By general consensus, director Mark Robson’s films for Val Lewton are considered to be the weakest of the famous producer’s RKO Pictures output. However, one of them, The Seventh Victim (1943) has garnered a posthumous critical reputation.
Few would dispute the excellence of the Jacques Tourneur/Val Lewton collaborations for RKO, which stand-apart in aesthetics, comparable to Terence Fisher‘s stand-apart films for Hammer (or James Whale‘s stand-apart films for Universal). Yet, despite the drop off in quality, the Robson entries in the Lewton canon could hardly be compared to the execrable lows that Universal and Hammer achieved through hack directors like Erle C. Kenton (1945′s House of Dracula) or Alan Gibson (Dracula A.D. 1972).
Robson’s post-Lewton films validate the claim that he was little more than an assignment director. The nadir of Robson’s directorial career might have been Earthquake (1974). With one or two possible exceptions, Robson’s post-Lewton work was unremarkable, climaxing with the pedestrian action-oater Avalanche Express (1979). This imminently forgettable swan song is only memorable for being a cursed production, during which both Robson and star Robert Shaw died.
Robson would earn a flippant dismissal in the annals of film history, were it not for his collaborations with Lewton. The higher quality of Robson’s work with Lewton strongly indicates that the producer was collaboratively engaged with his directors. Both Lewton and Robson benefited from that partnership. Unfortunately, after Lewton, Robson would never again be afforded such an opportunity.
The Seventh Victim was the first and best of the Robson/Lewton films. Drenched in a noir sheen, it is also the bleakest movie in Lewton’s RKO cannon.The film has an exceptional cast: Kim Hunter as Mary, Tom Conway as Dr. Judd, and Jean Brooks as Jacqueline. As excellent as Hunter and Conway are here, it is Brooks’ raven-like, hypnotic, fiercely haunting performance, exuding a Montgomery Clift-like fragility, which vividly lingers. RKO had no appreciation for such an individualistic, interiorized actor, and unceremoniously released her. She died of extreme malnutrition and alcoholism at the age of 47.
Mary (Hunter) leaves her boarding school to search for her missing sister Jacqueline (Brooks). Jacqueline’s disappearance is linked to her membership in a Satanic cult and her efforts to flee it. Six previous members of the cult have tried to leave, all meeting violent ends. Jacqueline is their potential seventh victim.
The film is awash in doom-laden relentlessness. Unlike many Lewton films, it’s literary references are minimal, although it begins with a quote from a poem by John Dunne. Satan worship, adultery, hints of incest and lesbianism, and suicide merge in the film’s abundant shadows. It’s a miracle the film made it past the Breen office.
Despite all that, this film, along with Curse of the Cat People (1944) is probably Lewton’s most personal, repression being a consistent Lewton theme. In these two films that theme is most pronounced.
While The Seventh Victim has set-pieces that imitate Cat People (1942), they are extremely well executed and enhance the film’s stylishness. Hugh Beaumont plays Jacqueline’s husband, in love with her wife’s sister, Mary. Beaumont is as condescending as he would be, even more famously, as the head of the Beaver household. Tom Conway, as usual, is quintessentially precise. In every way, he is the smooth equal to his more famous sibling, George Sanders. Kim Hunter makes an impressive debut that was the beginning of a lucrative career.
The Ghost Ship (1943) was the second of the Robson/Lewton collaborations. It was largely unavailable for years (due to a plagiarism lawsuit) and the film has a somewhat exaggerated reputation for obscurity.
The story will indeed seem somewhat familiar to anyone who has seen Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) or The Caine Mutiny (1954). However, The Ghost Ship is stamped by Lewton’s trademark psychologically stark and suggestive imagery.
The Ghost Ship begins with a typical Lewtonesque prophetic omen. 3rd officer Tom Merriam (Russell Wade) is about to board the Altair. The uncredited Skelton Kaggs plays a mute character who provides voice-over narration, warning the audience what is to about to unfold.
Captain Stone (Richard Dix) takes Merriam under his wing. Stone is a complex and even sympathetic antagonist. He initially sets himself up as a fatherly figure to Merriam. There are identifying bonds between them: both are orphans, both dedicated to service. Yet, the autocratic Stone believes he reserves the right to decide his crew’s life: either to preserve it, or relinquish it. He spares a moth; but, this is juxtaposed against two harrowing, contrasting vignettes.
In the first, a newly painted, untethered hoist gives way during the night, swinging like a pendulum. In a frenzy, the crew attempt to secure the hook as Stone voyeuristically observes with sadistic euphoria. This scene is a marvel of accomplished editing.
In the second, Stone orchestrates the death of a crew member who dared to question his Captain. The crewman is buried under a heavy anchor. With a simple locking of the door, Stone seals the man’s fate, allowing him to be crushed as the sailors above, continuing to feed chain into the portal, are oblivious to the mounting tragedy below.
