Saturday, 6 June 2009

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Nine

The Seventh Victim (1943) - part one

The Seventh Victim is one of Val Lewton’s most downbeat films. It plunges headfirst into the darkness, facing bleak metaphysical depths with an unblinking stare. The depiction of the city as a hell of isolated souls being controlled and destroyed by the powerful who themselves gain no pleasure from their victories is remarkably stark for a film coming out of a Hollywood studio with its eye on commerce rather than philosophically or politically engaged art. And yet, perhaps because it doesn’t shy away from envisaging the world as a depthless abyss of loneliness and exploitation, its small voices of hope ring loud and the film is in the end curiously uplifting. The void is confronted and small lights are lit in defiance of its devouring emptiness.

The film’s opening credits unfold over an arched stained-glass window which depicts a boat approaching an island. A man of Pre-Raphaelite appearance steers whilst a woman reclines lifelessly beside him. Is this the isle of the dead onto which they are about to disembark? The stained-glass immediately imparts an impression both of timelessness, of a story which has been told and retold across the ages, and of a certain metaphysical or spiritual quality. It suggests that the story we are about to be told will resonate beyond its surface details of time and place. The John Donne quote which follows is in keeping with Lewton’s tendency to begin his films with epigrammatic literary passages. On the one hand, these act as statements of intent, a declaration that what follows aims to be a cut above the usual b-movie fare. But they also serve as thematic signposts to the thematic core of the films. The Donne quote is especially apposite for The Seventh Victim, which is a particularly poetic film (one of its major characters is even a poet). The lines come from the first of Donne’s Holy Sonnets, which begins ‘Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?’ The poem details a struggle of the soul as it nears bodily death, tempted by the ‘old subtle foe’ and weighed down by the sin in ‘feebled flesh’ but looking to ‘thou (who) art above’ that ‘thy grace may wing me to prevent his art,/and thou like adamant draw mine iron heart.’ Lewton uses the decontextualised lines ‘I run to death, and death meets me as fast,/and all my pleasures are like yesterday.’ The excision of God and the hope of resurrection from the picture removes the idea of a moral struggle between body and soul and reduces the meaning to an intimation of inescapable fate. A fate, moreover, which is to be embraced, almost welcomed. The quote is certainly a perfect summation of the tenor of the film.

The opening scene is of the empty stairway of a school. The school is a place of beginnings, of the first acquisition of knowledge and the codes which prevail in the world beyond its protected halls. The staircase already hints at a transition, a step towards a new stage. We hear the voices of rote learning, the recitation of latin declensions, times tables and musical scales which weave together a world of rationally delineated order and meaning. The stained-glass past which the stairway descends suggests a religious purpose underlying this order. The left hand pane seems to depict a questing knight in a landscape accepting a gift from a woman; The grail, perhaps. It foreshadows the quest to come, which will be for a specific person, but also for knowledge and meaning.

The emptiness is suddenly filled by a noisy crowd of girls, full of companionable life, descending the stairs. One figure ascends against this bustling stream, set apart from its gaiety. This is Mary, our heroine, who has been called in to see the head, Mrs Lowood, about the disappearance of her sister Jacqueline. It becomes evident that Mary is an orphan who has been raised by her sister, and her disappearance has meant that the school fees have gone unpaid. Mary’s position in this sheltered environment is contingent on the maintenance of her sister's economic status. When that collapses, she is exiled from the substitute familial home. The school is the first of a series of settings and groups which offer a sense of belonging and community to the isolated and homeless. They can also act as traps, however. Throughout the interview, Mrs Lowood’s secretary Miss Gilchrist has been staring at Mary with an intense gaze (of empathy? Of longing?). Mary is offered a place as an assistant teacher, but determines to go out into the world and look for her sister. When she leaves the room, she is followed by Miss Gilchrist who urges her with some passion not to return. It’s obvious that she sees much of her younger self in Mary. ‘One must have courage to really live in the world’, she tells her. ‘I came back’. The sense of despair which is barely concealed by Miss Gilchrist’s manner is the first hint at the trials which Mary may encounter, and the pitfalls which she must avoid. The swiftly imparted advice is truncated by a curtly barked out command of ‘Gilchrist!’ (no ‘Miss’ now) which sends her rushing back into the room. There are hints here of a terribly demeaning life, of a spirit which has at some point been utterly crushed; and perhaps also of an abusive relationship? The school for Miss Gilchrist has become a prison, a constricted world of harshly defined limits and narrow boundaries. An architecture built out of fear.

