Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Seventh Victim (1943)

Posted by Steve-O

This week’s Film Noir of the Week is Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim (1943). Last week, Don Malcom wrote about one of my favorites The Big Sleep which many believe may not be a film noir at all, while The Seventh Victim is almost never classified as a film noir when it’s a fine example of the film style.

The film was created by Lewton based only on a title given to him by RKO. It was directed by Mark Robson (his first film as director) and stars Tom Conway (playing the same guy he played, and got killed as, in The Cat People!); Jean Brooks (The Leopard Man); Isabel Jewel (The Leopard Man); Kim Hunter (her first film role) and Hugh Beaumont (Railroaded!). Cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca (Blood on the Moon, Cat People) and music by Roy Webb (Out of the Past, and many other films noir).

As you can see the film boasts a very good cast and film makers who worked on many classic period films noir. So why isn’t this film “noir”? Who knows? People just didn’t go out and make noir back in the 1940s, they just came out that way. I would be interested in seeing what others think about this film.

I watched the film a few times on DVD this week and couldn’t get it out of my head. I’ve never seen it before or read much about it. Apparently, when Val Lewton was asked what the film was about he said, “Death is good.” The film is filled with a bunch of sad lonely people. Even the bit-part secretaries in the film have drunken fathers or great regrets in their lives. This is not a happy movie but one that makes you think. And one that makes you think “How the hell did this film get made?” In my opinion, it’s brilliant. I enjoy Cat People a little more because the story for The Seventh Victim doesn’t hold up when you ask key questions about the plot. I wrote a long (probably too long) synopsis for the film below, but my recommendation to you if you haven’t seen it is to watch it first. There are a few scenes in the film, not to mention the ending, which knocked my socks off.

A few things to think about when you’re watching: Notice how Mary and Gregory fall in love and seem to give up looking for Jacqueline half-way through. Only the poet Jason seems to care what happened to her.

The film appears to be a B-movie with more literary and satanic references than you could imagine.

Jason, the poet sitting under “Dante’s” feet.
The doomed Mimi (a reference to the prostitute in the opera La bohème?)
The number 7 room with a noose.

The film tells the story of a young woman, Mary, away at school who finds out about her sister’s disappearance. Jacqueline Gibson, who has always talked about suicide, is Mary’s only relative. Mary finds out later that Jacqueline "Had a feeling about life. That it wasn’t worth living unless you could end it."

Mary returns to New York City and attempts to find her. She finds an apartment above a restaurant (Dante’s Restaurant) that her sister rented and talks the old couple that owns it into opening the door. Before she enters, she spies Mimi, a sick coughing woman who lives down the hall. The only thing in the empty room is a chair and a hanging noose hung ready above it. Later, she meets a private detective at the police station who, after being threatened not to by another agency looking for her, decides to help her. Meanwhile, Mary visits the morgue where she receives a tip that someone else was there looking for her. She visits lawyer Gregory Ward who she eventually finds out is Jacqueline’s secret husband. They agree to team up and find her sister but first they have dinner and it seems like they are falling in love.

The diminutive private detective that initially shunned Mary digs into the case and finds some information. He finds out that Jacqueline has given her beauty company “as an out-right gift” to the manager of the place, a woman, Mrs. Redi, who told her earlier that she was sold the company. They decide to search the premises, particularly a back room that the detective could not enter when snooping around the place. Mary and the man break into the place at night and Mary bullies the small man, who is scared, into entering the room at the end of a long dark hallway. The man picks the lock and enters. He exits quickly, in a zombie-like state then drops dead apparently with a stab wound to his stomach. Mary runs from the place and takes the subway home. While on the subway, she’s deep in thought and rides the A train all the way through a few times. Back on 14th street, a pair of men drag a third on the train. It first appears that the middle man is drunk. Then his head flops back to reveal that it’s the dead private dick. She changes train cars and gets the ticket-taker to come back to the compartment and help capture the men. Of course, when she returns, the men and the body are gone. Did she dream it?

