Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Seventh Victim

The first of producer Val Lewton's films without director Jacques Tourneur at the helm essentially proves, as though there was any real doubt, that Lewton is the primary auteur of the string of Gothic horror B-movies he presided over. The Seventh Victim, despite the addition of director Mark Robson on his first Lewton project, picks up without interruption the shadowy atmosphere, tragic romanticism, and literary sensibility of the three Lewton/Tourneur masterworks that preceded it. It is a strange, unsettling film, not so much for its story as for the odd melange of tones and themes that it balances, sometimes awkwardly but always intriguingly. It is sometimes a noir-tinged mystery, complete with a smart-mouthed fedora-wearing detective, sometimes a creepy thriller about an underground cult of Satanists, sometimes a philosophical and poetic inquiry into the nature of creativity and the desire for life. The film's main thrust focuses on the young, innocent Mary (Kim Hunter), searching for her missing older sister Jacqueline (Jean Brooks). In the course of her quest, Mary falls in with Jacqueline's husband Gregory (Hugh Beaumont), her aloof psychiatrist Dr. Judd (Tom Conway), and the helpful poet Jason (Erford Gage) who falls in love with Mary as he joins the search.

Actually, though, Jacqueline's disappearance winds up being much less mysterious than it originally appeared; at times it seems like practically everyone who Mary runs into has seen Jacqueline only recently. This girl is both omnipresent and a ghost who haunts the film: she shows up briefly at the film's halfway point, wordlessly raising her fingers to her lips and then running away, before finally reappearing in the film's final act. Brooks is perfect for the role of the missing girl, and she brings a haunting gravity to her every appearance. With her straight bangs and severe black hair framing a delicate face, she's like a child dressing up for Halloween; her aura is both sinister and naïve. Her elusiveness only adds to her mystique. When she first appears to Mary, wide-eyed and unspeaking, she's like a lunatic holdover from the silent movies, her personality inscribed in her face and hairstyle, and in her deliberately exaggerated movements.

If the search for Jacqueline is the film's primary narrative, it is hardly the only subject that the filmmakers concern themselves with. It isn't even correct to say that Lewton and Robson make room for diversions and small asides, so much as they arrange the entire film around the principle of such diversions. There are numerous examples, such as the care that goes into establishing a local Italian restaurant as a central gathering point with several quickly sketched but compelling regulars, or the brief but clearly loving scenes at the school where Mary works, showing the children at play for no narrative purpose other than to create a light contrast to all the darkness. There is also, throughout the film, a running bit of business with a girl (Elizabeth Russell) living next door to Mary, who throughout the film is seen walking through the halls coughing. She seems like an extraneous character, just a bit of color on the sidelines of the plot, until at the end of the film she engages Jacqueline in a conversation, philosophically discussing mortality, illness, and what makes life worth living. It's a strangely moving moment, as surprising as it is beautiful, and the film's final image shows this previously anonymous woman dressing up for a night of fun, having decided to stop simply waiting for death and go out and live, if only for a single night.

In a film that's barely over an hour long, such diversions quickly cease to be simple asides and soon irrevocably alter the film's entire character. The result is a film that often feels awkwardly paced, somehow off-kilter, because its horror/mystery plot keeps getting sidetracked into irrelevant but often interesting material. The film is somewhat unbalanced because it was originally intended to be an A-picture with a bigger budget and a longer running length. When the film was cut, several narrative scenes were hacked out, including presumably all of the material that might've explained the otherwise baffling romance that abruptly develops between Mary and Gregory. But Lewton seems to have made sure that all of the philosophical and non-narrative asides were preserved. This pacing is sometimes disruptive — as when Robson interrupts the climax of Jacqueline's confrontation with the Satanists for a pointless scene between Jason and Dr. Judd, resolving some unexplained business from their pasts — but more often the film's disjunctive storytelling is satisfying in its own peculiar way. It's hard to quibble about the often blunt editing or the uneasy transitions from one narrative beat to the next when the overall effect of the film is so haunting and strange.

As with all of Lewton's films, shadows and expressive camera angles enhance the eerie quality of the story, even when, as in this film, there is virtually no overt violence, let alone horror. The scene where the Satanists attempt to taunt and cajole Jacqueline into committing suicide is a case in point. The scene is shot with Jacqueline looking lost and small within an oppressively big armchair, with the cult members amassed as a threatening bulk on the other side of a table from her, looming over her. Between them, a wine glass sits on the table, seemingly glowing with significance, filled with poison for Jacqueline to drink. As the night wears on and she still resists taking a drink, the shadows begin to cloak her face, wrapping around her and causing her jet coat and hair to blend into the darkness. Only her pale face continues to float in the black surroundings, along with the glass, reflecting light from some unseen source. It was for moments like this that Lewton staged entire films: beautiful dramas acted out in the dark, moral and philosophical conflicts between the urge to live and the knowledge of the evil and sadness that comes with life. Lewton was asked to deliver nothing more than a lurid slasher flick with an exploitative Satanist subtext, and instead he and Robson crafted a sensitive, potent film about the nature of good and evil, and the struggle to create happiness and light in a world of darkness.

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