The Quiet Room
Michael Koresky on The Seventh Victim
Film critics, scholars, and fans have long been predisposed to admiring feats of length. The bravura single take, the tight-rope walk of an expertly sustained sequence of shots working together to communicate a single idea, the performance that modulates a wild array of emotions over an unbroken scene, the expert marriage of musical accompaniment to perfectly capture a specific atmosphere or intellectual idea. Less honored, perhaps due to most viewers’ tendencies to not watch closely unless the technique somehow calls attention to itself, are those short, quiet moments or bursts that when taken together contribute to a film’s rhythm, tone, and philosophical framework as much as any standalone tour de force sequence. Film is always a matter of time; the medium is as much about the precious fleeting moment as the lasting testament.
The low-budget horror films that producer Val Lewton gifted to the world from 1942 to 1946 are renowned as models of cheap ingenuity and narrative efficiency: Cat People, The Leopard Man, I Walked with a Zombie, The Curse of the Cat People, The Ghost Ship, Isle of the Dead, none of them over 75 minutes, each utilizing the basics of filmic grammar rather than special effects to produce fear in the viewer, and achieving a kind of pure, poetic cinematic minimalism largely unheard of in Hollywood cinema. Working with a rotating gallery of directors, yet creating a legible, often uniform look and feel, Lewton—who rewrote his scripts prior to shooting, complete with precise stylistic directives—is considered an auteur himself, or at least a B-movie impresario whose concerns gravitated toward aesthetics and an idiosyncratic classicism. To say his films were merely economical, however, mischaracterizes just how deliberately eerie the filmmaking choices often were, and none created a stranger emotional effect than The Seventh Victim, a diabolical whisper of a film.
This 1943 film, directed by first-timer Mark Robson, has no literal supernatural element (unlike the other Lewton films), inhabiting a bizarre in-between space. It merely glances at evil, almost as if out of the corner of its eye, and is all the more frightening for it. Made up of a series of mostly short scenes that combine into a slow bubbling up of existential terror, the film does build to an extended, if narratively abstract, climax (a chase scene in only the most literal sense), which is then summarily followed by a denouement that manages to conclude the story in a most willfully unsatisfying fashion, while being almost subliminal. These 10 seconds, which the film and this article will build to, manage to both crystallize and complicate the philosophical ideas with which The Seventh Victim engages, abruptly leaving the viewer in a state of unsettled and, in this writer’s opinion, highly productive bewilderment.
But back to the beginning. Opening, as Cat People had ended, with a quote from a John Donne sonnet, The Seventh Victim aspires to an odd mix of sensual metaphysicality and noirish American wartime grimness. “I run to death, and death meets me as fast. And all my pleasures are like yesterday.” This passage will return at the end of the film, in floating, disembodied voiceover, its literal source unclear, but its despair about mortality resonant. The quote even appears on-screen in the first scene, etched on a stained-glass window aside the staircase of a boarding school as a procession of young women files out. (The windows are a composite, but the staircase may look familiar—it was recycled from the set of another recent RKO production, Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons.) From this cloistered environment, our orphaned heroine, Mary (Kim Hunter, in her debut), will soon be cast out. Like so much in the film, the circumstances of this are delivered swiftly and cruelly: Mary’s older sister, Jacqueline, her only family and financial caretaker, has disappeared and is therefore no longer paying tuition. Though she could stay on and work for her lodging and education, Mary chooses to expel herself, hoping to find Jacqueline in New York City’s Greenwich Village, where she had been living and running a cosmetics factory before going missing. As Mary takes one last look around this innocent world of her youth, suitcase in hand, we might notice wafting across the often hushed soundtrack the voices of girls during a French lesson, conjugating the verb chercher (“to look for”). Mary is a seeker, and she’s about to get an astonishingly unsentimental education.
