It may be unnecessary, but I feel I need to point out the Blank Tile Rules for Hubrisween, which was developed precisely for pesky letters like Q, Y… and X. One can substitute a movie from either of the letters bracketing the misbehaving majuscule, or a movie with a number in its title. Hence, tonight’s offering for X (and tomorrow’s for Y, but that would be telling).
Young Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter, in her film debut) leaves her private girl’s school when she is told her last remaining relative, her older sister, has vanished. She journeys to New York City, where she finds that her sister Jacqueline (Jean Brooks, eventually) sold her successful beauty company eight months before; she finds she had rented an apartment above an Italian restaurant, and when she convinces the restaurant owners to let her in that apartment, she finds only a single chair, sitting beneath a waiting hangman’s noose.
There’s more: though there’s no sign of Jacqueline ever being at the City Morgue, it does lead her to handsome lawyer Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont!), who is also looking for her. Ward is then visited by a psychiatrist, Dr. Judd (Tom Conway) who knows where Jacqueline is, but refuses to tell anyone.
The 7th Victim has a twisty plot, even for a Val Lewton movie, and it is certainly the most noir-inflected of his eleven movies for RKO. Mary navigates the mean streets of the Village with a growing cadre of helpers: Ward and Judd, a failed poet (Erford Gage) who fancies himself Cyrano de Bergerac, and the owners of the restaurant (Margarita Sylva and the real-life Chef Milani). It has a rich cast of characters for a unexpectedly complex story.
One of the people coming to our waifish heroine’s aid is a weasely private investigator (William Halligan), who takes up the case of the missing sister because he’s warned not to… a contrary urge that will cause his eventual death, in one of the most effective, tense sequences in the movie.
The 7th Victim is almost 75 years old, and has been written about by much smarter people than myself, so I don’t think I am giving anything away by revealing that Jacqueline – ever “the sensationalist”, according to Dr. Judd – joined a cult of “devil worshippers”, seeking excitement and happiness, and when those did not materialize, went to Judd for her depression – and the cult considers this revelation a betrayal to their secrecy, which demands her death.
But. This cult is also (rather bewilderingly) sworn to non-violence, so they have to convince her to kill herself. This non-violence thing is certainly novel, and an odd choice; rather than making the cult evil and frightening, it makes them merely selfish and self-interested to an extreme, and this fifteen years before the publication of Atlas Shrugged. This one fairly outlandish detail perversely makes our devil cult seem more realistic.
Jaqueline, we will find out, spent several weeks imprisoned at her former beauty salon, and has been in hiding since her escape. Once Mary, Ward and the Poet convince Judd to finally reveal her hiding place, Jacqueline is convinced to go to the Police. Disastrously, our band of heroes decide to let her rest for a day, which is just enough time for the Satanists to find her. Honestly, the plotting of the movie so far, in an attempt to be misleading and surprising, is a bit of a mess, but its 70 minute running time doesn’t leave much opportunity for audience cries of “Now wait just a minute…”
Jacqueline will resist the peer pressure to drink a glass of poison, leading to one of the Lewton standards: a tension-racked walk through shadowy streets, where any patch of darkness can hide doom – in this case, one of the Satanists who has been tasked with forsaking non-violence to end Jacqueline. It can’t be overstated that RKO had come close to closing its doors after the disastrous box office of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, but it had kept almost all the craftsmen who had worked on those pictures, to RKO’s ultimate benefit. After his successful string of low-budget features, it was felt that Lewton deserved a shot at an “A” picture, which was to be the original version of The 7th Victim (which apparently actually had 6 prior victims in its story). But to do this, he would have had to abandon director Mark Robson. Lewton was extremely loyal to his co-workers, and refused, relegating this movie back to a “B” budget – and this sequence alone, if nothing else, justifies why Lewton felt that way.
Lewton was also notoriously death-obsessed, and it shows in his movies; for so many of his characters, it is, to quote Hamlet, “a consummation devoutly to be wished.” In the closing minutes of The 7th Victim, Jacqueline meets a character we’ve seen only once, at the apartments over the restaurant – Mimi (Elizabeth Russell), a dying prostitute straight out of La Boheme. “I’m quiet and I rest and Death keeps coming closer, all the time.”
“And you don’t want to die, answers Jacqueline. “I’ve always wanted to die. Always.”
And there it is, right there, bang. Lewton’s health deteriorated steadily through the 40s – probably not aided a bit by the hellacious work hours he set for himself – and he passed away in 1951 at the age of 46. 46! He once said, perhaps jokingly, perhaps not, that the message of Isle of the Dead was “Death is good.” But that moment in this movie, that one line, is a moment that hits like a freight train… especially if you’ve ever felt that way. If you’ve felt too keenly the crushing weight of life, if you’ve listened to the lies of depression that tell you that you’d be better off, that everyone would be better off.
Don’t worry. I’m on medication now.
Mimi dresses up and goes out for one last fling before her demise. Jacqueline – quietly retires to her room, with the noose and the chair.
It is possibly one of the bleakest endings in all horror or noir, two genres not known for their uplifting qualities. And that is probably the true horror of The 7th Victim – that it touches so easily a darkened corner that lurks within us all.