THE SEVENTH VEIL opens in a flourish with Benjamin Frankel’s dramatic scoring. From then on, like the tantalizing Biblical dance that it borrows a title from, the love-object-meets-objective-analysis psychodrama weaves enough of a spell to hold you until its measured application of quiet hysteria reaches an appropriately delirious climax. A smash in 1945 England, on migration to America it forged international stardom for James Mason.
Told in flashback, the transformative odyssey of renowned concert pianist ‘Francesca Cunningham’ (Ann Todd) begins with her suicide attempt and the ensuing efforts of psychiatrist ‘Dr. Larsen’ (Herbert Lom) to use hypnosis and lift the “veils” from her subconscious. Starting with childhood miseries, what’s revealed is a life where her talent was guided and her behavior molded by ‘Nicholas’ (James Mason), her guardian and 2nd cousin. As the cowed teenage girl becomes an accomplished woman, his domination is challenged by suitors.
As per her gifts, music plays a large part in conveying both narrative linkage and emotional intensity via pieces from Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Grieg, with Todd’s well-rehearsed keyboard pantomimes augmented in closeups by esteemed Australian concert pianist Eileen Joyce.
Excellently directed by Compton Bennett, expertly edited by Gordon Hales, the screenplay by Muriel & Sidney Box took an Academy Award. Produced for £92,000 (£4,230,857 in 2022), in Britain it earned £2,000,000 (£91,975,157 in ’22), the year’s biggest hit. Another $5,600,000 was drawn in the United States (about $89,945,000 in 2022), placing 60th among the 1945 crop, which was adorned with British favorites Caesar and Cleopatra, The Wicked Lady (also with Mason), Dead Of Night, Brief Encounter, Perfect Strangers (with Todd) and Blithe Spirit.
Romance as Fate wasn’t new, but WW2’s mass-separation trauma joined with a fascination for psychiatry’s flicker of hope to produce a slew of poignant cinematic forays into loss & recovery. With its almost Gothic underpinning, the private war Francesca fought for identity and acceptance, transmitted through the powerful musical interludes, struck chords in audiences who had spent years hostage to anxiety.
The other smitten men are played by Hugh McDermott (English but supposed to be a brassy American pop musician) and German exile Albert Lieven as a portrait painter. Though each of their characters treat Francesca better than the imperious Nicholas, as written they’re not as compelling and the actors likewise are bland, especially against a performer with Mason’s looks, assurance and delivery. We all know where nice guys finish (a club too many join). Mason’s dark charisma and precise, elegant yet decidedly masculine diction locked in stardom.
At 37, Todd had been acting in British films for 14 years. She had a few impressive credits (Things To Come, Perfect Strangers) before this role and some after (Breaking The Sound Barrier, So Evil My Love) but The Seventh Veil remains her signature piece, her chiseled patrician face, erudite voice and the projection of a certain aura of ambiguity were just right for the cross-currents of intelligence, talent and emotional turmoil that the gifted and desperate character required.
94 minutes, with Yvonne Owen (the “friend” from school) and John Slater. Todd’s flamboyant offscreen piano virtuoso was so popular that the flamboyant Eileen Joyce (1908-1991) saw a movie made about her early life,1951’s Wherever She Goes.
“The human mind is like Salome at the beginning of her dance, hidden from the outside world by seven veils: veils of reserve, shyness, fear. Now with friends, the average person will drop first one veil, then another, maybe three or four altogether. With a lover, she will take off five, or even six, but never the seventh. Never, you see the human mind likes to cover its nakedness too and keep its private thoughts to itself. Salome drops her seventh veil of her own free will, but you will never get the human mind to do that, and that is why I use narcosis. Five minutes under narcosis and down comes the seventh veil. Then we can see what is actually going on behind it. Then we can really help.”
* Mason: “This was Sydney Box’s and Ann Todd’s film. But director Compton Bennett and I also profited from its success. ‘Welcome’ mats were spread out for us in Hollywood.”
Todd: “It was the film that had everything—a bit of Pygmalion, a bit of Trilby, a bit of Cinderella. Apart from all that it’s an intriguing psychological drama and was one of the first films to have a hero who was cruel. Most male stars up to them had been honest, kind, upstanding, good-looking men that the female star was supposed to feel safe and secure with for the rest of her life when they finally got together at the end of the film. Not so with our smash hit. The men saw me as a victim and the women thrilled to Mason’s power and cruelty, as women have thrilled to this since the world began, however much they deny it…”