A young woman travels to New York to find her older sister after she stops paying her tuition fees, and discovers a satanic cult is threatening her sister’s life.
(1943 RKO. A Val Lewton production directed by Mark Robson 71 mins)
Cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca
Story and Screenplay by DeWitt Bodeen and Charles O’Neal
Art Direction by Albert S. D’Agostino and Walter E. Keller
Original Music by Roy Webb
After Cat People (1942), I Walked With a Zombie (1943), and Leopard Man (1943), the head of the low-budget horror production unit at RKO, Val Lewton, could not afford the services of Jacques Tourneur, who had been promoted by RKO to a-production, and he gave Mark Robson, who had edited those earlier movies, hist first directing job with The Seventh Victim, a simply stunning film that out-classes Lewton’s earlier productions.
I cannot express the power of this movie better than Chris Auty from London’s Time Out Film Guide:
What other movie opens with Satanism in Greenwich Village, twists into urban paranoia, and climaxes with a suicide? Val Lewton, Russian emigré workaholic, fantasist, was one of the mavericks of Forties’ Hollywood, a man who produced (never directed) a group of intelligent and offbeat chillers for next-to-nothing at RKO. All bear his personal stamp: dime-store cinema transformed by ‘literary’ scripts, ingenious design, shadowy visuals, brooding melancholy, and a tight rein over the direction. The Seventh Victim is his masterpiece, a brooding melodrama built around a group of Satanists. The bizarre plot involves an orphan (Hunter) searching for her death-crazy sister (Brooks), but also carries a strong lesbian theme, and survives some uneven cameos; the whole thing is held together by a remarkably effective mix of menace and metaphysics – half noir, half Gothic.
The opening frame of the film, a close-up of a stained-glass window in a gothic school building, establishes the mood of foreboding:
Knowledge of three further lines in Donne’s sonnet enrich our experience of this film:
I run to death, and death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday;
I dare not move my dim eyes any way,
Despair behind, and death before doth cast
Such terror, and my feebled flesh doth waste
“Despair behind, and death before doth cast”: the specter of existential terror haunts this film, where it is the angst of an empty existence that terrorises – not the super-natural. The noir motif of inescapable doom is developed as strongly if not more so than any other Hollywood film of the period.
Jacqueline Gould, a stunning dark beauty is not comfortable with existence: “I’ve always wanted to die – always.” Life nauseates her and in her desperation joins a Satanic cult, and when she re-cants and seeks to abandon the group, she is marked for death. But she wants death on her terms, not theirs. She is the classic existential protagonist:
I can’t say I feel relieved or satisfied; just the opposite, I am crushed. Only my goal is reached: I know what I wanted to know; I have understood all that has happened to me… The Nausea has not left me and I don’t believe it will leave me so soon; but I no longer have to bear it, it is no longer an illness or a passing fit: it is I. – Jean Paul Sartre, Nausea (1938).
After a brilliantly filmed chase through dark city streets, Jacqueline escapes an assassin from the cult, and reaches the tenement building where she is staying with her sister. She trudges wearily up to to the fist landing, then meets Mimi, an ill young woman, who lives in an apartment next to an empty apartment that Jacqueline has rented but never lived in, in which resides a terrible secret. The scene is strongly evoked by the very literate script:
Jacqueline, still running, comes into the scene and goes up the steps. She opens the front door and lets herself in.
INT. UPPER STAIRS – HALLWAY – NIGHT
The gas light has been turned down so that there is only a tiny flame to illuminate the hall. The draft in the hallway stirs this little flame and the shadows move with it. Jacqueline comes up the stairs. Now that she can be seen more closely, it can be seen also that she is exhausted, her eyes wild, her hair in disorder. She almost staggers as she reaches the landing and goes slowly supporting herself on the banisters, toward Mary’s door. Her way brings her past Room #7, the room with the noose. For a moment she stands weakly staring at the door, then goes on. She has reached Mary’s room, has crossed the narrow hallway and her hand is almost on the knob when Mimi’s door opens and Mimi, white night-gowned, comes out into the eerie gas light. Jacqueline looks at her face which is distorted and horrible in the moving shadows and flickering light. She stifles a scream. The other girl is also frightened. The two stand staring at each other for a moment.
JACQUELINE: (weakly) Who are you?
MIMI: I’m Mimi — I’m dying.
MIMI: 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.
JACQUELINE: And you don’t want to die. I’ve always wanted to die – always.
MIMI: I’m afraid.
Jacqueline shakes her head.
MIMI (CONT’D): I’m tired of being afraid – of waiting.
JACQUELINE: Why wait?
MIMI: (with sudden determination) I’m not going to wait. I’m going out – laugh, dance – do all the things I used to do.
JACQUELINE: And then?
MIMI: I don’t know.
JACQUELINE: (very softly end almost with envy) You will die.
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.
This slide-show attests to the cinematic mastery of a film that displays the brilliant gestalt achieved by a team of talented film-makers: