Monday, October 10, 2005

I Runne To Death

For those of you who haven't seen Val Lewton's The Seventh Victim, buy or rent it (it's only available as part of the Lewton box set) and watch it before someone spoils the ending for you. For those of you who have watched it, here is the original screenplay, which includes scenes that didn't make it into the finished film. There was, for example, supposed to be an epilogue that would tie up the plot a little more clearly.

I think the movie works better in its final form than it would have with some of the additional scenes, though as with all Lewton's movies, I do wonder what it would have been like if it had been twenty minutes longer and therefore had time to flesh out the plot and the characters. (The Seventh Victim was conceived as an "A" picture and then made as a "B" so that the young Mark Robson could direct it; if it had been made as an "A," it would have been longer and presumably had a better-known cast.) Lewton movies had to be no more than 70 minutes, so most of the scenes are practically in shorthand: they seem to start late and end early, with no room for pauses or any kind of verisimilitude (a scene in an "A" picture will usually start with some small talk to lead into the main conversation; there's no time for that in a "B" picture). The disadvantage of that is that you're left wanting more; the advantage is that there's never a wasted moment, and the clipped, elliptical style of the scenes enhances the nightmare quality of the movies.

Here's the way the best scene in The Seventh Victim -- the scene between Jacqueline, suicidal fugitive from the Satanic cult, and Mimi, a woman dying of a debilitating disease (a reference to La Boheme) plays out in the script, which is almost exactly the same as the filmed version:


The gas light has been turned down so that there is only a tiny flame to illuminate the hall. The draft in the hallway stirs this little flame and the shadows move with it. Jacqueline comes up the stairs. Now that she can be seen more closely, it can be seen also that she is exhausted, her eyes wild, her hair in disorder. She almost staggers as she reaches the landing and goes slowly supporting herself on the banisters, toward Mary's door. Her way brings her past Room #7, the room with the noose. For a moment she stands weakly staring at the door, then goes on. She has reached Mary's room, has crossed the narrow hallway and her hand is almost on the knob when Mimi's door opens and Mimi, white night—gowned, comes out into the eerie gas light. Jacqueline looks at her face which is distorted and horrible in the moving shadows and flickering light. She stifles a scream. The other girl is also frightened. The two stand staring at each other for a moment.

Who are you?

I'm Mimi -- I'm dying.


Yes. It's been quiet, oh ever so
quiet. I hardly move, yet it keeps
coming all the time -—closer and
closer. I rest and rest and yet I
am dying.

And you don't want to die. I've
always wanted to die -- always.

I'm afraid.

Jacqueline shakes her head.

I'm tired of being afraid -— of

Why wait?

(with sudden
I'm not going to wait. I'm going
out -- laugh, dance --do all the
things I used to do.

And then?

I don't know.

(very softly end almost
with envy)
You will die.

But Mimi has already turned back into her room. Jacqueline stands watching until the light snaps on in Mimi's room and then the door closing, plunges the hall into weird half light again. In this semi-darkness, she turns away from Mary's door and walks down the hall toward room #7. She opens the door and goes in. For a brief moment the light from the hall casts the shadow of a noose against the further wall of the room and then the door closes behind her.

The strange, clipped quality of the scenes, along with the fact that many of the plot details are either obscured or unexplained, makes movies like I Walked With a Zombie or Curse of the Cat People or The Seventh Victim seem like art movies -- movies that are more about mood than story.

I previously posted some excerpts from Lewton interviews, in which he talked about his methods ("A love story, three scenes of suggested horror and one of actual violence, fadeout"), here.

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