(1943) dir. Mark Robson
Rounding out my final film of my Val Lewton RKO horror series, I have to say that The Seventh Victimis probably the best and most interesting of the films directed by Mark Robson for Lewton. It’s definitely the weirdest when it comes right down to it, and for the films of Val Lewton, that is saying something.
Personally, I think that Lewton achieved his greatest successes with Jacques Tourneur (Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Leopard Man (1943)), the first two of which are among the best horror films of any era and any level of production values. But with Robson, who wasn’t lacking in talent having begun as a film editor at RKO on Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) with Orson Welles, the works don’t seem to jell in quite the same ultimate fashion. But The Seventh Victim comes as close as he gets, with a great deal of fascinating content, subtexts, great scenes, and even devil worship!
While there are elements of film noirin all of these Lewton films, The Seventh Victim, which features no real supernatural element, in many ways plays more film noirthan horror. Many afficianados note that Lewton’s horror films were all more psychological than pure traditionalist horror, but really in each of them, the element or “question” of the supernatural infuses itself within the narratives. Is something magical happening? Or is it all explainable?
The Seventh Victimhas a highly convoluted plot, about a girl who has lived her life at a private school, coming of age and having to go to New York to find her older sister and benefactor when she suddenly falls off the face of the Earth. But her sister, who had run a cosmetics company, didn’t simply disappear in any simple way. And everyone that she meets, from her sister’s husband, to her sister’s doctor, to her sister’s best friends, all are hiding elements of the story. Everyone seems to have something to hide, something sinister in their nature or being. And oddly enough, for many of them, that is a form of benign-ish devil worship.
The devil worshipers are oddly pacifists, who are only forced into murder when one of their own seems to be ratting them out. They are certainly predecessors of the devilish folk of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), though much more banal and less clear.
The film also has another prescient moment, a shower scene, undoubtably influential on the classic shower scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s notorious Psycho (1960), and in some ways, even all the more shocking because of it. The scene is nowhere as violent or analyzed, but is extremely effective, filled with fears of vulnerability, mystery, and threat. And it carries with it the film’s themes of lesbianism (though not a very enlightened theme of lesbianism, rather one tied to domination and otherness.)
However, the film’s most shocking and striking characteristic is its end. The film ends on an incredibly pessimistic note, with a great sensibility of doom, the inevitability of death, and is notable in that Lewton apparently, when told that his film was not supposed to have “a message”, said that the film did indeed have a message and that it was that “death is good”. I don’t know that death is necessarily good in this film, but rather that it is something inescapable and perhaps better than living in certain circumstances.
I felt that the film had a little too much happening, really, to make it as poetic or ideal as Cat People or I Walked with a Zombie, but it has a number of extremely striking scenes (on the subway where a body is being dumped, or the classic Lewton “walk” scenes, in which a character walks through a darkened alley-like space, hunted by unseen forces, but tied very much to the real, urban world). And it has that pervasive power of weirdness, of gloom, and of ultimate pessimism and death that is just so damn striking.
Lewton’s reputation is well-earned. His films are all worth seeing, and really they are worth seeing together, to sense the themes and continuity, contrasts and ideas. I already feel like revisiting the ones that I’d seen a couple of years back before this recent dive into his oeuvre. And I do still have the Martin Scorsese-directed documentary to watch. And who knows, maybe a couple of his other films will become available too.