The Seventh Victim (1943)

The Seventh Victim is a movie that haunts me.

Its main character, Jacqueline Gibson, exemplifies the nightmare of existence that is at the heart of so many of Val Lewton’s characters. For her, life is absolutely meaningless and the only way out is to end things, despite the efforts of so many people to discover her, to save her and to add meaning.

Her only relative is Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter), who learns that her sister — the owner of a cosmetics firm — has disappeared and can no longer pay for her religious education. Jacqueline has been missing for eight months and has left behind only a room she’d rented above a restaurant, one that has a tipped chair and a hanging noose.

Mary’s quest to find out what happened to her sister leads her to meet a secret husband (Hugh Beaumont!) and psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway), who has somehow survived his death in Cat People. He tells her that her sister had been his patient due to the depression that resulted from her membership in a Satanic coven. That group possesses great power, having taken over Jacqueline’s company and even killing the detective that Mary hires to learn more.

Judd has kept Jacquline hidden all this time and she’s become even more brittle as the group attempts to destroy her for revealing their existence to the world. She would be the seventh person the cult has destroyed — The Seventh Victim — but they are averse to violence. As she’d wanted to end her life for so long, they tell her to drink poison. She refuses and even eludes a switchblade-wielding killer that they sent for her, only to have one last encounter with a girl in her apartment complex that is terminally ill. She tells Jacqueline that even though she knows she will die that she deserves one night on the town before the haunted center of this film enters her apartment and apparently kills herself.

There are many layers that you can view this movie under. There are definitely undercurrents of lesbian love between Jacqueline and one of the cultists named Frances. And there’s also the matter of so many scenes being removed from this film. For some, they may induce the feeling that something is missing, which they would call a plot hole. To others, it makes the film seem more like a dark dream. To me, it’s about. the occult power of large cities, places that can swallow people.

Charles O’Neal’s original script for this movie was all about an orphaned heroine caught up in a series of murders that happen around the Signal Hills oil wells. The title came from the fact that she would be the killer’s seventh victim. Lewton wanted the story to go in a different direction and called in DeWitt Bodeen, who had experience with an actual Satanic coven in New York City that he had encountered. Rumor has it that Bodeen was homosexual, which may or may not inform much of the subtext.

This movie doesn’t just embrace nihilism, it has rough sex with it. To wit, this burst of dialogue:

Gregory Ward: I love your sister, Mary. I love her very much. It’s easy to understand now, isn’t it? A man would look for her anywhere, Mary. There’s something… exciting and unforgettable about Jacqueline. Something you never… quite get hold of. Something that keeps a man following after her.

Mary Gibson: Because I loved Jacqueline I thought I knew her. Today I found out such strange things, frightening things. I saw a hangman’s noose that Jacqueline had hanging… waiting.

Gregory Ward: Well, at least I can explain about that. Your sister had a feeling about life; that it wasn’t worth living unless one could end it. I helped her get that rope.

The Seventh Victim is noir, occult, proto-giallo — hell, whatever you want to call it. It’s one of those movies that I return to every once in a while, as haunted by it as every character in the film is when they encounter its main character.

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