Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Film Review: The Seventh Victim

"The Seventh Victim" *** (out of ****)

As October draws to a close and I finish up my celebration of classic horror films, I had to review at least one more Val Lewton production.

My readers should know by now I am a great admirer of Val Lewton's films. I have reviewed nearly all of them including " The Cat People" (1942), "I Walked With A Zombie" (1943), "The Leopard Man" (1943) and even included "The Body Snatcher" (1945) in my "Masterpiece Film Series". And here we have one more title, "The Seventh Victim" (1943).

Lewton earliest films; "Cat People", "Leopard Man" and "I Walked With A Zombie" were collaborations with filmmaker Jacques Tourner. These films are considered Lewton's best by most film buffs. In fact it is Lewton who generally receives all the credit for these films success, rarely the director. It is said Lewton had a very large input in the final product. Each movie tends to resemble the other, regardless of who the director was. Some have suggested Lewton was a co-director.

I tend to give Lewton all the credit in my reviews too, so I'm not setting any records straight. However, you feel one can see a shift in style after Tourner was promoted by RKO studios to "A" level films. The post-Tourner films are entertaining in their own way but seem to lack an artist edge. There doesn't seem to be as stunning a visual aesthetic. The only one which seemed to come close was "The Body Snatcher" which was directed by a young Robert Wise, of "West Side Story" (1962) fame.

"The Seventh Victim" was the first film Lewton made after Tourner. The director was Mark Robson. This was Robson's first film. He would direct a few other Lewton productions; "Ghost Ship" (1943) which I have reviewed, and "Isle of the Dead" (1945). Readers may not recognize the name instantly but Robson would direct some important, highly entertaining films. One of his best is "Peyton Place" (1957) a masterpiece which I need to include in my series. He also directed the Frank Sinatra vehicle "Von Ryan's Express" (1965). But here in the early stages of his career naturally he was still learning. His films aren't quite as impressive as Tourner. He just seemed to be the perfect partner for Lewton. Wise and Robson moved in different directions, horror really wasn't their genre.

Still you'd have to be awfully prejudice not to admit "The Seventh Victim" has some nice moments and a story, which on paper, sounds pretty creepy.

The film starts off by introducing us to Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter, making her film debut). Her parents died when she was a young girl. Her older sister, Jacqueline (Jean Brooks) took care of her growing up. By now Mary is in a Catholic school, far away from her sister. The school principle informs Mary, they have not been in contact with her for months. It has been six months since they have received tuition payments from her. This worries Mary a great deal and she decides to leave the school and head for New York in an attempt to find her sister.

Once Mary arrives in New York she heads to a cosmetic factory which Jacqueline owns, Le Sagesse. She talked to her business partner, Esther Redi (Mary Newton) who tells Mary, Jacqueline sold the business to her. She has not seen Jacqueline since. In fact it seems no one has seen Jacqueline for quite some time. One lead takes her to an Italian restaurant, where she rented a room above. But the landlords say Jacqueline paid them rent, moved in, put new locks on the door and never came back, but, she still sends rent money.

Desperate for information Mary heads to the city morgue and the police. Here she meets a private investigator, Irving August (Lou Lubin) and a lawyer Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont) who knows Jacqueline and has been looking for her himself.

Finally Mary stumbles upon the truth, Jacqueline was part of a Devil worshipping cult. She has been preoccupied with death. In her room all that was found was chair beneath a hanging noose. Could the cult have kidnapped her? But why?

The whole Devil worshipping aspect of the film does make it sound scary and gives the film a certain edge, unfortunately, perhaps because of the time period, "The Seventh Victim" does do enough with it. Lewton has dealt with the occult before, "I Walked With A Zombie", and there Lewton did more with it, incorporating it into the story. Here we never really learn much about this group. Look at what Roman Polanski did with similar material in "Rosemary's Baby" (1968). Lewton and Robson never show us any of the rituals. They never make the characters truly appear evil.

But "The Seventh Victim" has three standout scenes which really make it worthwhile. The first scene deals with Inspector August and Mary sneaking into La Sagesse at night after August snooped around earlier but couldn't get into a locked room. Now they want to find out what was in there. In this sequence Lewton and Robson have cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca, film it in shadows. The door they want is in complete darkness. The characters playfully argue with each other about who should walk first. Finally August does. Each step he takes puts him further and further into the pitch black. Almost as if he is entering the abyss. When he returns Mary discovers he has been stabbed. Lewton and Robson never show us what happened. That was a signature of Lewton's films. Keeping the violence off-screen.

Another successful scene has Mary in the shower when we see a shadow walking towards her through the curtain. It is Ms. Redi. She has come to warn Mary to stop searching for her sister. It will only lead to danger. Anytime you have a scene take place in a shower, you are going to have modern audiences think of Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960). I wouldn't be surprised if this scene inspired that one. We never see Ms. Redi's face. We only hear her voice. She is a faceless voice of evil. Of course this scene could have been filmed differently. The two ladies could have meet face to face. But the sequence seems more effective this way with the characters not being able to see each other.

And finally the last sequence deals with Jacqueline walking home alone sensing she is being tailed. It reminds me a lot of the sequence in "Cat People". Robson keeps the suspense going as each corner represents a new danger, a new challenge. We wonder what will happen to Jacqueline.

The only major downfall to the film is the script, which was written by Charles O' Neal and DeWitt Bodeen who wrote "Cat People" and its sequel, "The Curse of the Cat People" (1944), which I have also reviewed. A lot of the dialogue has that stigma of bad "B" movie lines. Normally Lewton's films are better written. Much of it doesn't sound realistic. One moment has Ward tell Mary to drink some milk to which she sternly replies she doesn't like to be told what to do. But the way she delivers the line just seems to come out of left field. It is such a harsh reaction.

The film probably has the best known cast of Lewton's films. Kim Hunter of course would gain great fame for her performance as Stella in "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951) for which she won an Oscar for "Best Supporting Actress". Hugh Beaumont is best known for his role as the father in the television show "Leave it to Beaver" where his character's name was Ward also. And Tom Conway has a role as a friend of Ward, Doctor Judd. He appeared in "I Walked With A Zombie" and the Ava Gardner vehicle "One Touch of Venus" (1948) based on the Kurt Weill musical. If you close your eyes and hear him speak you'd swear it was George Sanders.

"The Seventh Victim" does have some loose ends and doesn't explore the Devil worship aspect enough but it still makes for a worthwhile viewing for a few reasons; Hunter's performance, some nice visuals, at times good atmosphere, and an interesting concept. It is not one of Lewton's best, but if you are a fan you're gonna want to see this one.