Mary and Jacqueline search the papers but find no stories on the dead man in the paper. Ward gets Mary a job as a kindergarten teacher. Later in the day, Ward meets with creepy psychiatrist Dr. Judd who admits that she’s keeping Jacqueline for the last few days to keep her out of danger and that he needs money to take care of her. The husband, who doesn’t seem very shocked or outraged that his wife is being kept by the doctor (maybe because Mary and him are loosing interest in the case). He refuses to give him money, but eventually gives him about 45 bucks from his wallet. Dr. Judd, who now possibly realizing that he won’t get more money for her, visits Mary and offers to return Jacqueline to her. They go to the Doctor’s house. Jacqueline isn’t there which prompts the doctor to rush out looking for her. The second he leaves there’s a knock on the door and it’s Jacqueline! Jacqueline looks around and puts her finger to her lips to shush her and shuts the door. Mary opens it and she’s gone. Apparently she spotted the detectives hiding in the doctor’s quarters.

Later at the restaurant, Mary and Gregory have lunch where they’re introduced to a failed poet. The old woman running the place decides that the man may help in cheering up young Mary. She brings him to the table just as Gregory admits that he wants to find his wife to settle things. What things? We don’t find out because that’s when the poet decides to sit with them. Gregory looks at Jason like a jealous woman. The poet, Jason, knows of Jacqueline and decides to help them find her.

They go to a party and meet up with Dr. Judd. The poet confronts the doctor pleading with him to please tell them where she is. A woman at the party, who admits to being "intimate" with Jacqueline at one time, states that one Jacqueline met up with Judd she was "taken out of circulation". This induces some hard glances from Gregory Ward.

Poet Jason goes to the library to see what books Mrs. Reddi and Dr. Judd have been checking out. Turns out they have both checked out books on the occult. Jason finds a figure that ends up being a satanic symbol in one of the books. He tells Mary, who seems even more disinterested in the case. Jason talks her into going back to the beauty company to ask questions. The symbol is also the new logo for the beauty company. (Would a secret devil-worshipping society print their logo on merchandise for a beauty salon?) Mrs. Reddi is furious when she finds out that hairstylist Frances Fallon (Isabel Jewell) talked. “You fool! That symbol is about us! She was asking about us!”

The next scene I have no doubt influenced Psycho. Mary takes a shower in her room and a woman enters. Can you be more vulnerable than being naked in the shower? Mrs. Redi, seen only as a shadow on the shower curtain, warns Mary to leave town and that her sister is a murder -she apparently was the one who stabbed the private detective earlier. The shadow cast on the shower curtain shows the woman wearing a hat to appear to have horns, a clear reference to the devil.

The next scene is a very civilized devil worship meeting. It reminds me of the devil-worshiping group from Rosemary’s Baby. The meeting reveals that Mrs. Redi, some of the earlier party goers, and Frances are all part of the group. They state that they are non-violent but something must be done about Jacqueline. They decide to kidnap her and have her kill herself. According to the group's history, there have been six betrayals and six deaths as punishment. Alas, she will be the seventh victim. They consider her going to a psychiatrist as the betrayal.

Mary, meanwhile, begins packing her bags. She visits Jason in his one room apartment (with an amazing view. The room today would go for a fortune in NYC). Mary tells Jason that she's leaving. Jason calls Gregory and it’s decided that Jacqueline must be found, if only so she can give herself up to the police (again, this husband and Mary really doesn’t seem to care about Jacqueline at all.)

Judd decides to give up Jacqueline’s location this time because he's told about her being a murderess. Jacqueline, apparently in shock, tells them about her ordeal with the satanic group. She joined the group only for a sense of excitement. When she attempted to quit the group they wanted her to kill herself. They locked her up for a long time in the back room of the beauty company. She escaped only after Mary and the private detective broke in and unlocked the door. She admits to killing the man and escaping.

