Monday, August 14, 2006
Vacationing at my parents' a couple of summers ago, I stumbled upon the last few minutes of a very strange 1940s movie late one night. I couldn't identify the title, but the film seemed to involve a group of urbane devil-worshippers and a mysterious woman in perfectly even black bangs. Reading about producer Val Lewton (of Cat People fame) recently, I realized the odd movie I'd caught was called The Seventh Victim (1943) and Lewton, rather than director Mark Robson, was considered its author. (You can read the screenplays of Lewton's major movies here.) Finally watching the movie in its entirety over the weekend revealed it to be a melancholy, chiaroscuro tone poem—tellingly, it opens with an epigraph from a John Donne sonnet: "I runne to death and death meets me as fast, and all my pleasures are like yesterday."
Kim Hunter, in her screen debut, plays Mary, a young woman who leaves her boarding school (and its lesbianish headmistress) to look for her vanished sister, Jacqueline (Jean Brooks, she of the bangs and once married to director Richard Brooks). If she lived now, Jacqueline would be labeled a depressive and put on Zoloft. But we're in 1943 and her fascination with death (she often retires to a room empty except for a chair and a hangman's noose) leads her to join the Palladists, a sect of devil-worshippers so well-heeled, you expect them to hold their coven meetings at the Algonquin. But we only discover this progressively, mostly through clues left by the men who gravitate around the yin-yang sisterly planets: a ratty, doomed private detective; Jacqueline's husband (who explains to Mary that her sister "had a feeling about life—that it wasn't worth living unless one could end it"); a failed, inquiring poet; and a psychiatrist whose unctuous charm is both charming and menacing. The movie weaves a very odd spell, stumbling from one scene to another, its narrative driven not by logic but by a phantasmagorical aesthetic.
This is typical of Lewton, who usually turned his lack of budget into an advantage, replacing A-list stars and grand sets or effects with idiosyncratic performers directed to underact (Kim Hunter looks as if she's sleepwalking throughout, as if she had stepped into a dream in order to find her lost sister) and dramatic lighting and camera angles. In this respect, The Seventh Victim is exemplary, a catalogue of a man's obsessions.