Posts Tagged ‘Kim Hunter’


Val Lewton (and director Mark Robson)’s The Seventh Victim is a deeply divisive film. Extravagantly praised by some (although, to tell ya the truth, I don’t think it’s possible to overestimate this gently nihilistic slice of quotidian terror), it is just as often treated as a weak link in the Lewton series (generally by critics who deplore its choppy, bordering-on-incoherent narrative).

I want to tip my cap to Ed Howard for articulating his sense of the film’s “disjunctive” storytelling style–its strategy of narrative-progression-through-digression. He’s quite right. It’s a relay race through subjectivities (to the finish line of Lewton’s oft-quoted summation of the film: “Death is good”) that plays like an ultra-compressed precursor of my all-time favourite film, David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (which I read “super-oneirically”–in what remains my favourite on-line discussion–against the grain of the generally-accepted psychological–dream/reality–interpretation of the film, ably presented by Charles Reece).

Like Mulholland Dr., The Seventh Victim begins deep within the consciousness of a naive, curious and ultimately very forceful young woman. Kim Hunter’s Mary Gibson is really a unique presence (although she shares a number of traits with Teresa Wright’s Charlie Newton in Shadow of a Doubt–the ONLY female character in Hitchcock’s oeuvre who succeeds in “hijacking” the narrative–i.e. overpowering the director’s famed voyeuristic eye… amazingly–both of these movies premiered during the same week in August 1943!), a genuinely feminist agent (rather than the ultimately reactionary–because they reinforce male supremacy–“strong women” that Howard Hawks specialized in giving us). Nowhere is this more apparent than in the counter scene, in which she tells genial proto-patriarch Hugh Beaumont (who patronizingly asks her to drink her milk), “I don’t like to be ordered to do anything.” It’s an amazing moment–on a number of levels. Right on the surface, you just don’t SEE women in films from this period reacting to paternalistic “kindness” in this way. If a woman does assert her rights, it’s because the man has blatantly invited her ire (and often not even then). But on a more metatextual level, I like to read the milk as a rejection of the entire gothic noir tradition of female victimization represented by 1941’s Suspicion (whose most vivid scene features Joan Fontaine dutifully quaffing a glass of the white stuff that she suspects has been poisoned).


Time and again (and the fact that the whole movie only lasts 71 minutes always shocks me, because it literally contains multitudes), the story shows us Mary disarming and taking control of situations that genre and cultural expectations lead us to expect will overwhelm her——her bemused farewell to the clock as she leaves the sinister private school; her complete mastery–to the point that she actually orders him to his death–of Lou Lubin’s Irving August–introduced as a “wise guy” who seems likely to take her for a ride, but who exits as a soft-spoken and really quite tragic martyr to Mary’s strength (a fact that she recognizes and incorporates into her self-image, without allowing this knowledge to undermine her essential stance vis-a-vis the world); her deflection of Beaumont’s smugly proprietary maneuvers; her brazen invasion of the perfume works–worming information out of the always-wonderful Isabel Jewell; and her ability to go toe-to-toe with–and even coax some pretty decent behaviour out of–Tom Conway’s reborn Louis Judd (Simone Simon needed to become a monstrous panther before she could deal with him in Cat People.)

Mary Gibson is a complete hero. She is sensitive–and yet, she is not fazed by dire events. She makes mistakes and takes note of them. She completes investigatory tasks–and knows when to delegate them to others. And yet–she is in no way the complete film…

Because The Seventh Victim knows how to delegate as well.

Again, like Mulholland Dr., Lewton’s (and I do think it’s fair to call this Lewton’s film, rather than Robson’s, because the producer is completely responsible for its structure) story stretches across (at least) three separate subjectivities. Proponents of the Wizard of Oz-in-reverse interpretation of the Lynch film ignore the fact that Betty, Diane AND Adam all have a go at carrying the narrative. In The Seventh Victim, the key players are Mary, Jason (the Poet) and (Mary’s sister) Jacqueline (played by the enigmatic Jean Brooks).

the-foot-of-danteseventhvictim(She looks a lot like Hope Davis, doesn’t she?)

