Classic Noir: The 7th Victim (1943)
I know what you’re thinking: isn’t that Supernatural Noir? While the Val Lewton production The Seventh Victim is usually referred to as a horror film, I think it’s really much more clearly noir. What confuses people are the trappings of horror – and of course the horror chops of Lewton, who produced some of the finest 40s horror with director Jacques Tourneur including Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), although even the clearly supernatural films always had some uncertainty whether people just might have overactive imagination. The danger was often enough from the humans and the later films really focused on people’s depravity.
The 7th Victim (always with the number in publicity) skates along that edge of the supernatural. While the original story pitched by Charles O’Neal, inspired by the title Lewton chose, focused on a serial killer, Dewitt Bodeen decided to incorporate his experiences observing real Greenwich Village Satanists. On the commentary to the Warner DVD, Steve Haberman talks about Bodeen’s experience which is likened to the elderly Satanists of Rosemary’s Baby: just ordinary looking folks, knitting at their meetings, busy cursing Hitler. They sound a lot more like witches that Satanists.
But Lewton was impressed with this image and the eclectic group in the film show this odd eclecticism. He even designed a logo for them. While he tapped Mark Robson to direct the film after Tourneur jumped ship, as always Lewton had a hand in the look and style of the film, from the John Donne quote in the Brontë-themed school that sets the story in motion, to the staging of the mis-en-scène throughout. A noir ambience permeates the film.
As innocent-looking Kim Hunter goes in search of her sister Jacqueline, played by Jean Brooks in her iconic hair cut, who has gone missing. The streets of NYC offer all the harsh coldness and stark shadows typical of noir. There’s a warm welcome from the Italian family who rented a room to her sister above their restaurant (fittingly called Dante’s), and from a moody and morbid poet played by Erford Gage (himself soon to enlist and die in the war), and Hugh Beaumont, who reveals an important secret about her sister’s life. But in her sister’s apartment there’s only a chair with a noose hanging above it.
There’s also Lewton stalwart Tom Conway (known as the nice Sanders, unlike his brother George) as the rather slippery psychologist Dr Judd, who actively courts misunderstanding and a devilish air. Like most noir it’s a story of mistakes, missed connections, and psychological torture. Stand-out scenes heighten the stylish grimness, like the break-in at the perfume company, moving a body on the subway, the shower scene almost two decades prior to Psycho (1960), and Jacqueline’s lone walk through the midnight streets of the Village, shot beautifully by Lewton stalwart Nicola Musuraca.
But what lurks in the shadows is only a human monster and, typically for noir, Jacqueline’s own demons. It’s no surprise that this film didn’t perform terribly well in the middle of the war when people sought uplifting and inspiring films instead of noir nihilism. Robson and Lewton went on to do more work together on The Ghost Ship (1943), Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946).