Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Seventh Victim (1943)

There is something about the Three Stooges which makes them infinitely watchable.  They didn’t have the finesse and athletic skills of performers like Charles Chaplin or Buster Keaton.  They didn’t have anything original going for them in terms of the stories in their productions.  What they did have was a capacity for sheer jocular brutality that was unsurpassed by other comedy teams.  Perhaps this is why a lot of women (but not all, certainly) don’t particularly care for them.  I believe it was Jay Leno (and I may be incorrect here, but I’m going off memory) who said that men love the Stooges (this is paraphrasing) because they love to watch ugly men beat the shit out of each other.  I believe there is a lot of truth in that thought, and I believe that it extends beyond the realm of comedy.  I think that this also explains, at least in part, why people love things like boxing, hockey, and just about every contact sport known to man.  Sure, there are men who could be considered handsome in these arenas, but by and large, they tend to look like the Gashouse Gorillas in various uniforms.  
But the Three Stooges were clowns first and foremost, and this is reflected in their hair styles (not hair again, Todd!).  Curly was shaved bald at a time when this wasn’t the norm, unless maybe you were in the military.  Larry had that fright-wig-esque set of curls that looked like a canyon with a shiny, bald pate serving as the bottom (and which provided many a guffaw from having chunks of it torn out at the root from time to time).  Which brings us to Moe and his number-three-salad-bowl coif, which bespoke as much of buffoonery as it did of his leadership in the group (Shemp’s mop was too wild and greasy for him to claim supremacy; plus, he was even more unsightly than Moe).  Moe’s hair was reflective of the Cleopatra bob hair style which can be as alluring as it is icy, and this is exemplified in the character of Jacqueline Gibson (Jean Brooks) in Mark Robson’s The Seventh Victim.  I’m not sure if she was adept in the art of the two-finger eye poke, though.
Young Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter) is informed that her (older) sister Jacqueline has gone missing in New York City.  Leaving the confines of her all-girl Catholic school, Mary sets out for the big city to find her sister.  However, she discovers that the world her sibling has inhabited is not only “underground” but also quite deadly.
The thing most people talk about when discussing this movie is the element of Satanism in it.  However, like most of producer Val Lewton’s films, he used the sensational aspects he was handed by the studio to discuss other things of interest to him.  Like Hitchcock, Lewton was a master of the MacGuffin.  In some respects, then, The Seventh Victim (I don’t recall hearing too much about the other six) deals with Mary’s journey into womanhood.  She moves away from her private school, where she has been surrounded by nothing but other girls into the big city, where she has to contend with the amorous advances of adult men.  We can also assume that she is a virgin based on the background shown in the film (she is named Mary for a reason), and this is something coveted by the men who try to win her heart.  While tracking her wayward sister down, she begins at Jacqueline’s cosmetics company, La Sagesse (Wisdom), and it is here that Mary starts her trek toward some variety of sagacity (though the title of the corporation can have another meaning in the context of the film’s story).  Mary has to take a job as a kindergarten teacher, a sort of surrogate motherhood, if you will.  Yet she (kinda, sorta) resists the propositions set forth by Greg Ward (Hugh Beaumont, who, ironically or not, would go on to play Ward Cleaver on the Leave It To Beaver television show), who is significantly older than she is, instead turning to the younger poet Jason (Erford Gage).   Where Greg offers stability and a traditional home life (he’s a lawyer), Jason offers her beauty and art with a less secure financial future.  Jacqueline had chosen Greg (making him a bit of a jerk, really), but she has also vanished from his life, and this points to another aspect of the film.
A key (perhaps THE key) metaphor of the film is about the choice between death and life (or to put it in Shawshank Redemption terms, getting busy living or getting busy dying), and this plays out among three characters, all of them women.  In choosing Jason over Greg, Mary is choosing all of the things young people find enchanting about life.  His is the world of grandeur and imagination, of the ability to do anything your mind may proffer you, but with feet still planted (slightly) on the ground.  Jacqueline, by contrast, is essentially a thrill seeker.  The room she rents over an Italian restaurant is bare aside from a plain wooden chair and noose hanging from the ceiling.  Jacqueline takes comfort in this room, because it means that she has the power to choose life or death.  She is not beholden to anything or anyone.  Thus, the Satanists’ pursuit of her is taking away that choice, and this is why she resists them at all turns.  But Jacqueline is also aloof, as shown by her pale skin set against her jet black hair.  She betrays little to no emotion in her speech.  She is never seen without being robed in a heavy fur coat, as if she were trying to keep her dead body from cooling.  She is, in effect, dead already.  Perhaps this is because she has tried to wrest control from fate.  Perhaps this is because she has finally made the wrong decision in her life.  No matter what she may have been, she has become the antithesis of Mary now, and there is the slightest hint that this bleak mindset will eventually seep into the younger sister’s mind.  But not today.  The third woman is Mimi (Elizabeth Russell), a fellow boarder of Jacqueline’s.  Mimi has been dying of tuberculosis (her omnipresent coughing being the big giveaway), and she has holed herself up in her room, waiting acquiescently for death to claim her.  She is what happens when people give up and abrogate their power of choice and simply live in the fear engendered by this concession.  Whether or not she reclaims what time she has left, it is perhaps she who gains the most insight by the film’s end, short-lived though it will be.
The film looks phenomenal, thanks to Nicholas Musuraca’s cinematography, which positively drips pools of impenetrable darkness throughout the frame.  The narrative is staid, all things considered, and this isn’t a film filled with thrills, though there are absolutely scenes of such magnificent suspenseful execution, you would be hard-pressed to find much that surpasses them to this day.  This is more pensive, more introspective than something along the lines of, say, Race With The Devil.  While frustrated with a studio executive (and I’ve seen several variations on this story, so I’ll just skip to what was said, rather than where and when) who told Lewton to keep messages out of his Horror films, the producer came back with, “…we do have a message.  And our message is that death is good!”  While this was certainly said more out of irritation than anything else, I can’t say that I agree with it, especially as it would pertain to this film.  I think, rather, that he’s saying that death is inevitable.  It is choosing to live your life in the face of this that is good.
MVT:  Lewton and his skill at turning exploitative material into thought-provoking, prescient stories are the winners here.  There is a reason why he is so acclaimed in the halls of Hollywood producer-dom.  This film is a sterling example of it.
Make Or Break:  The subway scene is cited as a highpoint of this film, and I would agree with that.  The scene leading up to it is almost as masterfully orchestrated, but it is the reveal in the subway car here that turns the screw fully on an already excellent film.
Score:  7.75/10   

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