Monday, October 30, 2017

Review: The Seventh Victim

The Seventh Victim (1943)
Directed by Mark Robson
Produced by Val Lewton

The premise is standard pulp. A schoolgirl, Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter), searches for her missing sister Jacqueline in New York City. She discovers relationships to a lover, a psychiatrist, and a strange cabal. I won't get too specific here (mild spoiler warning) because I wish to encourage you to view this remarkable film.

The plot leaks out in small pieces; many scenes are almost arbitrary. There is a tour of a perfume factory, an encounter there with an employee from some past friendship. At an Italian restaurant, serving as relief from the otherwise oppressive atmosphere, we meet an admittedly bad poet dining under a mural of Dante. There is a strange weasel of an investigator, who is as scared as the schoolgirl to walk a dark corridor. An atmosphere of the uncanny is conjured from the very incoherence of the narrative, which is forever hinting at peripheral connections.

(In hidden classrooms, children conjugate the verb "to search" in French.)

The psychiatrist is Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway), the same character who appeared in "Cat People" the previous year. He even references the patient he had in that film. But the good doctor (actually a strange man indeed) didn't survive that encounter, so how can he be here talking about it? Unless this is a prequel. In which case, who is he talking about?

Jacqueline (Jean Brooks) keeps herself hidden for most of the film; a McGuffin we expect to be mostly irrelevant to the developing romantic subplots. But this is a double-misdirection; she is the key. When revealed, it's as though a ghost from a silent film has reappeared from our shared cinematic past. Such an alternative film could easily contain the expressionist chase sequence that is The Seventh Victim's concession to pulp narrative. But nothing else is normal at all. A sense of both narrative and stylistic disruption is omnipresent.

All of the major characters are women, and they are strong agents in their own drama. The men are mostly ineffective, from the impotent poet to the useless husband. Despite some noire clich├ęs, the film is feminist. Once scene functions only to demonstrate Mary's self-determination relative to a milquetoast suitor.

This schoolgirl waits patiently, in the same building where her sister keeps an (almost) empty room. There is a strange neighbour, glimpsed only in shadow. When Mimi finally speaks, she introduces further inter-narrative confusion. She is the same actor (Elizabeth Russell) who appeared in "Cat People". And who would again provide her powerful presence to "The Curse of the Cat People" (1944). Given the presence of Dr. Judd, is she supposed to represent one of these woman?

The film begins with this epigraph from John Donne: "I run from death, and death meets me as fast. And all my pleasures are like yesterday." What we don't yet know is that this is not a throw-away literary reference. Instead, the entire narrative is predicated on this theme. The ending is uncompromising, a punch to the gut. Two women, outcasts from normative society, each take control over their own lives. Lives that include death as a necessary predicate. Their actions challenge the definition of "victim", and call the very title of the film into question.

How this got past the censors is beyond me. The Seventh Victim is a profoundly subversive film.


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