I’ve read criticisms on the IMDB from viewers who were annoyed that the film does not seem to know whose story is being told–and that’s a valid criticism if you’re proceeding upon psychological realist assumptions–however, I would submit that no one ought to watch this movie through that lens. To wit–The Seventh Victim tells Lewton’s story… and tells it perfectly. I’m not talking about concealed biography here (although many of the film’s contemporary champions do exactly that)–I’m talking about a magnificently talented auteur dipping into a very rich stream of consciousness(es), baiting his narrative hook for a “live one” that is running (against the current) toward death (which, don’t forget, is “good”) at the appropriate speed. And he eventually finds her, in Jean Brooks’ refugee from Satanism.

But not before traveling through the middle term of Jason Hoag, the once-productive poet who has fallen upon hard times, but whose existential and creative spirit is revived by contact with Mary. As this figure takes the subjective baton from the woman he loves, and begins his investigation of Jacqueline’s disappearance, we observe the ways in which even a defective–or, let’s face it, delusional–imagination can preserve (prevent?) a mind from tumbling into the abyss (is that good?). Some viewers seem to resent this poet–and when people criticize the film’s dialog, they usually cite his lines. After all, this is a guy who says things like: “I was hoping that this [Mary’s visit to his apartment] was your advent into my world–and instead it’s goodbye.”


I guess that kinda stuff could bother people, but I love it. Jason’s dialog seems to exist in order to prove Mrs. Romari right–i.e. that poetry and clowning are in fact the same thing. I couldn’t agree more. Jason exists in a kind of charmed (charmed enough, anyway) limbo between Mary’s vigorous curiosity and Jacqueline’s clear-eyed ennui.

And while he’s bumbling about through the satanic/literary underworld (which encompasses former dead-man–from Cat People–Louis Judd), the film surveys a plethora of damaged people, each of whom has negotiated his or her own separate peace with the existential facts of life and death. In a sense, everyone we meet is a “missing person” (which explains the incredibly poetic pan–accompanied by mournful backstories–across the faces of Mary’s fellow-yearners at the Missing Persons Bureau). But what the camera (unlike Mary) is seeking, is not reconciliation, but renunciation.

And Lewton (through Nicholas Musuraca’s extraordinary cinematography–essential to the effectiveness of this entire series) hits paydirt (with pre-dug six-foot trench eyes) with Jacqueline Gibson. And once we obtain a firm lock on her–after her blip of an introduction during Mary’s part of the film–we stick with her pretty much to The (and her) End. And the most important thing about Jacqueline’s escape from the softly horrible world that Lewton gives us is that she chooses it. Like Mary, Jacqueline refuses to imbibe from the (here literally poisoned) fount of arbitrary authority, although she does weaken when her beloved Frances Fallon (echoes of The Miracle Woman‘s Florence Fallon–who saves David Manners from killing himself? probably not) begs her to cut the scene short.


But Jacqueline ain’t goin’ out like that–and her friend realizes at the last moment that she isn’t meant to. What follows, after the Satanists dismiss the film’s third and most lucid reflector from their lair, has always read, to me, as a psychodrama (designed to clarify Jacqueline’s understanding of the world she–and, Lewton implies, WE–cannot help but deplore), rather than as an actual assassination attempt. Her harrowing journey home, beset by mute knife wielders and noisy, insensitive clowns, sets the final seal upon this woman’s premeditated decision to kill herself.

Jacqueline doesn’t need those devil-worshipers to speed her on her way. And she’s not afraid of them–only of the deeply fearful attitude toward life that these lost souls embody. In fact, the film is at its most perceptive when it points out that Satanism–just like any other religion, including the cults of Art or Romantic Love–is simply one of many possible buffers against the existential truth that guides Jacqueline’s ultimate behaviour. (And how amazing is it that Lewton charges Conway’s sleazy Louis Judd with the task of rebuking the Satanists for failing to live up to the injunction–contained within the Lord’s Prayer–to forgive those who trespass against us? You could argue that he’s telling us to dismiss this moralistic speech as pure bosh–OR, you could take it seriously, as I do, as yet another echo, from an unexpected source, of my favourite Emersonian dictum, from “Experience”–i.e. as long as we’re here, and despite the fact that we really have no escape from the void of solipsism–“Let us treat the men and women well: treat them as if they were real: perhaps they are. “)