Ghost Ship features two more unbearably tense scenes. The first is a precursor to the inevitable deconstruction of the relationship between Stone and Merriam. An emergency appendectomy operation, an incompetent surgeon/captain, and the point of a knife are tools of Lewton’s suspense trade. The second scene evokes “The Tell Tale Heart” from the potential victim’s POV. Here, it is a broken lock which sounds like a Beethovenian fate knocking at the door.
Dix’s Stone is no cardboard villain. He is a fascist allegory, a picture of banality as evil, with a put-upon fiancee waiting for him at the port.
Isle of the Dead (1945) was the first of two Robson/Lewton films starring Boris Karloff. The film was inspired by the expressive Arnold Bocklin’s painting of the same name. This was the most troubled of Lewton’s RKO productions, and the result is an uneven film. Pre-production was hampered by Lewton’s combative relationship with executive producer Jack Gross, who was demanding more full-throttle horror content. Predictably, Lewton resisted. Production itself was held-up due to the hospitalization of star Karloff, who underwent extensive back surgery.
Karloff gives a fine performance, despite questionable casting as a curly-topped, white-haired, sadistic Greek officer. As with most of Lewton’s films, Isle of the Dead is a awash in literary symbology. However, in lacking Tounerur’s organic, poetic philter, Robson’s handling of the material is pronouncedly drier.
Adding to this flaw is the acting of Karloff’s co-stars. The wooden, romantic mooning of Oliver Albrecht (Jason Robards Sr.) over Thea (Ellen Drew) is awkwardly contrived and rings a false note in both the writing and the acting. So too it is with the doomed plague victim Andrew Robbins (Skelton Knaggs). Alan Napier (better known as the butler, Alfred, from the 1960s “Batman” TV series) also appears as an early victim. Generally speaking, the women fare better than their male co-stars. Kathryn Emry as the tragically ill, Poe-like doomed heroine Mary St. Aubyn, Drew as Thea, and Helen Thimig as the the malevolent Madame Kyra flesh out their roles with emotional resonance.
There are references to Greek mythology and religious superstition, but it is the relationship between General Pherides (Karloff) and Kyra that gives meat to the intense climax. Kyra casts suspicion that Thea is a vampire, draining the life-force from St. Aubyn. At first, Pherides mocks Kyra. But, as the plague claims more victims, Pherides begins to believe. Karloff’s Pherides is, of course, the performance of the film. Our introduction to him is his icily pronounced judgment over a fellow officer and friend. As Albrecht gets to know Pherides, and we learn of the general’s life, it is difficult to reconcile this side of him with what was previously depicted. That is, until he is threatened with crisis. It is then that we come full circle back to our first meeting with him.
The conclusion is pure “The Premature Burial,” giving Mr. Gross his money’s worth. For all of it’s flaws, The Isle of the Dead emerges as refreshing cinematic art, never stooping to level of genre dreck perpetrated by late Universal and Hammer.
Bedlam (1946) was the last collaboration between this producer and director, and the last Lewton film for RKO. Bedlam was inspired by Plate 8 (“Bedlam”) of William Hogarth’s “The Rake’s Progress” engravings. The picture can partially be seen in the opening credits and is inserted sporadically throughout the film.
Lewton wrote the script under the pen name Carlos Keith. The script and direction share the same weaknesses and strengths as Isle of the Dead. The literariness of the film makes for an arid milieu.
As the sadistic Master Sims, Karloff is atypically void of sympathy. Even when cast as an unquestionable antagonist, Karloff usually managed to infuse some degree of pathos to his villains. Rival genre star Bela Lugosi rarely evoked sympathy and, more often than not, Lugosi’s performances were two-dimensional and cartoonish. To his credit, Karloff never takes his characterization all the way to caricature. Although without identifying empathy, Karloff’s Sims still conveys an emotional arc of substance when he faces his own comeuppance.
Skelton Skaggs and Jason Robards, Sr. again are on hand, albeit briefly (Robards repeats his petrified performance), as is Lewton regular Elizabeth Russell, who delights with a boozy, comic delivery. Karloff and company, however, are upstaged here by the fiery performance of Anna Lee as Nell Bowen.
Nell is the protege of Lord Mortimer (Billy House). Mortimer is the picture of 18th century upper class decadence. Asylum’s Master Sims provides Mortimer with home entertainment via his cast of put-upon “loonies.”
Nell is internally horrified by the treatment of the inmates of St. Mary’s of Bethlehem (known as “Bedlam”), which is noted by the Quaker Hannay (Richard Frasier). In going from spitfire protege, calling out the whited sepulchers, to unjustly committed inmate, Nell, retains her spirited defiance, and it is Hannay who learns a lesson of pragmatic morality over idealized religiosity.
Bedlam, like Isle of the Dead, channels Edgar Allan Poe with Sim’s fate echoing Fortunato’s in “The Cask of Amontillado.” RKO marketed Bedlam as a horror, despite vehement objections from Lewton and Karloff. Predictably, the film failed at the box office. Lewton was blamed and dismissed, Karloff departed, and RKO lost one of its most bankable producer/star teams. Thus, a high mark in cinema was brought to an ignoble end.