(essay by Troy)
I run to death and death meets me as fast, and all my pleasures are like yesterday
Bookended with that verse by John Donne, the rushing urgency of impending death is firmly in place over the scant 71 minutes of Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim (Mark Robson acquits himself fine as the director, but the true auteur here is Lewton). Proposed as Lewton’s shot at an A-picture, his insistence on keeping Robson on as director relegated it back to the ranks of B-movie and with that status came the shortened duration. Perhaps that’s for the best, as the terse nature of what follows creates a palpable sensation that our time in life is short, each second bringing us one step closer to death.
The plot itself isn’t served terribly well by the short runtime, with subplots and character interactions that seem to start and resolve without warning. The crux of the story concerns Mary, fresh out of boarding school, who is searching for her missing sister, Jacqueline. In the process she meets up with three men who each hold a piece to the puzzle. We find out that Jacqueline was part of a cult of high-society devil worshippers called The Palladists. She has chosen to leave them and, as a result, they deem she must die. In an odd twist, however, this happens to be a pacifist group of Satanists and thus, they can inflict no harm on Jacqueline and must instead attempt to coerce her into committing suicide.
I won’t go into anymore detail than that, as the plot becomes a tad convoluted. Besides, the narrative is more of interest when viewed as a catalyst for Lewton and Robson to create a number of memorable scenes, full of noir-ish atmospherics. This begins with the aforementioned discovery of Jacqueline’s room, whereupon the door opens and Robson’s camera focuses singularly on a chair before panning up to reveal the noose. Later, Mary and a private eye break into a cosmetics factory to explore a mysterious room. It’s a fantastic sequence, full of ominous shadows and inky black, foreboding corridors, a clock ticking incessantly in the background to heighten the tension. Then there’s the eerie scene where one of the cult leaders intrudes on Mary privacy while she is taking a shower. We hear the voice of the person, but we don’t see her face — just her imposing shadow through the shower curtain (ala Psycho, which is still 17-years from being made, if you need a visual hint) giving sinister threats to Mary.
It all leads to an amazing finale, a protracted sequence where all roads lead to the same conclusion for poor Jacqueline. The Palladists attempt to berate her into ending her life by placing a glass of poison in front of her and imploring her to drink it. She sits there with it in front of her, contemplating the idea for some time, before finally attempting to take a drink. Before she can drink, the cup is flung from her hands by her friend (or lesbian lover, if one looks at the subtext). The Palladists, knowing they aren’t able to inflict harm on her, let her go, leading to her wandering through the streets in a bizarre and noir-tinged journey, paranoia seeming to overtake her, creeping along in the shadows as she is eventually menaced by a man wielding a knife (who I didn’t notice as being a Palladist — am I wrong in that?). She escapes, and heads back to see Mary, perhaps for help. On her way to do so, though, her dying neighbor Mimi walks out and the two have a conversation. Mimi becomes emboldened to enjoy what life she has left, while Jacqueline sure of the fact that she is going to die, one way or the other, decides there is no reason to wait. The shocking final shot is of Mimi leaving to enjoy the life she has left, while we hear the sound of a chair falling to the floor from Jacqueline’s room. As harrowing and downbeat of an ending as you will see in the 1940’s.
Portents of death are seen throughout the film, not just in the noose that, ahem, hangs over each moment, but in the repeated motif of clocks, that constant reminder of time sifting away. It’s made readily apparent in the scene in the cosmetic factory, the ticking of the clock overwhelming the soundtrack. But it’s also there visually in the first scene with Mary (she stares at it as she leaves the boarding school) and then in the final scene with Jacqueline (she stares at while leaving the Palladists meeting place). Both ponder death in those moments, each choose a different path.
Lewton is interested in the tangible dread that the inevitability of death represents and he uses the characters to provide varying angles into how we choose to deal with and accept the fact that we will all one day die. Jacqueline is obsessed with the matter –she has "always wanted to die" and keeps a room with a noose hung from the ceiling because she felt that life "wasn’t worth living unless one could end it." Mimi is dying of tuberculosis, bedridden and knowing she has limited time left. Yet, where Jacqueline has everything to live for and wants to die, Mimi is assured of her impending death and wants nothing more than to live.
Beyond these two there’s Mary, who throughout the film makes clear by her (in)actions that she moves between a state of naiveté and a state of fear over the concept of death. She fails to grasp her sister’s macabre fascination with the subject and is shown to be weary of exploring what lies in the darkness (see again that scene at the cosmetic factory). It’s no mistake that at the beginning of the film, one of her teacher’s implores to her that "one must have courage to really live in the world." It’s a lesson Mary finds out as she exits the safeness of her old life and enters into the "real" world that Jacqueline inhabits.
I feel that I’m only scratching the surface of these themes here and perhaps even misinterpreting some of the characters’ motives, as if somehow I’m not getting at everything Lewton is trying to get across (please add your thoughts in the comments). Regardless, I am confident in saying that Lewton successfully explores many of these dark thoughts here — the fear, fascination, and potential attraction of death, as well as the sinking feeling that it can lie around around every corner, in every room, on every dark street, and down every corridor.
(See more screencaps at Troy’s blog, here)
(this film appeared on Troy’s list at #15 and Jamie’s at #18)