The Seventh Victim

[Stop Button Lists] Film School in a Car, Lesson 04

Audio Commentaries discussed…

  • Tron • 1997 • Steven Lisberger, Donald Kushner, Harrison Ellenshaw, and Richard Taylor • Disney Home Video
  • The Seventh Victim • 2005 • Steve Haberman • Warner Home Video
  • Total Recall • 2001 • Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger • Artisan Entertainment
  • Straw Dogs • 2003 • Stephen Prince • The Criterion Collection

In my more carefree youth, when I wanted to watch a movie I’d order it from Ken Crane’s LaserDisc, in widescreen (usually) and watch it two or three days later, depending on UPS. I distinctly remember wanting to watch Tron, which doesn’t hit many people, and I didn’t want to wait for Ken Crane’s. So I went and got the jumbo LaserDisc “Exclusive Archive” edition from Disney. Tron in CAV.

One thing about CAV, which was sort of uncompressed–real freeze frame, real slow motion, real reverse (stuff I still can’t do on blu-ray or a computer)–is it felt like a big deal. You had to change discs every thirty minutes or less, you saw the frame counter progress. It was cool in a way nothing on DVD has ever been, as that technology concentrates on the user experience, not the geek factor.

But I never listened to the Tron commentary on LaserDisc. I think I watched the movie and felt really bad about having bought it. And when I was going to listen to my next commentary, I went with Tron because I thought I’d have to work hard to convince myself to do it again otherwise.

What’s strange about the Tron audio commentary is it’s fine. Some of the guys are a little annoying in the way they mock the easily mockable elements, but there’s some great technical information. Director Steven Lisberger’s impetus for the film actually explains why it wasn’t more of a hit–he was making it for computer professionals in an era where there weren’t enough of them.

A scene from TRON, directed by Steven Lisberger for Walt Disney Pictures.
A scene from TRON, directed by Steven Lisberger for Walt Disney Pictures.

That said, no one talks about the film in its historical context as a punchline, which deserved some mention. Tron is infamous. Until the sequel, it was probably best known for being a “Simpsons” joke. That episode might have been done after this commentary, but then it was even less known.

Now I’m mad at myself again for buying the discs seventeen years ago.

For my next commentary, I went with one I really wanted to hear–and had to stop myself from listening to in order to get through TronThe Seventh Victim. I first read about Val Lewton when I was in college; I’d heard of Cat People and maybe even seen Curse of the Cat People, but I wasn’t familiar with him. I knew the directors–Jacques Tourneur (thanks to Gun Crazy), Robert Wise (who wouldn’t) and Mark Robson (I Want You and Home of the Brave)–but it was long before Warner released their Val Lewton box set on DVD. But there was a LaserDisc set and I got it. But I didn’t watch any of the movies then. Maybe Cat People.

Fast forward a decade or so (the Val Lewton filmography took me five years to complete–I saw Youth Runs Wild in 2008 and finished with I Walk With a Zombie in December 2013), and Victim is still my favorite Lewton. So I really wanted to hear the commentary. I had no idea there were commentaries on the DVDs; I’d been watching many of the Lewton films off R2 or TCM.

Steve Haberman does the commentary on The Seventh Victim and it’s everything I hated about film textbooks. He lectures from notes, when he does go quiet to watch a scene, he doesn’t really talk about what made him go quiet, which is annoying. He’ll just drop off and come back with more lecture in a bit. Haberman’s strength is talking about the film going from story to screenplay to finished product and the changes along the way (they’re just not interesting because he’s talking about that progression, not the film). However, when he gripes about cut scenes and how happy he is they didn’t make the film… it’s beyond annoying just because it’s not clear he’s seen the scenes. If he’s just read about them, how would he have any idea how they’d have been put into the picture.

A scene from THE SEVENTH VICTIM, directed by Mark Robson for RKO Radio Pictures.
A scene from THE SEVENTH VICTIM, directed by Mark Robson for RKO Radio Pictures.

So Seventh Victim is another one where I love the film and never want to hear this commentary track again.

Total Recall is not the opposite situation, but sort of close. I don’t know if I want to listen to the commentary again immediately, but it might but fun to listen to again while actually watching the movie. Not because the commentary is particularly good–in fact, it’s not–but because it’s fun. It’s Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger (making ten grand for the recording–back in 2001) and Verhoeven is treating Arnold like an equal commentator. And Arnold is acting like a salesman. He’s on a publicity tour for the film and he does well with it, but it doesn’t make the Recall commentary valuable as information about filmmaking.

