20 October 2012

HORROR BY LEWTON: THE ANTIPOPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE

Convention tells us that The Seventh Victim, the third of four films produced by Val Lewton's B-picture unit at RKO in their peak year of 1943, is a horror film; but even by the standards that Lewton had already established, whereby "horror" gets tweaked in some thoroughly unexpected and unrecognisable way, this one doesn't look the part. Perhaps its single most outright horrific element is that it includes a coven of devil worshipers, a rarity in films of this vintage, but they are not much like any of the Satanists you will typically see in a true occult horror of the Rosemary's Baby model. They are Lewton Satanists, basically: different in ways that serve to make the drama containing them considerably more complex, psychologically shaded, and unusual even after the span of 70 years, and I regard this as an absolute good.

In addition to be the least overtly horrific of Lewton's films to that point, it is the point at which we can no longer talk about a "Lewton film" and actually mean "a Jacques Tourneur film produced by Lewton", for after The Leopard Man earlier in the same summer, Tourneur and Lewton never worked together again. Instead, this was the directorial debut of Mark Robson, the editor of all three of the Lewton/Tourneur pictures, as well as the crypto-Orson Welles film Journey Into Fear, whose later career was interesting directly in relationship to how meager his resources were: by 1957 he'd be making prestigious dross like Peyton Place, but with the scarcity and discipline enforced by making B-movies - and B-movies under a famously controlling auteur of a producer - left his early films rather considerably snugger and more intelligently controlled than his later work.

Even then, The Seventh Victim is the best of his four horror films under Lewton (their third collaboration overall, Youth Runs Wild was a juvenile delinquency picture, unseen by me) - it is, indeed, one of Lewton's best productions of all, right up with the first two, Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, and in my most expansive moods, I would perhaps rank it above the latter of those. For one thing, it is possibly the most complex of all the stories told by the Lewton unit, with the script by first-timer Charles O'Neal - substantially altering a first draft by Cat People's DeWitt Bodeen that used the same set-up for a completely different story altogether - slotting a truly impressive number of twists and wrinkles into a 71-minute span, without sacrificing the depth of character that underpins all of Lewton's best projects. It is a full-on mystery, but one so rooted in the natural progression of its characters and its plot that there's never any feeling that the filmmakers are stalling or pushing the answers back arbitrarily to extend the tension. As much as any thriller of the WWII era, and that was by no means a shabby time for thrillers, The Seventh Victim sweeps from beginning to end in a single clean, unhurried but unflagging, rush of narrative.

Our protagonist for the evening is one Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter, in a colossally self-assured debut), who has just been gently but unmistakably turned out of her posh private school upon learning that her rich sister Jacqueline (Jean Brooks, when we eventually see her) hasn't been paying the bills for several months. In fact, Jacqueline hasn't been communicating with Mary or the school at all for that time, and Mary decides that she needs to go out into the world and find out what the hell is going on. And so she makes the trek to the wilds of New York City, running into the first of many dead end: Jacqueline sold her thriving cosmetics company to her partner, Esther Redi (Mary Newton). But an employee at that company, Frances Fallon (Isabel Jewell), claims to have seen Jacqueline the week prior at a local restaurant; there, Mary finds that the proprietors have rented to the missing woman an upstairs room, empty but for an empty hangman's noose and a chair perched right underneath it.

This disquieting discovery is the but the start to a chain of events that eventually leads Mary to find Jacqueline's heretofore unheard-of boyfriend, Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont) - who'll turn out, even more unexpectedly, to be Jacqueline's secret husband) - and her psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway, reprising his Cat People role), both of them just as much in the dark as she is. Better still, she meets Jacqueline's neighbor, Jason Hoag (Erford Gage), who brings us to the peculiar social group that Jacqueline was meeting with in the months prior to her disappearance: a group of Greenwich Village professionals, many of whom we've met already, dedicated to the worship of Satan. Turns out that Jacqueline, who we only now find out is alive and reasonably well, hiding from her former co-religionists who live by the rule that no-one can leave their fold alive, as Jacqueline now wishes to do; she must die for her lack of faith, and would be only the seventh person in the history of the cult to suffer this penalty. Which is an awfully fuzzy justification for calling the film The Seventh Victim, but that's what happens when a script is written to order for a preassigned title.

