Bright Lights Film Journal

Lewton/Tourneur – The Lennon & McCartney of Cinema

Orpheus Descending – Kim Hunter (left) in The Seventh Victim
 
Hunter’s screen sister, Bettie Page-coiffed Jean Brooks (center), intimidated by Greenwich Village Satanists.
Bright Lights After Dark tips its hat to the Val Lewton Blogathon hosted here, and encourages its readers to check out the documentary, Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, screening tonight and tomorrow on TCM.Just as John Lennon’s acid cynicism was tempered by the melodic sweetness of Paul McCartney, so the melancholic morbidity of producer/writer Val Lewton was tempered by the subtle spirituality of director Jacques Tourneur. Nowhere is this more apparent than in The Seventh Victim (1943), the first film in the RKO horror cycle that was written and produced by Lewton without Tourneur as director.The supernatural is a living presence in Tourneur’s Cat People (1942), I Walked With a Zombie (1943), and The Leopard Man (1943), the three films that preceded The Seventh Victim in the cycle. Tourneur participated in the preparation of The Seventh Victim, but when RKO, impressed by Cat People‘s success, promoted Tourneur to “better things,” Lewton had to find a new director. He chose Mark Robson, the young editor of the previous three films.

Robson did a superb job channeling Lewton’s vision (closely supervised, of course, by Lewton himself). Although he went on to direct an additional 32 films, including four more for Lewton, The Seventh Victim remains the high point of Robson’s career. The Seventh Victim shares a number of virtues with its predecessors: the subtle acting, the shadowy mise-en-scène, a sensitive female protagonist played in this instance by Kim Hunter (A Streetcar Named Desire) making her screen debut and, most importantly, a treatment of horror that is suggestive rather than overt – Lewton’s trademark.

Where The Seventh Victim differs significantly from the Lewton/Tourneur collaborations is in its utter absence of the supernatural or anything suggestive of a spiritual reality behind physical appearances. This is most apparent in the film’s treatment of its villains, a Satanic cult, presented as a group of pathetically deluded tea drinkers, rather than an organization with genuine mystical powers. The Seventh Victim‘s cultists are capable of hiring thugs to carry out their dirty work when needed, and they can force a member to kill him or herself. But convincing a member to commit suicide is accomplished through psychological means – mainly peer pressure – rather than incantations or magical spells. (The sudden appearance of a cult member behind a shower curtain as Ms. Hunter is taking a shower prefigures Hitchcock’s Psycho.)

The Seventh Victim is an unusually morbid film, far more preoccupied with death than Cat People, et al. Indeed, it opens with the following quotation from John Donne: “I runne to death, and death meets me as fast, and all my pleasures are like yesterday.” When someone dies in The Seventh Victim, it is presented as something final – there is no implication that the deceased has moved on to a better (or worse) world. Another aspect of The Seventh Victim that distinguishes it from the rest of the Lewton cycle is its recurring lesbian overtones. Cat People had one memorable quasi-lesbian moment where an oddly dressed woman with a foreign accent approaches Simone Simon and addresses her as “My sister.” The Seventh Victim is filled with comparable moments, which many have suggested are accounted for by Lewton’s having grown up with a flamboyantly lesbian aunt, actress Alla Nazimova.

Lewton, like horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, had the conflicted heart of one who was obsessed with the supernatural, but could not accept it on any rational level. It’s amazing to realize this dark, almost nihilistic film – one of the first and most definitive of film noirs – was released in the middle of World War II, when most of Hollywood was churning out support-our-troops, keep-the-homefires-burning type entertainments. It remains Val Lewton’s most personal work.

For more on Lewton, The Seventh Victim, and Tourneur, see my previous posts: The Lewton-Friedkin-Kubrick Connection, and Tourneur’s The Fearmakers.