The Seventh Victim (1943)

Infused with confused lesbian undertones, The Seventh Victim (1943) is a fascinating horror film, which sits as neatly in the film noir style as it does in the canon of early horror thrillers.

It is true to say that of all the common genres of film we know as standard, horror was not a large field in the 1940s. Much of what we now appreciate as horror did however set its roots in film noir. The psychopath is a character straight out of film noir  or at least he made his first major appearances there. 

The dark settings however, with fog, basements, gothic buildings and terrorised women  are similarly found in the 1940s in the film noir style. 

While The Seventh Victim may be a psychological chiller and mystery movie, it does contain horror elements which directly precede many classic tropes, such as the urban coven  for which of course see Rosemary's Baby (1968).

Female seeker hero in The Seventh Victim (1943)

In the world portrayed by the cinema in 1943, there many not have been the variety of horror genres we now enjoy, but there was a fast flowing and dark stream of film noir. Within this stream flowed currents of  psychology and mystery, with double identity and the search for missing relatives, friends and spouses being a common plot and theme.  

Although The Seventh Victim is not explicitly what used to be called 'a woman's picture', its characters and stories are female. The first and most obvious element is that all of the characters displayed in the first ten minutes of the film  are all women. This is probably unique.

There are two further female film noir tropes that are touched upon here  being the wifelet seeker hero  and the paranoid woman.

In the case of the first of these, The Seventh Victim does boast a female seeker hero as its central character ― she is however searching for her sister and not for her husband, as is more normally the case in film noir. In the case of the second of these, it is probably not entirely fair to describe Mary Gibson (played by Kim Hunter) ― as a paranoid woman.

There is certainly paranoia in The Seventh Victim, and it is most chillingly and brilliantly expressed in a  conversation that takes place between the hero and her nemesis, through the medium of a shower curtain. 

There is however no paranoia in the sense that Mary, when looking for her sister, is being driven mad by wicked forces, obliging her to question her sanity. She does remain sane however, considering the evil forces she uncovers, and she does force bravely on to the end of the mystery, more of an agent in the unfolding, rather than a victim of the controlling circumstances that she faces.

This was Kim Hunter's first film role, although her career was long and super illustrious. Consider that this modest actor went on to play the chimpanzee Zira in Planet of the Apes (1968), and its sequels Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) and Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971).

She was also blacklisted by HUAC in the 1950s, on suspicion of suffering from the fatal virus known as 'communism'.  She had a major early starring role in the 1946 British film A Matter of Life and Death. In 1947; she was Stella Kowalski on stage in the original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire; and recreating that role in the 1951 film version, she won both the Academy and Golden Globe awards for Best Supporting Actress.

In the interim, in 1948, Kim Hunter had already joined with Streetcar co-stars Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, and 47 others, to become one of the first members accepted by the newly created Actors Studio; and in 1952, Hunter became Humphrey Bogart's leading lady in Deadline USA.

It's not Kim Hunter that draws the attention in The Seventh Victim, but her sister Jaqueline played by Jean Brooks. The Seventh Victim's undertones, which may be variously described by euphemists as 'confusing' or 'bizarre' are unusually lesbian, and much of the framing of the character of Jaqueline, even down to her hair, which is far too high-modern a look for 1943, suggest this.

It is not hard to see how cuts from the finished picture ― there are four entire scenes missing ― lead to a rather confusing set of conclusions.

Most controversially of all The Seventh Victim resolves with the suicide of Jean Brook's character, which was of course entirely contrary to the spirit if not the letter of the Production Code.

Film historian Steve Haberman, in his audio commentary for the 2005 Warner Bros. DVD release of the film, suggested that Jacqueline acts as the film's philosophical centre, noting her existentialist views:

"Her life is the very nightmare version of life that Val Lewton portrays in many of his movies: a meaningless existence, trying to find meaning, always failing and in the end seeking a sort of peace through death."

Film scholar J.P. Telotte stated something similar, saying:

"The Seventh Victim explores certain ineffable fears that always haunt the human psyche, especially a fear of meaninglessness or the irrational which can make death seem almost a welcome release from life."
Jean Brooks in The Seventh Victim (1943)

Whether this psychological analysis hits the mark or not, is rather moot, simply because something needs to be said. There are so many unusual facets to The Seventh Victim, that some kind of comment is called for, and it is almost certain that much of this is going to revolve around homoerotic suggestions. 

The persistent reminder of Jaqueline's suicidal state is fascinating because it is so unusual, and candidly expressed. The coven of Satanists are purely wicked, and as in Rosemary's Baby, a lot of this sinister attitude is suggested through their surface normality. Although Satanism was a slowly growing concern, films about cults and films about depression were not common fare in the 1940s. 

The same can be said of LGBT-related horror films, which like other LGBT-related films and books of the time relied on codes, some of the time, and suggestions for the reminder. 

The magnitude of what follows in cinema history is huge; it is for example not possible to watch The Seventh Victim without recalling Psycho (1960), simply because it is hard to think of any other chillers which include a scene within a shower. 

There is a great quote attributed to TV Guide on the Wikipedia page for The Seventh Victim, which states:

"While very little in the way of horrific action takes place in The Seventh Victim, the film has a haunting, lyrical, overwhelming sense of melancholy and despair to it—death is looked upon as a sweet release from the oppression of a cold, meaningless existence."

The nihilism is evident in the mood, as Kim Hunter's character searches for her sister gradually and with extreme modernity, turns into a search for meaning. The wisest cinema critics in history have had a go at locating in particular, the homo-erotic aspects of the movie, which are more real than they are camp. There is a world of danger between The Seventh Victim and, for example, Desert Fury.

Reading Harry M. Benshoff, for example, in Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film (1997), we find that the film's anchoring of its Palladist (Satanist) characters in Greenwich Village — a neighborhood with a history of gay and lesbian residents — is a certain sign that the sexuality suggested is a real undercurrent. In his assessment, Benshoff writes:

"The Seventh Victim invokes the analogy in ways more sympathetic to homosexuality. While it could have easily fallen into the trap of using gay and lesbian signifiers to characterize its villains (i.e. homosexual = Satanist, as did Universal's The Black Cat in 1934), the film is much more complex than that."
Shock discovery in Greenwich Village! Kim Hunter in The Seventh Victim (1943)

Where The Seventh Victim succeeds, is in the weirdness of its chills. For example, the scenes on the subway train are terrific, and mysterious; two elite looking gentlemen shifting a dead body in the night; as are many of the moments when we open doors to find characters have vanished; dark corridors and of course, one of the medium's favourite structures — the quest which leads the character from the world of the mundane, into an underworld of sorts, where they must not just survive, but understand the rules.

This underworld is a confused one, and whether it fails or not it is hard to say, because of the many conflicting tones. Tom Conway is strong, but again The Seventh Victim seems to be about the women, and his role is essential but his performance not that memorable. He can be found in two other significant 1940s horror films —  Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie.

Val Lewton must take a lot of credit, as he seems to have made significantly interesting and important horror films from very little, at this time. Lewton's first production for RKO was Cat People, released in 1942. The film was directed by Jacques Tourneur, who then also directed I Walked With a Zombie and The Leopard Man for Lewton. 

Vacuum Cleaners in film noir The Seventh Victim (1943)

Made for US$134,000, Cat People went on to earn nearly US$4 million and was the top money-maker for RKO that year. This success enabled Lewton to make his next films with relatively little studio interference, allowing him to fulfil his vision, focusing on ominous suggestion and themes of existential ambivalence.

Lewton always wrote the final draft of the screenplays for his films, but avoided on-screen co-writing credits except in two cases, The Body Snatcher and Bedlam, for which he used the pseudonym "Carlos Keith," which he had previously used for the novels 4 Wives, A Laughing Woman, This Fool, Passion, and Where the Cobra Sings. 

Prototype Psycho 'shower scene' in The Seventh Victim (1943)

After RKO promoted Tourneur to A-films, Lewton gave first directing opportunities to Robert Wise and the director of The Seventh Victim, Mark Robson.

Lewton's RKO list runs as follows:

  • Cat People (1942)
  • I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
  • The Leopard Man (1943)
  • The Seventh Victim (1943)
  • The Ghost Ship (1943)
  • The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
  • Mademoiselle Fifi (1944)
  • Youth Runs Wild (1944)
  • The Body Snatcher (1945)
  • Isle of the Dead (1945)
  • Bedlam (1946)

Of the actors in The Seventh Victim, Jean Brooks stands out. Her unique look and wig, as well as her haunting and somnambulist presence suggests that she is leader of the occult movement rather than a victim of it, which contributes to a general feeling of oddness. And all of her scenes are memorable and unworldly. 

Contemplation of eternity in The Seventh Victim (1947)

Although she makes a late appearance in The Seventh Victim, Jean Brooks is totally impressive in her five scenes, most especially her monologue describing how she came to join the Palladists and her dark and shadowy flight as she is pursued by the assassin with the switchblade.

For an era that was feeling its way forward through film, these and other works by Val Lewton have so many fascinating aspects; they are progressive and subversive, and possibly best of all, exist in a genre that was only partially formed.

Only in film noir - assault in the dark - Jean Brooks in
The Seventh Victim (1943)

Val Lewton's films were horror without the camp, or without the mobs of villagers and the faux gothic that came with the great Universal horrors of the previous years. Val Lewton's horror films may in fact have been the first horror films which were actually scary; as we experience in The Seventh Victim in the darkened corridors of the scent factory after dark, where the pausing and waiting and the camera angles, and the subtle movements of the actors, and the silences combine to form a real fear of the dark, which grips the audience and makes for real fright.

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