Without ever dropping into a sequence that one could point to and say without hesitation, "oh, sure, that's completely horror, no doubt about it", The Seventh Victim is nevertheless a masterpiece of mounting dread, punctuated by shocking moments: the discovery of Jacqueline's suicide room (we catch a glimpse of the noose through the door frame before Mary herself sees it, in a dramatic POV shot; a subtlety that is one of the best things that I am aware of in Robson's career); the first moment that Mary understands the nature of the people she's hunting when, in an empty but well-lit subway train, she spots two men in suits manhandling the corpse of a detective (Lou Lubin) she had been working with; and a jaw-dropping, perfect moment of psychological terror as the Satanists - whose credo has an absolute proscription against doing harm to a human being - attempt to browbeat, cajole, or otherwise induce Jacqueline to willingly drink a glass of poison, in a room saturated with suffocating black shadows.

Without ever up and telling us, "this is where the horror is, now" - something done even by the magnificent Cat People - The Seventh Victim builds up an impressive amount of tension, just from skillfully manipulating how much the characters (and thus, the audience) are allowed to know at any given moment, while progressively darkening the movie as it goes, starting off in well-lit interiors and daylight, and ending in thick, impenetrably dark nighttime alleys (the film was shot by Nicholas Musuraca, whose chiaroscuro lighting was such an important part of what made Cat People a masterpiece). Despite keeping closer to naturalism than any previous Lewton film - likely the result of swapping Tourneur, whose subsequent films all have an element of the visually fanciful, with Robson, whose films certainly do not - and tying in rather obviously with the concurrent rise of film noir which was just then in its infancy, The Seventh Victim eschews the nihilistic urban realism of noir, ramping up tension by becoming increasingly unpredictable and uncanny. And for this reason, maybe, it still qualifies as a horror film, despite the absence of any obvious horror signifiers - it is, on a narrative level, about being blindsided by the inexplicable and murderous in the most incongruous places: corpses on the subway, Satanists in Greenwich Village. It's disorienting enough that even the more overt nods towards genre - like the whispery dying woman met on an apartment star, played by Lewton cameo stalwart Elizabeth Russell, or the Cat People-esque sequence of Jacqueline being chased by an unseen assassin down the city streets - aren't nearly as unsettling as the mechanics of the film simply moving through its weird plot. And so, without ever saying it's what they're doing, Lewton and Robon et al make the best and hardest kind of horror: the kind revealing that there is no safety even in the prosaic, and that pedestrian, human-sized evil can bubble up anywhere. It's far better, and far more genuinely upsetting, than the more theatrical, paranormal kind of Satanist movie could ever imagine.

Reviews in this series
Cat People (Tourneur, 1942)
I Walked with a Zombie (Tourneur, 1943)
The Leopard Man (Tourneur, 1943)
The Seventh Victim (Robson, 1943)
The Ghost Ship (Robson, 1943)
The Curse of the Cat People (von Fritsch/Wise, 1944)
The Body Snatcher (Wise, 1945)
Isle of the Dead (Robson, 1945)
Bedlam (Robson, 1946)

1 comment:

Troy Olson said...

My opinion on the order of his top three films changes depending on the day it is, but without a doubt they are all masterpieces. I probably come back to THE SEVENTH VICTIM, though, as the one I rewatch the most. How a film that contains some the themes it does and ends on such a down note was made in the repressive film world of the 40's always fascinates me.

I consider Lewton to be responsible for 3 of the best 20 horror movies of all time (this plus CAT PEOPLE and ZOMBIE), two others that I'd consider a top 100 choice (CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE and THE LEOPARD MAN) and pretty much is responsible for the ONLY good horror movies throughout an entire decade (the 40's). That this all seemed to occur in the conditions it did is simply amazing to me.

Which is all to say I'm loving this retrospective. If you haven't had a chance, be sure to catch the Lewton documentary that TCM plays from time to time around Halloween, as it's a pretty good look at the man.