“Monochrome Manor” Presents:
THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943)
Review by Steve Van Samson
Down a particularly twisted road, over an old bridge and up, up on the very top of a hill where no one goes, stands a forgotten manse. With a sudden clap of thunder, the nameplate flashes—Monochrome Manor. Standing here, nearly forgotten, is a place out of time. A place where bookshelves move, portraits leer, and, on nights just like this… old black and white movies are screened in the house’s totally plush theater room.
Tonight’s Feature: THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943)
First, a little history…
There is an old adage which we have all heard, and can be applied to just about any art form. “Less is More,” specifically refers to the idea that the quality of a thing does not necessarily increase in direct proportion to the number of its component parts. In the terms of film, this idea could explain why something like the classic episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE’s “Five Characters in Search Of An Exit” functions as well as it does. In that episode, five strangers wake in a small cylindrical room with no doors or windows. All five characters spend the entirety of the episode on one set, each desperately seeking answers and liberation. The concept couldn’t be simpler–but what might look rather thin on paper ends up making for an intriguing, effective and thoroughly claustrophobic story.
One person who seemed to fully subscribe to the doctrine of “less is more” was Golden Age producer, Val Lewton. Lewton worked exclusively for RKO Radio Pictures, and, for a number of years, produced nothing but scare pictures. However, instead of following the proven formula perfected for over a decade by Universal Studios (RKO’s staunchest competitor), Lewton chose to develop his own style. Rubber monsters and gore went right out the window. Instead, atmosphere, mood and lighting were employed to get those screams the studio bigwigs were so hungry for. Over a period of just nine years, and 14 films, Lewton blazed a trail which proved that a shadow steeped hallway can be just as, if not more, frightening than some lumbering monstrosity. This trend started with CAT PEOPLE (1942), but tonight we will be viewing Lewton’s fourth film of 1943.
But enough of that…
THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943) was directed by Mark Robson (1957, EARTHQUAKE, 1974) and starred fresh-faced Kim Hunter (of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, 1952, and PLANET OF THE APES, 1968). Here, Kim plays hapless young Mary Gibson, who we meet at the very beginning of what is to be a long and fruitless quest. Before that, though, we are treated to a quote from 17th century metaphysical poet John Donne, the aptness we can only truly grasp after the final curtain call:
“I runne to death, and death meets me as fast, and all my pleasures are like yesterday”
Pan out and we find the quote, which had so resembled a standard title card of the silent film era, was actually a tight close-up of a rather spectacular stained glass window. It seems we are in a church, but when the all-too-recognizable sound of a school bell rings, we see a gaggle of be-uniformed coeds flock past. As the girls flow down the staircase, there is another who, like the majestic salmon, has to go and do things the hard way. Kim Hunter slips past all the rest, stopping at a door at the top of the stairs—the one marked “Principal”.
Wearing her nervous eyebrows, she offers a knock before being ushered inside by the snooty-but-sincere Mrs. Lowood—a small but memorable performance by Ottola Nesmith (THE INVISIBLE GHOST, 1941). Mrs. Lowood begins by questioning Kim Hunter (who we learn is called Mary) about the whereabouts and well-being of her older sister, Jacqueline. Through this series of inquiries, we learn numerous things including the fact that Big Sis Jacqueline has been paying for Mary to attend this prestigious house of learning. Unfortunately, as Mrs. Lowood explains, those payments seem to have gone the way of the dodo. Six months in fact, have elapsed since Mary’s last tuition check arrived, and all attempts the school has made to contact Big Sis have proven utterly unsuccessful.
Right away, we get the feeling that Mary is about two breaths away from getting tossed out in the street. After all, Mrs. Lowood comes off as very cold and overtly formal. But then the movie lobs us its first character curveball. Nose still in the air, Lowood offers Mary a way of staying in school by helping out the younger grades as a sort of assistant teacher. Not bad, right? Unfortunately, Mary finds that she cannot in good conscience accept the offer, knowing that her poor sister may in fact be missing. On the spot, she decides she must go to New York and speak with Jacqueline’s business partner, Mrs. Redi. Mrs. Lowood seems to think this is a bad idea, since Mrs. Redi has been of no help thus far. But after a moment’s consideration, the woman offers to advance Mary the money for the trip, reminding her that if she can’t find her sister, she will always have a place at her school. I mean, talk about not judging books by their covers; that snooty old spinster turned out to be a real gem.
