by Mel Valentin
In the early 1940s, Val Lewton, a Ukrainian-born writer/novelist became a horror film producer for RKO Studios. RKO, reeling from their association with Orson Welles (neither "Citizen Kane" nor "The Magnificent Ambersons" succeeded at the box office), decided to open up a B-level horror division to belatedly cash in on a genre profitably mined by Universal Studios. To that end, they hired Val Lewton, a writer and story editor for David O. Selznick ("Gone With the Wind"). Lewton wanted to produce his own films, exercising a modicum of control. RKO agreed, attaching certain conditions to their agreement: (1) budgets were limited to $200,000 per film, (2) RKO would pick the films’ titles and Lewton would create a story around them, and (3) the films were prohibited from running longer than 75 minutes (in order to fill the second slot on a bill with an A-level feature film).Lewton, however, did have the run of RKO’s standing sets, production departments, and actors or directors on contract. In the span of only five years, Lewton produced nine films, an output long acknowledged as the work of a producer/auteur. Some (e.g., Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie) are justifiably considered classics of psychological horror. Another, the semi-sequel to Cat People, The Curse of the Cat People is an unexpectedly delicate, insightful dark fantasy of childhood, one of the best of its kind to emerge from the Hollywood system. Ambiguity was key to understanding the appeal of Lewton’s films (due to personal inclination and budgetary restrictions, the monsters in his films were rarely shown except briefly). For his fourth RKO film, Lewton chose an unlikely subject, satanic worshippers in Manhattan. Sadly, it’s one of Lewton's least successful films.
"Not one of Val Lewton's best films produced at RKO, but still watchable."
Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter), a senior student at an all-girls school, learns that her older sister, Jacqueline (Jean Brooks), has disappeared. The administrators at Mary’s school are less concerned with Jacqueline’s disappearance than with the six months arrears in tuition. Mary, understandably perturbed, departs for New York City. There, she discovers that her sister has sold her profitable business, a cosmetics company, to one of her employees, Mrs. Redi (Mary Newton), who seems unconcerned about Jacqueline’s disappearance. The trail leads Mary to the offices of an attorney, Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont) and the Missing Persons Bureau (she fills out a form), but then the trail goes cold.
Mary, nearly penniless, takes a position as a kindergarten teacher (thanks to Ward’s apparently benign intervention), while continuing the search for her missing sister. A semi-sleazy private detective offers his services to Mary, while a local poet, Jason Hoag (Erford Gage), becomes smitten with the young, naďve Mary. Mary’s persistence brings her to the attention of Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway, Cat People, the Falcon series), a psychiatrist who once treated Jacqueline. Dr. Judd’s motives for helping Mary, however, remain unclear. Meanwhile, Ward has one or two secrets of his own and the bourgeois devil worshippers finally make an appearance, promising to add much-needed menace to the storyline.
Alas, here is where The Seventh Victim stumbles (and never recovers). The devil worshippers are far too respectable to generate any menace, let along terror. They seem more like a business or social club, networking to build alliances and to profit from those alliances. The audience is never privy to any of their secret rites. Viewers expecting the Devil to make a cameo will be deeply disappointed. Instead, the devil worshippers sit around an expansive drawing room, making plans and discussing whether they should use violence to defend their secrets. In the penultimate scene, after their de facto leader gives a modest speech about morality and the existence of evil, one of the heroes quotes the Lord’s Prayer at him (as evidence of goodness), leaving the cult’s leader speechless.
The Seventh Victim also suffers from several lapses of logic (at least one of them laughable), an underwritten romantic subplot (not surprising, given the time limitations Lewton had to work under), and muddled, ineffective plotting that switches protagonists in the third act from Mary, who becomes superfluous, to Jacqueline, who moves front and center. The emergence of Jacqueline as the lead character seems to foreshadow Otto Preminger’s film noir, Laura, made only a year later. In both films, a female character is left offscreen for the first act, discussed in hushed, reverential, and idealized terms, only to appear later in the film (to either meet or subvert expectations). Laura, however, was an A-level film, with A-level resources, including Gene Tierney in the lead role. Lewton, of course, didn’t have those resources or access to A-level stars (he could have for The Seventh Victim, but balked when RKO disagreed with his choice of directors), making the pretty but bland Jean Brooks’ first appearance as Jacqueline fall short of the intended impact."The Seventh Victim" does have several of Lewton’s trademark touches, including shadow-drenched set pieces, one of which involves an extended chase scene on foot seemingly borrowed from "The Cat People." "The Seventh Victim" also has one of the bleakest (and briefest) endings in Lewton’s films with RKO. Unfortunately, the underwritten material that precedes the final scene diminishes unduly its emotional impact. Ultimately, "The Seventh Victim" is best remembered as a minor, if intriguing, film in Lewton’s oeuvre, one where the budgetary limitations (for once) undermined whatever potential it might have had.
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originally posted: 10/16/05 16:38:19