Okay, it’s still somewhat valuable because Verhoeven does talk about some interesting aspects of the film but he needed a better cohost. He needed Rob Bottin or the effects guy or the editor or maybe one of the writers. Even Sharon Stone would’ve been better, as Arnold and Verhoeven talk about her like idiots.

However, just listening to it did make me recognize how much of Jerry Goldsmith’s Total Recall score follows as an Innerspace follow-up. Speaking of follow-ups, even though they talk through the end credits, Arnold and Verhoeven never actually explain the failed Total Recall 2, which somehow ended up as Minority Report much to Arnold’s chagrin.

Arnold Schwarzenegger stars in TOTAL RECALL, directed by Paul Verhoeven for Carolco Pictures.
Arnold Schwarzenegger stars in TOTAL RECALL, directed by Paul Verhoeven for Carolco Pictures.

One thing on Arnold, who’s the most personable person I’ve heard on a commentary track–it’s impressive to see how well he works at making himself likable. It’s strange because, until Twins, he didn’t worry about it. But when Arnold at least sold himself as wanting to be liked as a movie star by everyone, he became a lot more important as a movie icon than almost anyone else in the last thirty years. Arnold never wanted to direct, he never wanted to be respected as a filmmaker; he wanted his brand to be beloved.

He and Tom Cruise should do a movie together.

The next commentary–Straw Dogs–was another perfunctory decision. I had loaded up Basic Instinct, for another Verhoeven, and Batman, just because I didn’t even know Burton had recorded a commentary for it, but went with Criterion’s Stephen Prince commentary on Dogs, which is unlike any I’ve ever heard.

Sure, it’s a scholarly commentary and an in-depth one. Prince explains why every shot is important, how it functions for the narrative, with little bits about director Sam Peckinpah thrown in. Right off, Prince is reductive in his discussion of the film–Dustin Hoffman’s protagonist is “the villain,” Susan George is, apparently, the hero. Everything in his commentary is a defensive of the film against negative critical response, which is just more reductive. It’s a strange commentary. Prince’s defense of Peckinpah as auteur is so complete, he refuses to look at anything else. Even though it’s a great film and many of Prince’s points are accurate–unarguably accurate–his decidedly anti-feminist (while “pro”-female) reading of the film makes it constantly unpleasant.

And he uses way too many adjectives and adverbs in his prepared comments. He’s trying way to hard to make a great film “legitimate” and doing nothing to actually appreciate the film itself. I’m not sure about the history of audio commentaries–other than King Kong being the first back in the 1980s, but Prince’s 2003 scholarly commentary compares terribly to something like Leonard Maltin’s 1987 Night at the Opera commentary (also from Criterion, albeit on LaserDisc not DVD).

Dustin Hoffman stars in STRAW DOGS, directed by Sam Peckinpah for Cinerama Releasing Corporation.
Dustin Hoffman stars in STRAW DOGS, directed by Sam Peckinpah for Cinerama Releasing Corporation.

Maybe the most striking thing about Prince’s commentary track is his inability to think about watching or experiencing the film. Everything is about Peckinpah’s intent and process. Nothing about how the film plays, not to its audience, not even to him.

Nothing worse than a film snob who doesn’t enjoy film.

As a film snob who does enjoy film, I can’t try to fit talking about Joe Dante, Mike Finnell and Chris Walas’ track for Gremlins into under a hundred words. I’m thinking four titles a post is the magic number, especially when I’m going to listen to so many annoying or lame ones.

One thing about listening to commentaries without the film. It focuses you, it makes you try to remember and it makes you think harder about the film. I don’t prefer it, but I do find it rather valuable.

[Stop Button Lists] Val Lewton at RKO, 1942-46

Val Lewton, filmography, 1942-46

One of the things I wanted to do with The Stop Button, way back when I started it (or, if not started it, when I realized I was going to keep going with it), was watch all the Val Lewton RKO movies.

I discovered Lewton in college. I can’t remember how, whether it was in a magazine or a book, but I got the LaserDisc box set used and wanted to dig into these noirish horror films, so unlike the Universal monster movies of the same period.