Screenwriters DeWitt Bodeen and Charles O’Neal proceed to pack so much plot, character, back story, and general eccentricity into the film’s remaining 65 minutes, and it moves so quickly from one set piece to another, that it’s perhaps unsurprising that many viewers at the time were baffled and displeased by the film. The Seventh Victim was the kind of unlikely project that could only be financed by trustful producers. Lewton, who had cut his teeth as David O. Selznick’s story editor, had recently proven himself with the success of the previous year’s Cat People, which was directed by the estimable Jacques Tourneur, and which had grossed four million dollars on a meager $150,000 budget. Lewton’s triumph on that film even encouraged RKO to offer a higher, A-level budget for The Seventh Victim—which Lewton turned down. By staying in the B basement, Lewton wasn’t doing less, he was getting away with more, with less oversight. Indeed, it’s frightening to imagine what might have happened to this film had executives been paying close attention to it, especially considering its production during World War II, when most studio entertainments were either war propaganda or homefront sagas like The Human Comedy or Since You Went Away. The Seventh Victim, with first-timer Robson, was a trickier proposal than Cat People even in outline—this was a film with a free-floating, abstracted horror at its center, in which the true demon is something like severe depression. It’s as cold as it gets, its overall brevity—in scenes of horror and in stabs at warmth alike—adding to a sense of grim, stagy offhandedness that makes it what it is.
The film is very much about life and death, but it has no use—or time—for bromidic sentiment. Mary is often instructed by others the importance of individuality and strength (“One must have courage to really live in the world,” says her headmistress before casting her out; “You’ve got to live . . . get some enjoyment out of life,” a potential romantic partner later tells her), but such moments exist largely in dubious contrast to the film’s true, insidious outlook, which dares to propose that death is sometimes just as valid a release. What Mary grows to uncover upon her arrival in the city is that Jacqueline, prior to her disappearance, had fallen in with a sinister cabal known as the Palladists, a euphemistic term for Satan worshippers, many of whom seem connected to Jacqueline’s former cosmetics factory, La Sagesse, now run by the bold and suspicious Esther Redi, who claims to have bought the business from Mary’s sister some months earlier.
A multitude of characters, captured alongside our protagonist in suitably workmanlike medium shots, either aid or impede Mary along her journey to find out what happened to her sister, including Jacqueline’s paramour Gregory (Hugh Beaumont); Dr. Judd, the unctuous psychiatrist from Cat People, again played with uncanny George Sanders-esque smarm by George Sanders’s actual brother Tom Conway; and, most compellingly, poet Jason Hoag (Erford Gage), whose failure as a writer is compounded by his ultimate failure as a potential love interest for Mary. But none of these folks compels as much as the echoey, unreal sound-stage sets around which the quick, clinical action revolves: La Sagesse, seemingly benign, although when the sun goes down and the shadows grow long, as dangerous as any haunted house; a rattling subway ride that turns into some unholy, deathly combination of Dressed to Kill and Weekend at Bernie’s, well before the fact; Hoag’s attic apartment, above which the city’s searchlights are constantly seen beaming through the dark night like unheeded beacons; and Dante, the cheerful, just-below-street-level restaurant above which Jacqueline rented her secretive, tiny flat. When Mary finally gains access to the room, she finds a single noose hanging ominously over an empty chair, lying in wait to be toppled over. Like so many horrors in the film, it’s quickly seen before the film moves on, but it dangles forever in the mind as the film moves toward the moment where that rope might be used for its only possible purpose.
Another crucial, brief glimpse: before Mary opens the door to find this fearful set-up, a woman, coughing and clad in a tattered bathrobe, emerges from her apartment and makes her way down the hall into the bathroom. Only very late in the film will we discover this is Mimi (Elizabeth Russell), whose screen time equals less than 2 minutes total but who is as essential to the meaning of the film as any of the major characters. Sickly, pathetic, and blonde Mimi—her name evoking the consumptive female character from La Bohème—is also a visual and philosophical foil to Jacqueline (Jean Brooks), who finally shows up halfway through the film, appearing as though a ghost in Mary’s doorway, sporting witchy black bangs and a fur coat. She seems to dissolve into the background, like one of those almost-physical beings in Kioyshi Kurosawa’s Pulse, ashy figures of despair that evoked the traces of Hiroshima. Like them, she is not quite here, not quite of this world. Living up to a character’s earlier insistence that “no one who sees her ever forgets her,” Jacqueline proceeds to steal the film’s diffused spotlight from Mary, changing the narrative’s emotional course from dewy hopefulness to grim fatalism. When we first see her, as Mary opens her door, she silently puts a finger to her lips in a gesture of nervous communion, before closing the door and disappearing once again.
