Producer Val Lewton revitalized the horror film during his tenure at RKO Studios in the 1940s. Working with a miniscule budget, Lewton used the power of suggestion rather than monsters to create a body of work that’s still influential on filmmakers today. Studio execs came up with the sensationalistic titles (CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) and gave the producer free rein to tell the stories. Using shadows, light, and sound, Lewton’s quiet, intelligent approach to terror was miles ahead of the juvenile (but fun) stuff cranked out at Universal and Monogram.
THE SEVENTH VICTIM could be considered lesser Lewton. It’s not seen as often some of his other classics, and that’s a pity, because it’s superior to many of the better known horror movies of the era. This quiet psychological thriller with its civilized satanic cult was a rarity for its time. Only Edgar G Ulmer’s 1934 THE BLACK CAT dared to tackle this kind of material before. In fact, I’m surprised the Production Code didn’t cut this one to shreds, with its devil worshippers and barely concealed lesbian subplot.
The story finds Mary Gibson going to New York City to search for her missing sister, Jacqueline. She finds out Jacqueline has sold her cosmetics business to Mrs. Redi. Frances, an employee, misses Jacqueline, stating she “was always good to me”. Frances steers Mary to The Dante, a restaurant in Greenwich Village, where Jacqueline was renting a room. Mary shrinks in horror when she finds the room empty save for a chair sitting under a hangman’s noose.
Mary files a missing person’s report. She meets private eye Irving August, a seedy little man who’s interested in taking the case. When she leaves, August is warned off by a mysterious man. Mary then goes to see family lawyer Gregory Ward, and discovers he’s in love with Jacqueline. Meanwhile, August has dug up some dirt on Mrs. Redi, and takes Mary to the cosmetics building where Jacqueline is supposedly holing up. August goes in the room, but comes out and drops dead. He’s been stabbed. Mary grabs a subway ride, when two drunken looking men get in her car dragging their intoxicated buddy along. The buddy’s hat falls off….it’s August! Mary runs to the next car and gets the conductor, but when they return, all three men have somehow vanished. She tells Ward, who finds it all hard to believe.
Psychologist Dr. Lewis Judd comes to Ward’s office the next day. It seems Jacqueline is in his care, and he demands money from Ward. When Ward tells him Jacqueline’s sister is in town, Judd visits Mary and offers to take her to her sister. Jacqueline is not in her room, and Judd leaves Mary there alone. Suddenly, Jacqueline appears, silent as night, putting a finger to her lips. Mary leaves the room to find Judd, and when she goes back there are two men in it (one of them the man who warned August off the case). They’re actually also private detectives hired by Jacqueline’s husband….Ward.
Mary confronts Ward, who tells her he didn’t want to complicate matters anymore than they already were. They’re joined by failed poet Jason Hoag, who offers to help them find Jacqueline. Jason takes the duo to a swanky loft in the Village, where Judd and Mrs. Redi are among the guests. It’s there the truth comes out…Judd is Jacqueline’s lover. Next day, Jason charms a local librarian into letting him see what kind of books Redi and Judd have been reading lately. He discovers Redi has copied a page featuring a parallelogram with a split triangle in the center. It is a symbol of the Palladists, a cult of devil worshippers. Mary sees the symbol on a bottle of Redi’s new fragrance, and Frances tells her it’s their new trademark. Redi confronts Frances, telling her now Mary will know who they really are.
Redi shows up while Mary is in the shower and tells her that Jacqueline killed August. She urges Mary to leave New York and return to her old life. Redi then goes to the loft , where the cultists are deciding Jacqueline’s fate. Mary, Jason, and Ward confront Judd, who leads them to Jacqueline. They convince her to come with them so they can help her. Jacqueline unburdens herself, telling them she got involved with the satanic cult through Redi. She wanted out, and they wanted her to take her own life for her betrayal. Feeling depressed and suicidal, she went to Judd seeking help. Nervous, locked in her room, she heard footsteps approaching her door, and killed August with a pair of scissors. Jacqueline stays with her sister, but while Mary’s at work, the cult sends two men to bring her to them. She’s urged to drink poison for her betrayal of the cult, but a hysterical Frances stops her. Jacqueline is ordered to leave, but the cultist warn “we will find you”. Jacqueline has a terrifying walk home as a Palladist assassin stalks her. Judd and Jason confront the cult, but they say Jacqueline is gone. We then see Jacqueline returning to her old room above the restaurant, the room with the chair and the noose hanging high…
THE SEVENTH VICTIM was way ahead of its time in both style and subject matter. It wasn’t a hit with the critics of the day, but it’s reputation has grown with time. This low-budget film has had an influence on both the horror and noir genres. Echoes of the shower scene are found in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece PSYCHO. The mundane, normal seeming Satanists can be found in ROESMARY’S BABY. Lewton’s films always made good use of sound and vision, and Jacqueline’s eerie walk through the streets of Greenwich Village compares favorably with Jane Randolph’s trek through Central Park in Lewton’s CAT PEOPLE. Much of the credit goes to cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, who’s career dated back to the 1920s. Musuraca worked on five of Lewton’s films, and his dark touch can be found in classics like THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, OUT OF THE PAST, THE HITCH-HIKER, and THE BLUE GARDENIA. Director Mark Robson, like Robert Wise, was promoted from the editing room by Lewton after working on CAT PEOPLE and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. THE SEVENTH VICTIM was Robson’s first in the director’s chair, and after helming BEDLAM and ISLE OF THE DEAD (both starring Boris Karloff) for Lewton he became a major Hollywood director with hits like CHAMPION,HOME OF THE BRAVE, THE HARDER THEY FALL (Bogart’s last movie), PEYTON PLACE, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, and EARTHQUAKE. It all began with this creepy little gem.
THE SEVENTH VICTIM was also the first film for actress Kim Hunter (Mary). She went from here to being a true star of stage and screen, winning an Oscar for her portrayal of Stella in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. Miss Hunter is probably best known today as Zira in the original PLANET OF THE APES and its first two sequels. The rest of the cast is top-notch as well. Tom Conway (Judd) was the lesser known brother of George Sanders, even following in George’s footsteps as The Falcon in a series of ten crime films (beginning with the aptly named THE FALCON’S BROTHER). Isabel Jewell (Frances) gave strong support in many noir classics, including one of my favorites, BORN TO KILL. Hugh Beaumont (Ward) had a lengthy career in movies and TV. He’s best known for playing another Ward, The Beaver’s father on LEAVE IT TO BEAVER. Erford Gage’s (Jason) career was cut short when he was killed in the Philippines during World War Two, just two years after making this film. Other familiar faces include Lou Lubin, Wally Brown (of Brown & Carney fame), Barbara Hale, Dewy Robinson, Elizabeth Russell, and Adia Kuznetzoff, the guy who sings The Festival of the new Wine song in another 1943 horror film, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN.
And then there’s Jean Brooks, who plays Jacqueline Gibson. THE SEVENTH VICTIM revolves around her and her world, and Miss Brooks paints a chilling portrait of a woman desperately searching for meaning in life, only to embrace the cold power of death. She was once married to director Richard Brooks (IN COLD BLOOD), and would’ve gone on to bigger and better things if it weren’t for her alcoholism. Sadly, by 1948 she was gone from Hollywood, and died of cirrhosis and malnutrition in San Francisco in 1963 at age 43. I have a feeling Jean Brooks knew more about the character of Jacqueline than anyone could have suspected.
THE SEVENTH VICTIM is a bold and daring film by 1943 standards. Even today, it holds an audience in its grip, as we search along with Mary to find the truth hidden in the shadows. Definitely worth watching for fans of Lewton, for the cast, and for a powerful performance by the tragic Jean Brooks. And watch out for the shadows…..