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THE SEVENTH VICTIM

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Kim Hunter, Hugh Beaumont, Tom Conway, Erford Gage, Jean Brooks
Director: Mark Robson
Audio: English monaural
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: Black & white, full-frame
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: Commentary, Shadows in the Dark documentary, trailer
Length: 71 minutes
Release Date: October 4, 2005

"I run to death, and death meets me as fast, and all my pleasures are like yesterday."

Film ***

By 1943, Val Lewton had transformed himself from former pulp fiction writer into a master of film macabre.  Once the protégé of celebrated film producer David O. Selznick, Lewton had emerged from his master's shadow to become a talented producer in his own right.  With unconventional yet highly profitable RKO films like Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie to his credit, Lewton regularly demonstrated an uncanny knack for overcoming tight budgetary restraints and frequent studio interference.  Today, many of Lewton's horror films are recognized as classics of the genre for their distinctive atmosphere and inventiveness.

Lewton's success laid in his appreciation that true horror lingers within the dark reaches of the human psyche.  By tapping into such hitherto unexplored terrain, a typical Lewton horror film could overcome the absence of any actual on-screen monsters by instead playing to audiences' imagination.  What the blinded eye does not see, the vivid mind will create.  As such, many of Lewton's films favored highly suggestive cinematography which employed trickery of sound and shadows to create the expected boo moments.

Lewton's films typically shared non-horrific traits as well.  Many featured intelligent and independent-minded heroine leads.  Many were infused with literary allusions and references that added an air of sophistication and quality to what were otherwise B-films.  Many explored psychological themes and were character studies rather than just simple bogeyman monsterfests.  Even a lesser-known Lewton work such as The Seventh Victim (1943) bore such undeniable hallmarks of the Lewtonesque touch.

Originally, The Seventh Victim was to have been the tale of an orphan racing against time to unmask the identity of a serial killer.  The early story treatment was ultimately deemed unsatisfactory by Val Lewton, who co-authored a superior revision for which, as per his usual practice, he refused to accept screen credit.

In the re-envisioning of The Seventh Victim, the story would now follow young Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter) in her search for sister Jacqueline, long missing for months.  Worried, Mary abandons her boarding school studies to venture deep into the dark bowels of Manhattan where she hopes to learn what has befallen her sister.

As the film opens, Mary has offered her farewells to her teachers.  Now, her companions in life must be an unsettling procession of not-entirely-trustworthy characters, some helpful, some not, some soon to die, soon already presumed dead.  In Manhattan, Mary encounters the icicle-cold and suspicious Mrs. Redi, who runs a business once owned by Jacqueline.  A secretive lawyer, Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont), knows more about Jacqueline than he is initially willing to divulge.  A streetwise private dick, Irving August, offers seemingly useful counsel for Mary...but at what price?  The strangely cautious Louis Judd (Tom Conway) is a doctor of mental illness and perhaps the last person to have seen Jacqueline, but he is friend or treacherous foe?  Even a failed poet, Jason Hoag (Erford Gage), of which Manhattan has plenty, wishes to redeem past shortcomings by helping Mary now.

But who really is the mysterious and unknown Jacqueline?  Is she someone truly deserving of such familial loyalty?  Were she not Mary's own sister, would her fate be worth whatever sacrifices Mary must make, or is Jacqueline's tale better left unfinished, just another of a thousand such mysteries in an indifferent metropolis?  The more we learn about Jacqueline, the greater the sense that she represents a dark reflection of the young Mary.  The sisters are dichotomies, Mary the innocent light and Jacqueline the fallen woman, a possible sinner succumbed to anguish and corruption.

As one character notes, "One must have courage to really live in the world."  But when courage falters, then to what resort?  Submission into apathy or suicide?  Retreat into a world of one's own fancy?  The incorrigible descent into despair?

As with many Lewton productions, The Seventh Victim does not play out as a typical horror film.  It is more like a sinister film noir with Kim Hunter portraying a vaguely Nancy Drew-ish character.  The finale, however, is purely Lewtonesque, where disturbing images abound as darkness descends upon the streets of Manhattan.  A dusty rented room, adorned with but a chair and noose, awaits.  With prescient shades of Psycho, the helpless Mary is intruded upon in a state of vulnerability while showering.  A relentless stalker of ill-intent lurks within nocturnal alleys.  A clandestine encounter by candle-light with evil manifested, suicide, murder, insanity - these are subjects broached upon as the film draws to its somber conclusion.

The Seventh Victim introduces Kim Hunter, best remembered today as Zira from the Planet of the Apes films (and as an Oscar winner for 1952's A Streetcar Named Desire).  And should the foulness of Tom Conway's singular stench elicit a sense of déjà vu, that is because Conway is the brother of the equally slimy George Sanders.  What great character actors these two brothers were!

It is to producer Val Lewton's credit that he could recognize the potential talent in unknown, young actors.  Even Lewton's remarkable trio of young directors - Robert Wise, Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson - would each develop into highly accomplished and sought-after directors.  As for The Seventh Victim, today it remains as distinctive as ever, a triumph of Lewtonesque terror and one of the first films to define the parameters of psychological horror such as it exists in contemporary cinema.

Video **

This vintage horror film has numerous scratches and debris marks which belie its rather old age.  There is occasional background image shimmer, but at least the details are sharp with solid contrast levels.

Audio **

Audio is monophonic but relative clean of pops and background noise.  Still, don't expect anything too remarkable here for a film made over half a century ago.

Features ****

Film historian Steve Haberman provides an in-depth feature commentary track in which he discusses Lewtonesque touches throughout the film, various deleted scenes, the context of the film's sinister theme, and symbolism in the film.  Haberman also summarizes individual career achievements for the film's main actors.

Shadows in the Dark is a feature-length documentary about producer Val Lewton.  It focuses primarily on his career as a whole rather than just his RKO films, arguably his most famous achievements.  This documentary, coupled with the Haberman commentary, should provide viewers with a fairly comprehensive understanding of the working style of one of the best horror film producers of the studio era.

Lastly, there is a vintage trailer for the film.

Summary:

Fans of vintage Hollywood horror films should enjoy this disc, which pairs a classic Val Lewton offering, The Seventh Victim, with an excellent documentary tracing the famed producer's life and Hollywood career.

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