film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Seventh Victim (1943)

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So, a confession: I usually watch these films in the evenings after work, and once in a blue moon I doze off for a bit in the middle; never because of the movie, more because of my middle-aged energy level.  If that happens, I go back to the last scene I remember and try again.  Sometimes I discover that I only missed a moment I needn’t have worried about, like the main character walking to the drug store and saying “hi” to someone; other times I realize I missed a couple of important plot points.

I say this because The Seventh Victim was one such instance of my waking up and needing to rewind back. This time, though, even though I’d missed a good deal, watching it again still didn’t explain much.

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This was bonkers, y’all.  It started out as a simple mystery story; Mary (Kim Hunter), a student at a prestigious boarding school, learns at the start of the movie that her tuition hasn’t been paid in months and her sister Jacqueline, her only family, is missing. She drops out of school to find Jacqueline, stopping first at the high-end cosmetic company she’d founded.  But Jacqueline’s business partner tells her Jacqueline had sold her shares of the business off a few months earlier.  Another friend swears to having seen Jacqueline at an Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village a week prior, still another person suggests she check out the morgue…

….And that’s where things start going weird, as Mary’s further investigations turn up Jacqueline’s secret husband, a rented room with nothing in it but a noose, a reclusive neighbor with tuberculosis, a mysterious psychiatrist, and a secret society that may be a Satanic cult.  Jacqueline makes a couple of tantalizing appearances, there’s a dude with a switchblade stalking people and a one-armed pianist hanging about, a poet spontaneously decides to join Mary in her search, the cult tries to compel someone to drink poison, and at one point there’s a scene where Mary is happily teaching a group of kindergarteners to sing a nursery rhyme about cutting off people’s heads.  That’s a lot to take in.

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Several critics call out The Seventh Victim for being somewhat opaque and hard to follow.  There were four scenes cut that would have helped the plot hang together a little better; one of them also delves into the origins of the cult a little bit. The film does keep in one scene where the poet and the psychiatrist have a mild confrontation with the cult members that end with each reciting parts of The Lord’s Prayer at them before primly walking out; but other than that, we never really learn much about the cult – what they believe, why they believe it, how they operate, how long they’ve been around, much of anything.  The biggest detail we learn about them is that they all eschew non-violence, and that they identify with an arcane symbol Jacqueline incorporated into her logo for her cosmetics company.

It wasn’t the plot that made my head swim anyway, to be honest.  There’s this strangely passionless and formal tone to the film – Mary’s usual response to the film’s various alarming revelations is little more than wide-eyed befuddlement.  I mean, I’d be confused by the events of the film as well – but if I discovered that my sister had secretly married someone, my response would be somewhat stronger than “goodness, that’s surprising”, and a poet trying to interfere with everything would prompt something stronger from me than Mary’s placid acceptance.  In that confrontation the poet and psychiatrist have with the cult, no one’s voice rises above the level of “pleasant conversation”, even though they’re flinging accusations of being Evil People In League With Satan.

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There’s also a sort of fatalism throughout; it’s hinted that Jacqueline has suicidal tendencies, and we’re supposed to think it’s because of her involvement with the cult – but it’s unclear that she didn’t already tend to view the world through a dark lens.  The film opens with a title card bearing a meditation on death from John Donne (“I run to death, and death meets me as fast / and all my pleasures are like yesterday”) which Mary’s voice recites again at the end of the film, as the tubercular neighbor, who’s just told someone that if she’s about to die she’s going to go out for one last party, is gliding out a door in an evening gown.  A lot of the poet’s attitude towards life is “eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die”, and even the couple who owns the Italian restaurant tries to cheer Mary up by adjuring her that “life is too short”.  Mortality comes up a heck of a lot in this film, as does a sense of pessimism and “what’s the point” about life itself.  Despite the chaos of the plot, though, Mary seems to be determined to move forward in a positive direction (through a somewhat far-fetched development, and that’s all I’ll say about that) while Jacqueline…doesn’t.  Maybe that’s what the film was ultimately getting at.  But I’ll be darned if I can say for sure.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

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Young Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Teresa Wright) has a special relationship with her uncle Charles (Joseph Cotton). She was named after him and grew up listening to her mother’s stories of his glamorous escapades; her mother Emma, Charles’ older sister, also idolizes him.  In her Uncle, Charlie sees a window into a more cosmopolitan, intellectual lifestyle than the one she’s living in quiet Santa Rosa, California.  So Charlie is elated when Uncle Charles suddenly telegrams that he’s arriving for an extended visit.

