Combustible Celluloid
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With: Tom Conway, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, Kim Hunter, Evelyn Brent, Erford Gage, Ben Bard, Hugh Beaumont, Chef Milani, Marguerita Sylva
Written by: Charles O'Neal, DeWitt Bodeen
Directed by: Mark Robson
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 71
Date: 21/08/1943

The Seventh Victim (1943)

4 Stars (out of 4)

What the Devil?

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In the 1940s, Val Lewton produced nine extraordinary horror films for RKO Studios, employing three directors (four, if you count the poor, fired Gunther Von Fritsch). Critics have long agreed that Jacques Tourneur was the best, Robert Wise was in the middle, and Mark Robson was at the bottom. But lately one of Robson's entries, The Seventh Victim (1943), has been picking up steam as one of the finest and most underrated of the pictures. Unlike Cat People (1942) or I Walked with a Zombie (1943), it barely has anything supernatural, or even scary about it, but it's endlessly gripping and endlessly fascinating.

It begins as pretty young Mary Gibson (future Oscar-winner Kim Hunter, in her film debut), is informed that her sister Jacqueline has disappeared. Her sister had been paying the tuition for Mary's school, and with no more checks coming in Mary has little choice but to leave and search for her sister in New York (despite a weird warning). There, she meets several people who act strangely or fail to tell the entire truth, and she discovers a mysterious room that her sister has rented and sometimes visits. When we eventually meet Jacqueline, we see that she's played by Jean Brooks, with a memorable dark hairdo and straight-across bangs.

I won't say anymore, except to say that this is a remarkably patient exercise for a story that unfolds over a brief 71 minutes. Robson and Lewton fill the time with very strange little throwaways and detours -- including a shot of Mary pausing to look at a clock -- making sure that by the time we actually find Jacqueline, nothing seems quite right. It's an intellectual horror, beginning with a student and brought on by thinkers (perhaps too much thinking?). For more -- and more eloquent -- information, poet and critic John Ashbery wrote a superb essay about the film in 2003 that is included in Phillip Lopate's collection "American Movie Critics."

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