Starring Kim Hunter, Jean Brooks, Erford Gage, and Tom Conway
My rating: ★★★ stars
Subtle thriller about a satanic cult and the ultimate meaninglessness of life.
The Seventh Victim is a quiet little thriller about a naïf who leaves boarding school to search New York for her sister, a prominent business woman who has vanished. When Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter) arrives in the city, she discovers that she knows little about her sister, Jacqueline (Jean Brooks), who has become involved with a satanic cult.
This film is one of producer Val Lewton’s famous horror films that he made at RKO and the first one without director/collaborator Jacques Tourneur. In the case of Lewton’s horror films, the producer, not the director, is the auteur. The director is Mark Robson (making his directorial debut), who would go on to direct some nice melodramas in the 1950s, but this film plays more like other films of Lewton’s rather than Robson’s. The film shares many qualities of Lewton’s other films, including cast members, the inclusion of literary references, the intellectual musing, and the subtlety and suggestion employed in the treatment of violence.
The film is subtle. It lacks big scares that viewers may expect from horror films. It avoids the supernatural. Even the satanic cult is subdued. Instead of orgies and rituals of human sacrifice, the cult has cocktail and tea parties. Those expecting anything outlandish will be disappointed.
Instead, the film creates its horror through the building of the feeling of dread, instead of fear. The horror comes not from fear of monsters, death, or the unknown. It comes from the growing realization that life has no meaning. The utter nihilism and hopelessness that characterize the film makes it heavy going but unique among films of its time. In this tone, it anticipates the post-war films noir.
Ultimately, the film doesn’t have the courage of its convictions. The script has two characters lecture the Satanists (and the audience) about the meaning of life found in Christianity, in some ways two of the least likely characters to do so—a failed poet and a cynical psychiatrist. Giving the speech to Mary and to Jacqueline’s husband, Greg (Hugh Beaumont, best known as Ward Cleaver from Leave It to Beaver), would have made more sense, as they’re the most conventional characters in the film. Choosing the bohemian poet and the intellectual doctor makes the Christian worldview seem more pervasive, however.
The Seventh Victim, like Lewton’s other films, demands careful attention from its viewers in order for them to appreciate the film fully. The sets are richly designed, particularly the garret apartment of Jason Hoag (Erford Gage), the poet. Hints of lesbianism permeate the film. The script also is loaded with explicit and implied literary references, to John Donne, Jane Eyre, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, among others.
Gage, who would be killed two years later serving in WW2, stands out as the poet, who understands that he’s fallen into the realms of the pathetic but maintains an ironically happy demeanor to protect himself from the pain.
Tom Conway plays the psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Judd, the same character he portrayed the previous year in Cat People. Judd dies in Cat People, so, either this film is a prequel, or, more likely, the filmmakers decided simply to ignore the character’s death and “resurrect” him for this film to act as the voice of cynical intellectualism. Conway’s performance calls to mind his more famous brother, George Sanders, but Conway adds more gravitas and less bitterness than were typical of Sanders.
Kim Hunter, in her film debut, brings little to her underwritten character. She’s as understated as she would be in her Oscar-winning role as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire. The character of Mary, however, is not an easy one. She’s smart but not clever. She’s quiet. The script doesn’t give her the opportunity to save anyone, to voice a worldview, or even to be in grave peril.
The more distressed heroine, Jacqueline, is played by Jean Brooks, whose black wig makes for striking visuals but rather overshadows her. It’s Jacqueline’s depression and her search for meaning that defines the film, that generates the action of the film, and yet she remains inscrutable, almost like a deliberate cipher representing the sexist idea of “the mystery of woman.”
The most interesting female character is a dying woman, Mimi, played by the uncredited Elizabeth Russell. She’s briefly glimpsed in the middle of the movie but is given a key scene with Jacqueline at the end. The final shot of the film is of her. At the end of the film, I really wanted to know more about her story.
The care put into the making of this film and the film’s thematic depth distinguish it from the mass of B-movies of its time. Its bleak worldview runs counter to the majority of films made during WW2, which tended to promote hope to audiences who had been buffeted by the horrors of global depression and world war. It can be enjoyed for its unusualness, even at the moments where it descends into ponderousness. The detail and depth of the film reward the audience throughout.