We come to learn that the Palladists have been preying upon Jacqueline, a former member who has become a liability. In one of the film’s great, disturbing ironies, the group is “pledged to nonviolence,” but whoever betrays them must die. This means that they are committed to driving her to suicide (which they have apparently accomplished in the past—there had been six betrayals and six deaths since their foundation). And because Jacqueline, with her wish to recede from the physical world, already acutely experiences the death drive, she is particularly susceptible to their persuasions. In what must be film’s lowest-key attempted murder scene, the cabal surrounds Jacqueline, offering her a glass of poison, which she drowsily refuses again and again (the film intercuts between this and Mary’s search, continually cutting back to the scene as the hour grows later). She emerges from this diabolical meeting with her life intact, yet on her walk home, in one of Lewton’s trademark pursuit sequences (Cat People and The Leopard Man offer particularly masterful variations), she is stalked by a menacing man with a switchblade, a villain not just ensconced in shadow but who seems to have been formed by them, a metaphorical entity as much as a physical being, a specter of death itself.
Just barely eluding her fate, Jacqueline returns home, only to encounter Mimi in the hallway. Her 30-second exchange with the sickly Mimi, as ever in her bathrobe, speaking under a sickly, flickering fluorescent that gives the black-and-white image a withering sense of green, is performed and written with a staccato beauty that may as well be a dialogue scene from a Bresson film: “I’m Mimi. I’m dying.” “No.” “Yes. I’ve been quiet. Ever so quiet. I hardly move. Yet it keeps coming all the time. Closer and closer. I rest and rest. Still I’m dying.”
However, between heavy breaths, Mimi reveals that she has resolved to go out on the town tonight. The hopelessness on both ends is tangible: one woman vowing to find the light despite her death sentence, the other irrevocably drawn towards the dark despite her ability to live. Jacqueline’s despairing, almost off-handed response to Mimi’s resolution to “laugh and dance” is: “And then…you will die.” Again, a door closes. This is the final meaningful exchange of words in the film. We return to this jaundiced hallway, just minutes later, following a bizarre scene featuring a dispassionate confession of love between Gregory and Mary, a romantic climax fittingly discarded like an afterthought (there’s been barely a whiff of chemistry between them). When we see Mimi again, she’s finally changed out of her robe and into a glittering outfit, her hair washed and tied up, and she’s walking anxiously past Jacqueline’s closed door, from behind which we might make out the sound of a chair toppling over. It’s mixed into the soundtrack alongside the minor-key culmination of Roy Webb’s score and immediately before the words of John Donne are again layered in. The entire resolution is ten seconds. It’s tantamount to a whisper, or perhaps a whimper: a fleeting, off-screen sound indicating the end of a life. And all my pleasures are like yesterday.
Val Lewton’s horror was often given to abstraction, sometimes out of economic necessity, but The Seventh Victim is oblique even by his standards. Its horror comes not from fear of death, but rather from a deep communion with death. The Palladists feel less like a literal threat than a phantom presence that exists to give form to our deepest existential anxieties: they don’t kill, but they insist upon death. “What proof do you have that you’re superior to evil?” the group’s leader at one point asks one of the film’s more virtuous characters, his face lit from below, casting it in overwhelming contrast. That the film offers no satisfactory answer might lead us to believe that this line reflects a genuine philosophical idea, or at least a dialectical inquiry. But as viewers we seek answers, and we look for hope. The Seventh Victim only offers ten cruel seconds in retort. But after those ten seconds—so fleeting and frightening—we are left forever on the other side of a closed door. Ten seconds: more than enough time for an entire life to be snuffed out.