Mary and Gregory leave Jacqueline alone (again, do they really care about this woman?) and Jacqueline disappears again! Mary goes to work and sings a scary song to her kindergarten students: "Here comes a candle to light you to bed… here comes a chopper to chop off your head." I’m sure the kids grew up to be maniacs.

The cult leaders, lead by Ben Bard, sit Jacqueline down and try to talk her into drinking poison. They surround her and pressure her to drink. The daylight outside the room goes dark and she’s still sitting there. Jacqueline decides that this is not her time to die, so they, being non-violent, release her. As she walks through the dark streets alone she is stalked by a man with a switch blade who steps out of the shadows like Harry Lime in The Third Man. She manages to escape him and rushes towards Mary’s apartment. Instead, the woman who has escaped death twice in the evening meets up with neighbor Mimi in the hallway. Here’s the dialog from the scene:

Who are you?

I'm Mimi -- I'm dying.


Yes. It's been quiet, oh ever so
quiet. I hardly move, yet it keeps
coming all the time -—closer and
closer. I rest and rest and yet I
am dying.

And you don't want to die. I've
always wanted to die -- always.

I'm afraid.

Jacqueline shakes her head.

I'm tired of being afraid -— of

Why wait?

(with sudden
I'm not going to wait. I'm going
out -- laugh, dance --do all the
things I used to do.

And then?

I don't know.

(very softly end almost
with envy)
You will die.

(audio of the scene here)

But Mimi has already turned back into her room. Jacqueline stands watching until the light snaps on in Mimi's room and then the door closing, plunges the hall into weird half light again. In this semi-darkness, she turns away from Mary's door and walks down the hall toward room #7. She opens the door and goes in. For a brief moment the light from the hall casts the shadow of a noose against the further wall of the room and then the door closes behind her.

Judd and Jason find the devil worshipers location and find out that Jacqueline has been released. They recite the Lord’s Prayer to them and the members crumble. Apparently this is a concession made by the filmmakers.

In Mary’s apartment where Jacqueline almost just entered, Jason and Mary standing in the dark looking out the window, admit that they love each other not knowing the horrible act about to happen next door.

The last image in the film is outside in the hallway. Sick Mimi walking down the stairs dressed for an evening out while you hear the sound of Jacqueline hanging herself behind the door.

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


Anonymous said...

In general, my wife dislikes films from the 1940's because she thinks they are all the same. Horrible romantic violin-based music plays continuously from start to finish, "Gee, you're swell!" unnatural and forced acting, etc. But that's what makes a Val Lewton film so fun to watch... they're a bit subversive. They're obviously from the 1940's, but vary in interesting ways from the usual Hollywood style. One wonders what audiences of the time must have thought about them. They hold up well to the test of time... intelligent, creative and different. I haven't seen one I haven't liked.

I like Jean Brooks' bangs in this!

Wes Clark

lonshock said...

The scary song Mary sings to her kindergarten students is 'Oranges and Lemons' a English nursery rhyme dating back in some form to the 1600's

Oranges and lemons

Gay go up, and gay go down
To ring the bells of London Town
Bull's eyes and targets
Say the bells of St. Marg'ret's
Brickbats and tiles
Say the bells of St. Giles'
Oranges and lemons
Say the bells of St. Clement's
Pancakes and fritters/(Old shoes and slippers)
Say the bells of St. Peter's
Two sticks and an apple
Say the bells at Whitechapel
Old Father Baldpate
Say the slow bells at Aldgate
Maids in white aprons
Say the bells at St Catherine's
Pokers and tongs
Say the bells of St. John's
Kettles and pans
Say the bells of St. Anne's
Halfpence and farthings
Say the bells of St. Martin's
When will you pay me?
Say the bells at Old Bailey
When I grow rich
Say the bells at Shoreditch
Pray, when will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney
I do not know
Says the great bell at Bow
Here comes a candle to light you to bed
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head