It's obvious Hollywood saw women as little more than objects of desire in 1943. In one of the year's most iconic films, Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, a young woman pines weirdly for her visiting uncle, her primary purpose to please the men of her household. Yet little-known horror noir The Seventh Victim (directed by Mark Robson but helmed by producer Val Lewton), a film released the same year as the Hitchcock classic, has a radically different portrayal of women. Its female characters control their own destinies, share intimate sexual relationships with one another, and aren't afraid to answer back to men.
The film focuses on Mary (played by the striking Kim Hunter), a young woman who learns that her older sister and only guardian Jacqueline (Jean Brooks) has gone missing in New York. When told by her boarding school that her sister has stopped paying for her tuition, Mary is forced to go to the city to search for answers. As she departs, one of her female teachers advises, "Don't come back here, no matter what. A woman must have courage to really live in this world." It's the first of several overtly feminist statements in the film that serve to amplify the strength of femininity.
When Mary is ordered to drink her milk in a café by a man who claims to know of Jacqueline's whereabouts, she shouts back, "I don't like to be ordered to do anything. Don't you dare treat me like a child!" He politely replies, "I promise I'll never order you around again." While this exchange might not seem too radical in 2017, it is uncharacteristically bold for the sexist 1940s.
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Mary later discovers Jacqueline's cosmetics business has been sold to a friend Esther Redi (Mary Newton), but the motives appear shady at best. And after questioning Jacqueline's hairdresser Frances Fallon (Isabel Jewell) about Jacqueline's whereabouts, Mary is led to her sister's apartment—above an Italian restaurant presciently called Dante's—and discovers a living room with a noose and a chair. Jacqueline, it transpires, has got caught up in a Satanic cult and is on the run.
According to film historian and TASCHEN author Paul Duncan, the film is deliberately ambiguous. "The Seventh Victim is counterintuitive in its storytelling and content, and is about the absence of things rather than their presence," he tells Broadly. "The film is about what is unseen, and about what is left unsaid." But why should Jacqueline want to kill herself?
The signs are plentiful. Jacqueline has recently married a lawyer Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont), yet shows no signs of wanting to take his name or be with him romantically. Ward reveals to Mary, "There's something about your sister a man can never quite get hold of." Jacqueline is also "miserable" with her life, necessitating regular visits to psychiatrist Dr Louis Judd. (The doctor is played sarcastically by Tom Conway, who reprises the same character from Lewton's similarly odd 1942 masterpiece Cat People—a film that also tackles repressed sexuality.) It turns out that Jacqueline has fallen in with the secretive cult and is now wanted dead by its members, who fear that she has told her psychiatrist about them.
In one of the cult's early meetings, a passing remark is made that hairdresser Frances—also under the Satanists' thrall—is "in love" and likes to be "intimate" with Jacqueline. Later on, the Satanists capture Jacqueline and try to force her to drink poison, but she refuses—only accepting on the insistence of Frances, with whom she exchanges many tender stares. The movie never explicitly confirms their sexual relationship, but the depth of their feelings for each other is clear. When Frances changes her mind and saves Jacqueline's life by destroying the glass of poison, she screams, "I can't let you die. The only time I ever was happy was with you."
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"It is not difficult to see that the true story, which could not be told explicitly at the time, is that Jacqueline—in love with Frances but in denial—marries Gregory Ward, but cannot live with her decision," explains Duncan. "The Satanism is merely a diversion, a red herring, from the real drama: that lesbianism is not socially acceptable."
The Seventh Victim also has an eerie obsession with mortality. Jacqueline lives next door to a terminally ill woman called Mimi and in one of the film's final scenes, the two women have a haunting conversation. "I'm dying but tonight I'm going to go out to laugh and dance," Mimi says, in between coughing fits. Jacqueline replies: "Why wait for death? I've always wanted to die."
As Mimi passes by Jacqueline's apartment in the next scene, the sound of someone kicking away a chair echoes throughout the hallway. A voiceover then closes the film with the John Donne sonnet: "I run to death, and death meets as fast, and all my pleasures are like yesterday." Jacqueline, unable to escape her cult but left adrift in society, takes control of her destiny by hanging herself. But despite such a dark end, her suicide feels oddly poignant—in fact, producer Val Lewton said that he wanted the primary message to be that "death can be good."
Unfortunately, The Seventh Victim was criticized widely on its release. In a particularly scathing New York Times review, film critic Bosley wrote, "It might make more sense if it was run backward." But time has made many re-evaluate the little-seen film's legacy. "The Seventh Victim is a vicious little masterpiece of self-annihilation, where society is more damning than the Satanists," says Duncan.
It wasn't until the 1960s, with films like The Fox (1967), that lesbian sex was explicitly shown on screen. Still, the film clearly made an impression on a generation of horror filmmakers: The lighting in a threatening shower scene involving Mary bears startling similarities to the Janet Leigh's iconic murder in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), and its plot (a Satanic cult secretly operating in Manhattan) shares narrative themes with the Roman Polanski masterpiece Rosemary's Baby (1968). But 74 years on, it's about time The Seventh Victim was discovered by a wider audience—who, perhaps more than 40s audiences, might be better placed to appreciate its warning about the deadly consequences of sexual repression.