Earlier in the film, Beaumont tells Mary/Kim Hunter that Jacqueline’s sense of human dignity depends upon a person’s ability to take sole responsibility for putting an end to the affair, at the time of his/her choosing. Coupled with our brief glimpse of what’s behind the door of room number 7, and the symbolic meaning of Brooks’ nightwalk, this information lays the groundwork for one of the most bracing scenes in the Lewtonian canon (and, indeed, in the history of cinema), in which the outward bound Jacqueline and the stricken, going-out-on-the-town Mimi (Elizabeth Russell) cross paths on their respective sprints toward death. The moment somehow gathers everything that has come before it into a glitteringly multi-perspectival dramatization of existence at the frayed edges of the dream of intersubjectivity (or, if you’re more of an opti-mystic type, the intersubjective dream!)

good afternoon friends!


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DeJa Lou (Lubin)?

DeJa Lou (Lubin)?

As obsessed as I am with Dieterle, Borzage, Vidor, Lynch, Capra, Fritz Lang, Dreyer, Cassavetes, Sternberg, Wyler, Powell and Pressburger, George Stevens, Sirk, Milestone, McCarey, LaCava, Preston Sturges, Ray, Goulding, Hitchcock, Preminger, Sofia Coppola, Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, Dmytryk, Minnelli, Jacques Tourneur and many others, I am probably even more interested in star personae. So it was entirely in character for me to jump from A Matter of Life and Death to another Kim Hunter vehicle from the mid-1940s.

Thanks to the magic of avi files, I wound up screening When Strangers Marry–a pretty fascinating Monogram film (directed by a very young William Castle) from 1944. Fascinating in itself and in its intertextual ramifications. How to describe this movie? I’d say it’s about 20% Suspicion, 20% Shadow of a Doubt and 60% Lewton and Robson’s The Seventh Victim.

The first 40% of that equation makes perfect sense, of course, because we know that Poverty Row survived by ripping off the Majors on a systematic basis–but WSM‘s debt to the previous year’s Lewton entry is quite surprising. The movie is one of my absolute favourites–definitely in my personal Top 25 (my next entry will focus on The Seventh Victim proper)–but everything I’ve ever read indicates that it was a commercial (and even critical) failure. In fact, it still doesn’t appear to be nearly as well-regarded as it ought to be (I love pretty much all of the Lewton films–but, for me, Robson’s debut film represents the apex of the series). Anyway, since there can’t have been much cachet in ripping off Seventh Victim in 1944, I have to assume that Castle did it for the pure love of the thing! (Perhaps he deserves credit as the movie’s first critical champion?)

Of course, at least half of that 60% (I seem to be exuding faux-mathematical hubris this morning) is Kim Hunter’s developing persona (which didn’t actually develop very fully, since she spent most of her career on the stage, even before the blacklisting nonsense), which is quite unique (although it shares certain features with another of my favourites–Teresa Wright). 7V established the template by casting her as, basically, a low-key, intellectual Nancy Drew transplanted to the noir city, and unbeholden to any patriarchal authority. In both films, she begins as a somewhat naive and tentative young woman who quickly grows into a force to be reckoned with by soaking up the shadows that envelop her low-budget New York night sets–through a kind of photo(graphy)synthesis.

She also shares strangely lyrical scenes with Lou Lubin in both movies.

"You could go on"

"You could go on"

I love that little guy (and I wouldn’t even know his name without the IMDB)

Anyway, I won’t say too much more about When Strangers Marry, because I doubt that ANY of you have actually seen it–and I really do recommend it! It’s not on the level of any of the movies it borrows from, but it’s not too far off the mark either. Hunter is absolutely perfect; there are some very nice early noir montages; and Castle generates some top-notch suspense set pieces, particularly on the cab ride and at the mail chute. The movie also anticipates many noirs of the LATE 1940s by dropping in on a Harlem night club. And Dean Jagger contributes some very nice mystery man stuff.

Hunted or Hunter?

Hunted or Hunter?

The Jagger Edge

The Jagger Edge


Plus there’s Robert Mitchum (in what must be his first quasi-starring role in a decent film) and his excellent canine friend:


Next up–The Seventh Victim!!

Good afternoon friends!


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"Reassuring, isn't it?"

"Reassuring, isn't it?"

“Film Blanc” (the term was introduced by Peter Valenti, in the pages of the Journal of Popular Film, although I first encountered it through Glenn Erickson) is a politically suspect style of phantasmagoria that came into its own during the exact same period (the 1940s) that its anti-thesis (film noir) flourished (although, of course, both styles had their precursors in literature and in early cinema).

While film noir looks at this hellish period from the crushed vantage of the alienated individual, the blanc movies pull waaaaaay back to look at the “big picture,” revealing that all of this death and destruction is maya, and that every terrible thing happens for a reason. At its worst, film blanc is horrifyingly smug, presenting a “best of all possible universes” scenario that is just begging for the Candide treatment.

On the other hand, you could argue that I’m being a little smug in passing judgment upon a series of films that obviously helped a lot of people through circumstances that I don’t have much experience with. It’s a fact of human psychology that we need to posit some ground of certainty beneath our mental feet before we can move forward. (Film noir shows us what happens when every vestige of that certainty is cleared away–in The Killers‘ “Swede.”) Still, I think we can hold people responsible for the kind of fantasy they stake their future (and their agency) upon.

Especially when one of the films blancs on the menu is Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

Here’s a movie that could easily have become nefariously (status) quomforting–it was mandated by the Ministry of Information for god’s sake! (P & P were asked to make a film that cast post-war Anglo-American relations in the best possible light.) It presents heaven as a futuristic community center where the miraculously unmangled war-dead are outfitted with mass-produced angel wings and sent off to enjoy various leisure pursuits. It pays lip-service to Mr. Jordan-style bureaucracy, with every preordained death drained of its actuality by actuarial decree. The script even commits casual murder in order to move one its most beloved characters (unruffled by the experience, of course) onto the correct plane of existence, at the appointed time.

And yet, Powell and Pressburger manage to steer their way through these obstacles (or, rather, engulf them in narratological brilliance) to produce a truly exhilarating and politically progressive film. Did I mention that I love P & P? The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is, I am quite certain, one of the greatest films ever made, and several other works in their canon (The Red Shoes, I Know Where I’m Going, Black Narcissus and Gone To Earth–although I suppose the last choice might not play as well outside of my Jennifer Jones- and animal rights-loving perspective) are right up there!

So how did they manage this feat?

It starts with two wonderfully preemptive strikes against the cosmology of the style/genre/whatever-you-want-to-call-it.

First off, at the conclusion of a very nicely rendered Technicolor tour of the universe, the voice-over guide introduces our planet (see image above), spinning serenely on its axis (and in supposed harmony with all that has come before it), in an ironic tone of voice that amounts to a dare–“isn’t that reassuring?”

No, not really. Or, if it is, it’s only because we crave reassurance so badly that we are willing to think about exploding solar systems, sucking voids and freezing gas clouds in some very creative ways. Our narrator gives us license to do precisely that, while reminding us that this interpretive stratagem has nothing to do with objective reality.

Then the camera zooms in on the supposedly different (i.e. ravaged by “apparent” chaos) realm of human history, on the night of May 2nd 1945. The first spoken words sound, to me, like P & P’s genre-bending battle cry, as RAF pilot-in-distress David Niven introduces himself to a distant radio tower by describing himself as “Conservative by temperament, Labour by experience.” That’s Great Britain in 1945. And it’s also the film blanc–in P & P’s hands.

Niven’s interlocutor?


The wondrous Kim Hunter as an American flight controller. Need I say more?

It’s an amazing variation on the “meet cute” scenario. Niven (steeling himself to bail out of his burning plane without a parachute) and Hunter, aided by some magnificent editing and Cardiff cinematography, generate an astonishingly intimate mood, during their brief radio exchange. In order for this film to work, you have to believe, by the time Niven jumps, that these two have somehow fallen in love. And you do. Or, at least, I do!

No doubt about it, this is a “love is stronger than logic” story–but it’s an unusually even-keeled one that eschews the isolationist proclivities of the genre in favour of an emphasis upon the tangible future that the spotlighted couple (and the nations that they represent) hope to create.

But first, of course, they have to meet again (and even “cuter”)–and the film wastes no time in bringing this about.

