03 May 2010

The Seventh Victim

The film opens and closes with a quote from a John Donne sonnet:

I runne to death, and death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday.

So you know it's not going to be Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, but even if the film were released today, I think it would still be considered unusually somber.

The story starts with nice girl Mary being forced to quit her cloistered private all-girls school to go to New York City to look for her missing older sister, Jacqueline. And let me tell you, Jacqueline is one weird chick, and I assume she must have seemed especially weird to The Seventh Victim's 1943 audience. Weary and restless, with her pale skin and jet black hair, finding nothing in life to hold her, Jacqueline would fit right in with our contemporary angsty goth girls.

Had there ever been a more morbidly depressed character to appear on the screen? Jacqueline would have given pause to Bud Cort's Harold. When Mary discovers Jacqueline has rented a room she never uses, but for which she faithfully pays the rent every month, she convinces the landlord to let her in. I figured Mary would enter the room, poke around and find a clue in a book or a picture or something--the typical mystery stuff. Given my own surprise, I wonder what the '43 audience's reaction was when the door opened to reveal a room empty except for a chair and a hangman's noose dangling over it?

It turns out Jacqueline has told several people of her death wish, but nobody seems to have really understood her. For example, Mary (played by Kim Hunter, who would later earn fame as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire) learns Jacqueline has married the lawyer Gregory Ward, whom she quickly abandoned. Ward has been looking for Jacqueline, also, and when Mary tells him about the room with the chair and the noose, Ward (played by Hugh *Ward Cleaver* Beaumont, and foreshadowing his relentless Leave It To Beaver optimism) downplays the macabre implications by saying:

Your sister had a feeling about life, that it wasn't worth living unless one could end it. I helped her get the room. . .No, that room made her happy, in some strange way.

As goody-goody Mary and the square Ward spend time together looking for Jacqueline, they discover in each other the bourgeois charms that suit their conventional 1943 souls--they *fall in love,* and become a bit less diligent in their hunt for Jacqueline. A bohemian poet who'd been on the fringe of Jacqueline's social circle assumes the lead role in the search, and he persuades a cynical psychiatrist who is treating Jacqueline to reveal what he knows. Through this ultra-sophisticate shrink, Mary learns her terminally bored sister has joined a gang of Greenwich Village Satanists!

But Jacqueline has broken the Satanists' code of silence by revealing the group's existence. The previous six cult members who did the same have all died--will Jacqueline become the seventh victim?

Billed as a horror movie, The Seventh Victim is more goth trippy than scary. Lean (it runs only 71 minutes) and elegantly moody, this is a beautifully eerie melodrama, with several hauntingly visionary moments (the suicide room with chair and noose, a creepy subway ride, a better-than-Psycho shower scene, the slow-burn showdown between Jacqueline and the devil worshippers, and that rarest of all movie moments: a pitch-perfect ending, which contrasts death-loving Jacqueline with a death-fearing woman who lives down the hall from the suicide room). This is first-rate gloom-and-doom.

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