Mary now descends the staircase which we first saw her ascending. Staircases are a recurrent motif in the film and represent stages of transition and of choice. Here, Mary pauses by the stained glass which depicts a grail quest scene and listens to the voices of ordered learning which she is leaving chant through the declensions of the French verb ‘chercher’, to search. The recitation of the personal pronouns (‘vous cherchez, nous cherchons’ – you search, we search) suggests a universality to the quest on which Mary is about to embark. Nominally her search may be for her sister, but in a wider sense it becomes a voyage of self-discovery, towards a coming of age and the development of a meaningful way of being in the world. As she moves to the door which leads to the world, she touches the clock which chimes. She is about to leave behind the protected environment of childhood and dependency, of frozen time. Her exit is marked by more poetry, this time from the American purveyor of ceremonial verse for occasions of import, Oliver Wendell Holmes. His ‘The Chambered Nautilus’ uses the metaphor of the shell-bearing mollusc to emphasise the necessity of the soul’s continual development, vacating its outgrown chambers, which remain as a physical reminder of its history. The lines quoted here are from the final verse: ‘Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,/As the swift seasons roll!/Leave they low-vaulted past!/Let each new temple, nobler than the last,/Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,/Till thou at length art free’. The final line, with its promise of the immortality of the soul, remains unspoken, leaving the nature of the freedom to which the lines push the reader to aspire ambiguous. The final line of the poem which we don't get to hear (following on from ‘Till thou at length art free’) reads ‘Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!’

These noble words fade as we cut to the interior of a factory. This is hardly a temple nobler than the last. The large vessel over which lab-coated workers labour, pouring in steaming liquids, is more akin to an alchemist’s alembic, giving the scene an air of modernity with an ancient core which is characteristic of the tone of the film as a whole. This is where the beauty products of the La Sagesse company are concocted. La Sagesse, or Wisdom, is here associated with the commercial world which markets the ideal of happiness through surface appearance. It is a devolved ideal for a spiritually arid age which seeks fulfilment through consumption. Mary is meeting Mrs Redi, who Mrs Lowood, the imperious head teacher, had referred to with an air of distaste. In fact, the two seem not dissimilar. Mrs Redi also has an air of distanced hauteur and offhand authority. Her manner is brisk and chilly, wholly lacking in empathy. This is the cold face of commerce. There are hints of hidden resentments, perhaps class-based, in Mrs Redi’s elliptical comments that ‘her friends were not my friends’ and ‘I was only manager of her plant’. Mary learns that Mrs Redi now owns the La Sagesse business, which has been sold to her by Jacqueline. Having been effectively stonewalled, Mary is about to leave when she is accosted by Frances, who works in the beauty parlour which also operates on the premises. They are clearly well acquainted, and Frances’ warm greeting and open friendliness stand in stark contrast to Mrs Redi’s froideur. She tells her that she saw Jacqueline a week ago at the Dante restaurant. In an ambivalent statement, she says ‘anybody who ever sees her never forgets her’. This seems merely to emphasise her absence. She exists only in memory and for us increasingly through personal intimations and indirect implication. We begin to picture her between the lines.

As Mary walks out onto the street, she passes the logo for La Sagesse cosmetics, set into the circular porthole window of the slick moderne storefront. It is the symbol of a brand, a business enterprise, a statement of the way things are. It represents the marriage of marketing and diabolism, of projected heavens and manifest hells.
The scene now fades into a view of the Dante Restaurant to which Mary is making her uncertain way. It is in the basement of an old brownstone building to the right of a stoop of stairs. In the street, laundry is being loaded into a van and in the background the chirpy melodies of an organ grinder pervade the air. It is a homely neighbourhood full of life, the antithesis of the antiseptic, controlled environment we have just seen. Inside the restaurant, a sad Italian song drifts out from an unseen source. The presence of a voice in an empty space is reminiscent of the scenes in the school which opened the film. The large portrait of Dante on the wall parallels the stained glass grail knight and marks another image of the quest; the poet’s search for meaning in ‘The Divine Comedy’ in which he is guided by his poetical inspiratin Virgil through Purgatory and Hell, and through Paradise by his muse Beatrice. These similarities suggest that the restaurant may prove to be a similar, if only temporary, haven; A base from which to launch expeditions. The explicit equation of the restaurant with poetry also posits art as a means of divining meaning and excavating the world for intimations of truth.

