Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Seventh Victim

Val Lewton produced a number of films in rapid succession during World War Two, which was no small feat. Even more remarkable is the quality of these pictures. Plenty of Poverty Row producers could churn out programmers at a steady clip, but Lewton was one of the rare few producers who could do so and still have the results be well-crafted and artistic. The Seventh Victim is, for me, one of his most memorable. I tend to say that about all of Lewton's films, but really, this one may be his most unique.

Seventeen-year-old Mary learns that the tuition hasn't been paid by her sister for her boarding school, and rather than accept an offer to work off further tuition, she resolves to go to New York to find her elusive sibling. She soon finds herself immersed in a more sinister mystery than she could have imagined.

Mary's sister, Jacqueline, has sold off her cosmetics manufacturing business and disappeared. Mary's search for her sister quickly descends into a shadowy world, literally and figuratively. A private detective decides to help her, but he finds that he's bitten off more than he can chew. Mary finds further assistance from her sister's psychiatrist, her fiance, and a poet, all in New York's Greenwich Village. Ultimately, Mary finds her sister, loses her, then finds her again, and learns that Jacqueline has run afoul of an evil cult. The resolution of this conflict will lead to one of the most downbeat endings in a mainstream Hollywood production of the 1940s.

This movie's ending is one that initially startled me. That's it? I asked myself after my first viewing of it. Did I miss something? It just didn't end like a '40s movie usually did. It's a bleak worldview, but memorable. It's the culmination of a strangely-woven plot, full of symbolism. Lewton's stamp is clearly here, with understated acting, a quiet atmosphere, inky shadows, and characters with dark secrets. The film is short, not much more than an hour, but as with Lewton's other films, it is packed with atmosphere.

The Seventh Victim continues Lewton's string of films that present richly-nuanced characters who seem to have had a life before the film. We viewers dip into their lives for a brief glimpse, with little explained but much shown. We see enough to believe these characters are people with reasons for doing what they do, but mostly we never see what those reasons are. Each character is a cypher, with a backstory we'll never learn but which is clearly present.

I've mentioned the dreamy nature of Lewton's films before. The Seventh Victim is as quietly nightmarish as his other films. Strange symbols, hidden motivations, and death and danger lurking in unexpected corners all combine to infuse the film with an oppressive blanket of inevitability. Perhaps it was the times; World War II was in the throes of its most intense years, the world teetering on the brink of disaster, as this film, and most of Lewton's others, were in production. The world must have seemed to be descending into damnation, not just to Lewton's characters, but to Lewton himself. It must have seemed like an endless nightmare, and this is reflected in films like The Seventh Victim.

1 comment:

  1. Val Lewton is why 'B-movie' should never be used as a pejorative. Small budgets, B-list casts, but beautiful and disturbing genre films that hold up over time.