Over the course of the film, we will meet numerous characters that, like Mrs. Lowood, do not live up to their face value. Heroes and villains, and everything in between, they are all present—it’s just never obvious which is which.
With the very next scene, we start to see how cut-to-the-chase this film is. It is interesting to note that overall, we are faced with very little that does not move the story along. With few exceptions, scenes tend to be neat, tidy and included only when absolutely necessary. Remember, less is more.
Mary’s journey and arrival in New York are not shown. Instead, we catch up to her on a bustling factory floor, walking and talking with a woman whom we soon will learn is the previously mentioned Mrs. Redi. Here we see the reason why Big Sis could afford tuition for young Mary is because she owned a successful cosmetics company! Mary is shocked to learn that Big Sis in fact sold her business to Mrs. Redi about eight months back, and hasn’t been seen since. This is shocking stuff, and Mary can hardly believe she would have done this at all, let alone not mention it.
Mrs. Redi is, as Mrs. Lowood predicted, not very helpful, but this is only the first in what becomes a long line of characters we meet through Mary, at various stages of her investigation. With each bread crumb on the trail, she learns a little more about her big sister’s goings on, but none of it seems to add up. What’s more, none of these kooky characters claim to have seen hide nor hair of Miss Jacqueline in many months.
In the film’s first shocking scene, Mary, having learned of a room rented by a woman matching her sister’s description, convinces the elderly restaurateurs/innkeepers to let her inside. They refuse initially, saying that the woman who might be Jacqueline is a paying customer with a right to privacy, despite the fact that she has only visited the room a handful of times and never used it as a residence. Eventually though, the innkeepers give in to Mary’s puppy-dog-eyes routine, only to receive quite a shock when they three learn what’s inside. The furnishings could be called minimalist. They consist of a single chair and a suicide noose, all tied and ready to tango.
The next real moment of intrigue occurs a few scenes later, when Mary meets special investigator Irving August (Lou Lubin, in a criminally uncredited role). After a heavy pitch, Mr. August convinces Mary to let him take the case and find her missing sister, insisting that no one knows Manhattan better than he. A little later on, the two break into La Sagesse Cosmetics (Big Sis’ old company). Mr. August has an idea that she might be hiding out there, but even he isn’t keen on breaking and entering. Good thing for Mary she has that aforementioned puppy-dog routine down.
Pay attention folks, because here is where we get our first real glimpse at producer Val Lewton’s brand of horror.
The inside of the factory is empty and very, very dark. Mr. August wants to beat feet, but Mary is determined to find that lost sister of hers. She insists they press on, but suggests that Mr. August be the one to check down the long scary hallway himself. Not one to be emasculated in the 40s, Mr. August swallows the lump in his throat and plunges down the darkling hall, only to emerge seconds later… as a corpse.
So just what the heck is going on here? Where is Big Sis Jaqueline? Did she really sell her company to Mrs. Redi? Why does everyone in town seem to be hiding something? Who killed poor Mr. August, and what is the deal with that random noose-room?
One of the truly great things about this film is its attention to detail. Like Mr. August, many characters flit past the screen with nary more than a scene or two. Some will probably be forgotten by the end, which is completely forgivable since the omnipresent Mary creates a laser focus for the viewer’s attention. The thing is, many of these brief character moments will pay off later. Even when a character seems like window dressing, you can bet that there is more going on. This is certainly the case with the only other boarder we meet. Mimi (Elizabeth Russell) unwittingly lives next door to the room with the noose and chair, and seems to flit about the hallways in a haze, often behind the main characters. It isn’t until later that we get a little insight into the woman, which even then is rather thin. Yet it is Mimi who occupies the final shot of the film. Only she who happens to hear the innocuous sound of a chair falling over as she heads out for the first night on the town she has had in a long time. Thus ending the film in a one-two punch of despair and hope.
THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943) certainly poses a lot of questions, but overall it does a good job of answering them. The film is a tightly-paced noir thriller with a plot that steadily thickens as it goes. So as not to spoil the reveal, I will say that the finale doesn’t disappoint. It is at once unexpected, haunting and highly original–just don’t expect any happily ever afters.
© Copyright 2017 by Steve Van Samson