I didn’t. I think I watched I Walked with a Zombie and maybe Cat People. It took me years to get through all the films when watching them for the site too. Five years–Youth Runs Wild is a 2008 post, I Walked With a Zombie is a 2013. I distinctly remember wanting to watch the rarer Lewton. Of course, there are eleven films and two of them are rare. They’re the outliers for a variety of reasons.

I was also a big Mark Robson fan in college (I still am, I just don’t watch his movies enough anymore); he might have been how I came across the LaserDisc box set.

A scene from THE SEVENTH VICTIM, directed by Mark Robson for RKO Radio Pictures.
A scene from THE SEVENTH VICTIM, directed by Mark Robson for RKO Radio Pictures.

Robson directed six of the eleven films, including the best (The Seventh Victim) and the worst (Youth Runs Wild). Robert Wise and Jacques Tourneur handled the rest. Tourneur–and I’d discovered him late teens thanks to AMC–brought the most visual distinction to the films, even though he didn’t get the flashiest settings.

Tourneur directed the first three films–Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man. Each of these films has incredible terror sequences. Tourneur, Lewton and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca figure out how to make a long walk alone the scariest thing in the world. The settings are contemporary, not classical. The possibility of horror exists in the real world.

Until college, I was also a fan of the Cat People remake. I fell out with it when I discovered the original. Having fallen out with the original, I’m back to being a fan of the remake. So when I saw the original, I could see the memorable terror sequences in their (superior) original form. I’m not a big fan of most of these films–I just don’t like most of the writing. But they’re so well-made, I’ve got a soft spot for them. None of them run over eighty minutes either, which makes them a lot more welcoming.

Cat People I watched just a couple years ago. 2013 was the year I pushed myself to get the Lewton films watched. I don’t think in preparation for anything, just because I hadn’t gotten it done (I’m similarly always trying to get Die Hard 3 watched since its the only one without a post up).

It’s really xenophobic. Cat People, not Die Hard 3 (well, maybe, I don’t remember). With old movies, there’s often some discomfort in finding the line; you have to look for it and you might really like the stars or something and there’s hesitation. You’re forcing yourself to be negative on something you like. Like when you find out, in addition to being the greatest sidekick of the 1930s and 1940s, Walter Brennan was also a racist.

Tom Conway, Simone Simon, and Kent Smith star in CAT PEOPLE, directed by Jacques Tourneur for RKO Radio Pictures.
Tom Conway, Simone Simon, and Kent Smith star in CAT PEOPLE, directed by Jacques Tourneur for RKO Radio Pictures.

But Cat People’s xenophobia gets in the way of the story. It clouds the screenwriters, it modifies the film’s potential. Knee caps it. There’s a lack of empathy and it hurts. Now, I’d seen Curse of the Cat People first–and it was rarer than even Cat People back in the eighties and nineties (I’d read about them all in the Maltin guide, I’m sure). I loved Curse of the Cat People when I saw it just after high school. It got me interested in Robert Wise movies.

So when I watched Cat People in February 2013, I hadn’t seen Curse again yet. I still assumed Curse was going to be amazing. I was still hopeful. I just wish I remember where I read about the Lewton films back in 2002 or so. Maybe there was an article in “Films of the Golden Age” but I remember a lot of details about the individual projects.

I Walked With a Zombie, which is Jane Eyre on a sugar plantation with zombies (voodoo zombies), has a bunch of great stuff in it too. My wife and I definitely watched it back in college; I had a lot better memories of it than it comes across. Discovering these films in college, seeing this level of visual craftsmanship–in a low budget picture (seventies John Carpenter and RKO Val Lewton go hand in hand)–is exciting. It’s still exciting now, but now I also see the narrative problems.

I’ll want to see one of them again–The Ghost Ship, The Leopard Man–just because they look so great. Leopard Man takes place in a small Southwestern town and they do a fantastic job with it. Ghost Ship’s on, well, a ship and it gets a lot of visual mileage from that setting. The Lewton pictures have particular personalities to them thanks to the visuals. Frightening, intriguing ones. The movies never get too discomforting you can’t enjoy their production values, even while they’re trying to terrify you.

Simone Simon and Kurt Kreuger star in MADEMOISELLE FIFI, directed by Robert Wise for RKO Radio Pictures.
Simone Simon and Kurt Kreuger star in MADEMOISELLE FIFI, directed by Robert Wise for RKO Radio Pictures.

