a few thousand dollars.

          Distribution is the problem. All the distribution avenues that used to be open to low-budget film-makers are now closed. No drive-ins. No grindhouses. No second features on double bills. No direct-to-video market. It’s not just a US problem. It’s no longer possible for European film-makers to make interesting low-budget films.

          Streaming is just making things worse.

          It’s easy to make a movie for almost no money but if you have no chance of getting it distributed…

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  9. Weekend viewing – PORK CHOP HILL 1959
    Easily one of the best films on The Korean War. ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT 1930 director, Lewis Milestone delivers big time here. Greg Peck stars with a host of young up and coming American actors such as, Rip Torn, Woody Strode, Harry Guardino, George Peppard, Robert Blake, Harry Dean Stanton and Martin Landau.

    Gord

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    • Gordon, this is a movie well worth watching. I first viewed it on WGN Channel 9 Chicago in 1983. It is a hard nosed war movie and a rarity for its time, in that it questioned openly the judgment of those in charge of the United States Armed Forces in South Korea. PORK CHOP HILL(filmed 1958, released 1959) has a fine cast of actors.

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  10. Walter
    Director Milestone had a spot on sense of how to film war films. ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, A WALK IN THE SUN and PORK CHOP HILL are all top flight pictures.

    Gord

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  11. Chaps,
    It really pays to keep an eye out here in the UK for the TCM UK schedules on TV. Quite apart from recent screenings of B-westerns starring Johnny Mack Brown, Tex Ritter, Charles Starrett and now Wild Bill Elliott, they sneak in some other gems fairly regularly.
    I am referring to, firstly, “GHOST TOWN” (1956). There are not many mid-1950s westerns that have eluded me over the years but this is one of them. Just watched it and was pleasantly surprised. We are not talking ‘classic’ western here of course but a well-made ‘bread-and -butter’ programmer of the type many on this site enjoy. It is a Bel-Air production directed by Allen Miner who went on a year later to direct the superior “THE RIDE BACK”. Not as good as that film perhaps but it shares the strong feeling of pioneer Americans struggling to survive in a beautiful but hostile landscape. A big plus is that the film was largely shot at Kanab, Utah.
    John Smith showed himself for the first time as a competent and authoritative western lead.

    The other film that is threatening to turn up later this week is “MYSTERY SUBMARINE” (1950) from U.I. it stars Macdonald Carey and Marta Toren. I have looked all over and found no source from which to acquire this film so this is an exciting find as far as I’m concerned.

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    • Jerry, I agree with you about GHOST TOWN(filmed 1955, released 1956). This good Western Movie eluded me until I finally viewed it in June, 2020. I streamed it by way of Amazon, while we were having to live in St. Louis, Missouri. It just wasn’t ever aired on tv in my neck of the woods. I have fond memories of John Smith and Robert Fuller on the Classic Western tv show LARAMIE(1959-63).

      I have never viewed MYSTERY SUBMARINE(1950). This is another movie that wasn’t aired on tv in my neck of the woods. I don’t think it has ever been shown on TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES in the USA, or on AMERICAN MOVIE CLASSICS. This is the first Universal-International movie that Douglas Sirk directed. Let us know about this obscure Sirk movie.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for your comments, Walter. I certainly will report back on “MYSTERY SUBMARINE”. It seems to be quite the rarity but then a number of Universal-International films from that era are hard to find, as reported on this blog by others. Those I have seen have all deserved to be better known.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Walter
        GHOST TOWN is a well done low-rent duster. I liked it enough to put up a small review on IMDB. MYSTERY SUBMARINE(1950) I caught about a decade ago. Not great, but a watchable timewaster.

        Gordon

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  12. What better way to celebrate Halloween at RTHC
    with a Lewton review…well done Colin!
    That Lewton Box Set Colin & Jerry mention must
    have passed me by,I bet it’s worth a fortune now.
    I recently got the Warner Archive Blu Ray double
    THE GHOST SHIP/BEDLAM the high definition
    remasters are flawless especially BEDLAM possibly the
    creepiest of the Lewton pictures.
    THE GHOST SHIP has a knockout performance by
    Richard Dix,one of his last if not the last of his pictures.
    I too have seen these Lewton classics,like Jerry at the NFT many
    moons ago.
    BEDLAM really freaked me out even the credits are disturbing,
    with jaunty Baroque music giving way to sinister tones when
    Karloff and Lewton’s names appear on the credits-all this
    against a backdrop of grotesque Hogarthian etchings.
    I found the film chilling,disturbing,darkly comic and extremely moving.
    The film has a nice role for Richard Fraser who I always considered the
    Rex Harrison of B Movies-at least he has far more to do in BEDLAM
    than in other films that I’ve seen him in.
    As much as I adore Vincent Price and Peter Cushing I have to consider
    Karloff the greatest Horror actor of the sound era.He is wonderful in
    BEDLAM and is well matched by a superb Anna Lee and I must admit I
    was unaware of the John Ford/John Wayne connection to the actress.

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    • I think The Ghost Ship was the hardest of the Lewton films to locate for a long time and I’m pretty sure it’s the one I waited longest to see. Dix is very good and so is the unforgettable (both in terms of name and features) Skelton Knaggs.
      As for Karloff, he was outstanding in The Body Snatcher and again he’s tragic and moving in the somewhat underrated Isle of the Dead.

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    • John K, I agree with you about Boris Karloff being the greatest Horror actor of the sound era. Karloff was always good whether the movie was or not, because he gives it his best. The movies he did with producer/writer Val Lewton were top notch. I’ve read that BFI Video is planning on an upcoming Blu-ray release of TARGETS(filmed 1967, released 1968). This movie is brimming with homage to Karloff. This movie was director/writer/editor/producer/actor Peter Bogdanovich’s feature length movie debut. TARGETS is a really good movie and Karloff is grand in it. I first saw this movie on the USA NETWORK channel in 1985.

      Yes, Anna Lee appeared in several John Ford movies from HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY(1941) to 7 WOMEN(filmed 1965, released 1966) and with John Wayne from SEVEN SINNERS(1940) to Ford’s THE MAN WHO SHOT LOBERTY VALANCE(filmed 1961, release 1962). She was a very good actress who I always like to see in movies and tv.

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  13. I love Tom Conway’s world-weary, slightly debauched persona. One of my favorite performances by Conway is that of Max Collodi in the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” episode “The Glass Eye” which also features Jessica Tandy. That may be the scariest AHP episode ever made.

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    • I love Tom Conway’s world-weary, slightly debauched personality.

      Yes, that’s a nice way to express it. It’s something that pervades his work overall and his films with Lewton make excellent use of that quality. He gets a number of delicious lines and delivers them in a marvelously sardonic way. I’m very fond of: “You can take either stairway; I prefer the left, the sinister side.”

      I like to dip into those Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Alfred Hitchcock Hour episodes from time to time but I don’t believe I’ve seen that one you mentioned yet.

      Liked by 1 person

    • “I love Tom Conway’s world-weary, slightly debauched personality.”

      Like Colin I agree that this describes him perfectly. There is something quite seedy about the good doctor. I’m not sure if I’d want him as my shrink. 🙂

      Maybe Conway didn’t quite have his brother’s panache and charisma, but he acquitted himself quite well in those fabulous B pictures.

      Liked by 2 people

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