Art in the Shadows

This is my favorite image from the great Val Lewton-produced horror film The Seventh Victim (1943). It comes about twenty minutes in, as the young orphan Mary (Kim Hunter) searches for her sister Jacqueline, who’s mixed up with a satanist cabal. With the aid of the kindly Irving August, she’s been investigating the perfume factory that her sister used to own. Then, to the accompaniment of the ticking clock and swelling orchestra, August marches mechanically down the hall and collapses. A series of reaction shots show Mary’s utter terror just before she flees the scene, but tucked between them is this enigmatic image.

The Seventh Victim was directed by Mark Robson and photographed by Nicholas Musuraca, whose other credits include Cat People and Out of the Past. In the use of lighting and shadows, Musuraca’s work here reveals a visual sensibility that’s reminiscent of the then-embryonic film noir style; the equally German Expressionism-influenced Universal horror cycle; and even the avant-garde photography of Man Ray. Compare this shot, say, to Minotaur or Veiled Erotic: all use light/shadow interplay alongside heavily manipulated composition in order to heighten visual (and in Ray’s case, sexual) ambiguity.

This shot exemplifies the Lewton unit’s acclaimed use of “suggestion” in horror. Instead of using the shot in a straightforward, expositional manner (i.e., to tell the audience that August is dead), the Lewton/Robson/Musuraca team has it intensify the atmosphere. The image consists of three zigzags (the shadow over Mary’s feet, the strip of light, and August’s sleeve), an amount of visual information that’s impossible to fully process in the 3-4 seconds that the shot’s on the screen. It reproduces, in the viewer’s mind, Mary’s current disorientation and fear, further obfuscating an already perplexing situation. And that’s scary.

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Filed under art, Cinema

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