Somehow intact (in fact, he is in such good shape that, knowing the way this genre works, you figure he MUST be dead), Niven wanders for a few minutes across a very pleasant landscape, expressing delight when he meets this putative paradise’s first inhabitant:


I love dogs too… but I digress!

Moments after this meeting, the pilot is directed (by an Arcadian shepherd boy) to Ms. Hunter herself, biking home from the tower. No, this isn’t heaven! It’s much, much better! They recognize each others’ voices immediately, and pick up where they left off the night before–which means they are soon kissing. That’s how simple things are on the magical earthly plane posited by the film.

It’s (black and white) Heaven that complicates things, with its bureaucratic timetables and claustrophobic vistas.


AND its peevish Ancien Regime Aristo agents:


Marius Goring’s “Conductor 71” plays the Edward Everett Horton role (the functionary who goofs and upsets the heavenly applecart). Actually, both Here Comes Mr. Jordan and A Matter of Life and Death offer an implicit critique of the Heavenly regime, simply by dramatizing its fallibility. However, I find P & P’s variation upon the theme immensely more interesting–firstly, because it raises more interesting existential questions (pretty much “to be or not to be,” rather than “whose body shall I use tonight?”), and secondly, because it’s all staged in such a way that it almost has to be read as an exploration of a mind (Niven’s) in extremis, driven to clutch at exactly the kind of totalizing system that Jordan promotes so much more unquestioningly.

When Niven goes on trial for his life, arguing that Goring’s negligence has allowed him to bring to fruition a love that neither he nor Hunter had ever expected to consummate (bringing responsibilities that he claims he ought now be given the chance to fulfill), he stumbles into a fascinatingly unexpected cosmic appraisal of the freshly victorious Allied powers. As soon as prosecutor and defence-counsel Massey and Livesey (I’ll get back to him in a moment) get rolling, we find that it is Britain (which had, simply by surviving the war, achieved a feat analogous to jumping out of a plane without a parachute) that is on trial.

Even more amazingly (given that this IS a propaganda film), there is no attempt to disguise Britain’s appalling record as a colonial power (ah, India gentlemen, etc…) But this is a film blanc after all, not a cynical expose–and so, after the sound and the fury dissipate, Powell and Pressburger (through Livesey) speak up for a future in which the UK pledges to listen to the “better angels of its nature” (symbolized–and here the film IS uncritical…segregation P & P?–by a multicultural sextet of jurists from the United States of America. a “more perfect union” founded upon English liberal political doctrine)… Basically, they appear to be saying: “Okay. Now that we’ve come through that hell, we’d better justify our survival by chucking the Empire and sharing the wealth.”

On the other hand, the scene at the bottom of that beautiful “stairway to Heaven,” in which Hunter pledges to give up her life for Niven, while enabling the filmmakers to advocate the abrogation of the law in favour of true justice, doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know about the romantic pair (we know they feel this way about each other from their first conversation)–but it DOES, if interpreted symbolically, express the hope that, if a World War Two style crisis should ever recur, the United States (Hunter–whose character was born in Boston) will be more on the ball about leaping to the defense of its natural democratic partner, Great Britain (Niven), regardless of the consequences.

One last bit about Roger Livesey (Col. Blimp himself!)’s Dr. Reeves before I go! Is this guy great or what? A master of psychology, neurology, chess and ping pong, he takes that Hippocratic Oath REALLY seriously, making sure that NO opportunity to help his fellow beings goes unheeded (thanks to his trusty camera obscura):


P & P’s oeuvre is FILLED with affecting dramatizations of friendship in action, but none of their characters ever did more for a pal than Dr. Reeves does by lurching into a fiery motorcycle crackup just in time to qualify to defend Niven on the plane above! I can’t help but read this last stroke of bloody good luck as a fabulous swipe at the logic of the film blanc (as internalized by Niven–“oh good, my friend is dead, now he can speak for me in Heaven!”)

This is a movie that has it both ways, delivering a superlative tale of Cosmic Balance, while exposing the narrow bar upon which the human psyche must tread, in order to keep the thing aloft–and all in the service of authorizing a better future that we had BETTER cash in on…

good afternoon friends!


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