At first Charles is welcomed with open arms.  Emma and Charlie are looking forward to plenty of bonding time, and the rest of the family – and soon the rest of the town – is entertained, if a bit bemused.  Charles is even invited to speak at the local ladies’ club and give lectures at the Town Hall.  But gradually Charlie starts noticing some things don’t add up – like the ring he gives her as a gift that has another woman’s name already engraved in it. Or the habit he has of stealing random pages out of her father’s newspaper.  Or the two men hovering around the house who keep trying to find excuses to talk to the family about Uncle Charles.  Or the way Uncle Charles seems to get a little nervous whenever anyone gossips about a pending nationwide manhunt for a serial killer.

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It is telegraphed pretty early on that Uncle Charles is the serial killer in question, a man the press has dubbed the “Merry Widow” killer for his habit of wooing wealthy widows and then strangling them and taking their money.  The suspense then comes from watching Charlie first piece the mystery together and then struggle to hide her “enlightenment” from Uncle Charles.  But soon Uncle Charles seems to find her out, and starts pleading his case to her, persuading her to keep her newfound knowledge secret.  But Charlie is torn, of course, and soon finds herself suffering a series of “accidents” around the house…

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For a “noir” film, this certainly looks sunny.  Santa Rosa is presented as a near-idyllic small town; the local beat cop knows everyone by name, families regularly leave their doors unlocked, Charlie’s family home is sun-dappled and cozy and there’s a picturesque town green.  Even neighbor Herb (Hume Cronyn, in his debut role) and his habit of reading true crime novels and thinking up “how to commit a murder” schemes with Charlie’s father is dismissed as a kooky eccentric, rather than anyone to worry about (and Herb even comes to Charlie’s rescue after one of her “mishaps”).

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Hitchcock went out of his way to make Charlie’s life as small-town-picturesque as possible, to the point that he hired playwright Thorton Wilder (author of the famous play Our Town) as one of the screenwriters.  It all seems to be built up as a contrast to Uncle Charles, who gradually lets slip that he has a very different view of humanity indeed; during one cozy family scene, as Charlie’s father and Herb are brainstorming about true crime, Uncle Charles suddenly chimes in with a chilling speech about elderly widows comparing them to “fat, wheezing animals”.  “…And what happens to animals when they get too old?”  It’s a brilliant scene; Charlie has just started to have her suspicions about Uncle Charles, the rest of the family is living in blissful ignorance, and Uncle Charles is still coming across as “secretive” instead of “dangerous”, but this speech – delivered in a cold monotone by Cotten – confirms Charlie’s suspicions, and is the first real sign of danger in the film.  When critics asked Hitchcock if there was any main “theme” to this film, he offered that “love and good order are no defense against evil”, and this is the moment when Charlie first realizes that.  Uncle Charles’ opinions actually aren’t all that different from your average serial killer manifesto, but after so much sunny small town charm, it’s startling to see those attitudes rear their heads.

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Another element that I found a bit uneasy – possibly unintenionally – was the relationship between Charlie and her uncle itself.  Charlie idolizes him with an ardor that feels romantic after a while, and Uncle Charles’ affection for his niece feels similarly intimate.   I’ve been trying to find out if that was intentional on Hitchcock’s part; Alex studied this film in school and said that his own class was inconclusive on the matter, “but….my hunch is probably he did?”  Whether intentional or not, it’s noticeable enough that I was discomfited early on, probably before Hitchcock meant me to be.  You never outright see anything incestuous, and there’s no outright statement of impure intent from either character, but there’s still enough of a tone to make me uneasy – to the point that I’d actually suggest a mild content-warning for future viewers. This film served as an influence on the 2013 film Stoker, one which has a similar plot – but takes the uncle and niece relationship to a much more blatantly incestuous place.