The last three Lewtons are period pictures–though Mademoiselle Fifi is too. I had originally planned on splitting off the period pictures from the rest but Youth Runs Wild gets in the way. It’s the only Lewton-produced picture I don’t have any interest in seeing again. It got all cut up by the studio and what remains isn’t worth talking about. Though a teen picture is a hard proposition anyway.

Boris Karloff stars in the last three pictures–The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead, Bedlam. They’re often creepy. Lewton goes for the jugular on the concepts–grave robbing, false imprisonment in an insane asylum, possession. I think I’d seen Bedlam before, like on AMC, and it still creeped me out. These films were about people who could identify their fears and voice them, preparing the viewer for what was to come.

I think I’d stopped being such a big Karloff fan by college and never had much interest in these final three films. Isle of the Dead is pretty darn good, however. I guess Robson made the two best Lewton films (Dead and Victim). Period pieces were a hard sell for me. They still are. Karloff also has a big onscreen personality; I was worried how the films would deal with it. It seemed gimmicky–horror star Karloff and horror producer Lewton teaming up.

When I did get to Bedlam, however, I had a lot of hope for it. Isle of the Dead had gotten me optimistic. There’s an excitement in the Robson pictures not present in the Robert Wise entries. It’s like Wise knew he was on his way into non-genre pictures but Robson didn’t mind playing in the category. But the Wise ones, even though I don’t have much nostalgia for them, are pretty good films.

Simone Simon stars in THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, directed by Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise for RKO Radio Pictures.
Simone Simon stars in THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, directed by Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise for RKO Radio Pictures.

Except Curse of the Cat People. That one’s a real disappointment. Especially since I’d loved it so much when I first saw it; I was still in that period when I’d blather on to people about films I’d seen (which actually did stop before the site came around) and I know I talked about Curse nonstop for a day or two.

The Lewton films still have that excitement factor for me. Even I gave most of them ★★, they’re important American films. Some of the excitement might still have to do with them going so long unseen but talked about. Cat People airing on the local PBS station was a cause for videotape planning in the early nineties; people made sure someone (or two or three) was taping it so they could borrow it.

And there’s still Lewton excitement online, which is cool. There was excitement back when the DVD boxset got released in 2005 (which made that LaserDisc box set purchase in 2002 a bit of a waste). The intensity’s changed, but the films availability have made it–for the first time in the films’ seventy year history–easy to see them. Except Fifi and Youth. Those two films are still difficult to see (though PAL DVDs have been released).

Lewton’s films are problematic but it’s impossible not to be a Lewton aficionado.

The Seventh Victim (1943, Mark Robson)

Quite surprisingly, The Seventh Victim–in addition to being a disquieting, subtle thriller–is mostly about urban apathy and discontent. Though there aren’t any establishing shots of New York City (or of the small New England town protagonist Kim Hunter comes from), Robson and writers Charles O’Neal and DeWitt Bodeen are quite clear about it. There’s no a single happy character–or moment–in the picture.

It should be depressing, but the suspense in the main story–Hunter is trying to find her sister, Jean Brooks, who has disappeared–distracts. And I suppose if one wasn’t so engrossed with that plot, he or she could still keep up hope for some kind of nicety. Even O’Neal and Bodeen have a scene with a comment on positivity… the characters are clearly defeated, even if they are earnest.

Victim‘s narrative structure is also strange. The third act switches protagonists (though Hunter had been slowly giving way to admirer Erford Gage) and the filmmakers decide to go out on a high point instead of a narratively satisfying one. It just adds to the disquiet.

Robson’s direction is outstanding. He isn’t just able to handle the budget, he’s also able to capture all this muted sorrow in his actors. I don’t think Hunter has one intense moment–no screaming, no crying–but she’s constantly full of emotion. Gage, playing a pretentious poet, is fantastic. Hugh Beaumont is sturdy support and Tom Conway does a great job in a difficult role.

It’s an exceptional film.



Directed by Mark Robson; written by Charles O’Neal and DeWitt Bodeen; director of photography, Nicholas Musuraca; edited by John Lockert; music by Roy Webb; produced by Val Lewton; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Kim Hunter (Mary Gibson), Hugh Beaumont (Gregory Ward), Erford Gage (Jason Hoag), Tom Conway (Dr. Louis Judd), Jean Brooks (Jacqueline Gibson), Mary Newton (Esther Redi), Lou Lubin (Irving August), Marguerita Sylva (Mrs. Bella Romari) and Ben Bard (Mr. Brun).

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