The proprietors of this sanctuary are Mr and Mrs Romari, who immediately assume the air of surrogate parents to Mary, albeit ones who require rent to be paid. In response to the questions Mary has put after having wandered into the kitchen, the warm heart of this cave-like shelter from the world, Mrs Romari remembers a beautiful woman in a beautiful car in beautiful furs with a handsome man and a chauffeur. ‘La bellissima Madonna’ as Mr Romari calls her. Jacqueline is becoming ever more a figure of shimmering, mythical spectrality. From this description, she appears almost to be a Goddess, descending into this subterranean realm before ascending once more to the world above. Learning that she has rented room number 7 upstairs which is kept locked, Mary pleads to have it opened. Mr Romari steadfastly refuses as he has given his word not to. It is at this point that we witness Mary’s ability to use her innocence in a self-conscious way to gain her own ends. She puts on a pleading voice which is hard to resist, and manages to wear down the restaurateur’s moral scruples.

As they work at the lock, we have our first meeting with Mimi, the consumptive, who lives in the room next door. She is drawn and pale, a living memento mori. Mimi is played by the actress Elizabeth Russell, who played several haunted (and haunting) women in Lewton’s films. She was the customer in the Serbian cafe who greeted Irena as ‘sister’ in Cat People and played the neglected and tormented daughter drifting through an empty house and life in Curse of the Cat People. When the door to room number 7 is broken open, the interlopers are faced with a stark tableau; a room empty save for a chair positioned beneath a hangman’s noose. It is like an art installation expressing the inescapability of death, the ultimate executioner. There is an ambiguity here, too. Is this a preparation for suicide or execution; for a voluntary act or one to which someone is subjected or driven to. It is a question which is never really resolved. This is the room in which Jacqueline has prepared her death. We are seeing behind her pre-prepared death’s door. It is a very sad room, the very opposite of the warm atmosphere which prevails in the cafe below, and it anticipates a lonely, isolated end

I’m reminded of Jacques Brel’s song (not yet written at the time of the film) La Mort (usually sung in a translation by Mort Shuman by singers such as Scott Walker, David Bowie and Marc Almond as 'My Death') in which each verse begins with the words ‘La mort m’attend...’ or death waits for me. It is an idea of a personalised version of death which can also be found in Jean Cocteau’s Orphee, in which the poet's Death stands at the foot of his bed and falls for his vain charms. Indeed, there is something very French about The Seventh Victim, and perhaps about Lewton’s films as a whole. They is are imbued with the sensibility of the Decadents, of Baudelaire and Huysmans, with their obsession with decay and moral collapse, of the deliberate courting of death. The chorus of Brel's song runs thus: ‘Mais qu’y a-t-il derriere la porte/Et qui m’attend déjà/Angel ou demon qu’importe/Au-devant de la porte il y a toi.’ (But whatever is behind the door/and who waits for me there/Angel or demon, it doesn’t matter/In front of the door there’s you’). It is a declaration of faith in the here and now, of the defiant voice of love in the face of mortality and as such could be the theme song for the film. The idea of ‘death’s door’ as a metaphor was made literal the recent BBC series ‘Being Human’,which depicted it in terms of the surrealism of the mundane and everyday rendered suddenly strange. Jacqueline’s death is closed in and perhaps kept at bay behind the locked door of her rented room. Mimi keeps behind her closed door to ward off her death. Her consumptive fragility means that going out into the world will lead swiftly to her end. These two figures are strangely linked and counterbalanced, Jacqueline with her death confined within a locked room and Mimi with her door closed against the death waiting for her outside. The two will meet later, going in opposite directions and meeting for a fleeting moment on the transitional space of the staircase.

No comments: