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The Seventh Veil (1945)

The Seventh Veil is an excellent British psychological melodrama with a dreadful ending. Not quite on par with the ending of Suspicion, but pretty bad nonetheless. Though The Seventh Veil is actually in the top ten highest grossing films of all time in Britain (adjusting for inflation), so perhaps I am in the minority. Or perhaps the ending is simply overlooked for the sake of a fascinating film, and it is a very fascinating film.

The film begins with psychologist Dr. Larsen (Herbert Lom) treating a concert pianist, Francesca (Ann Todd), who is suicidal and has a fixation about her hands, convinced that she can no longer play the piano.

Dr. Larsen’s contention is that psychology is like surgery, you must unclothe the mind in order to operate. He says the mind has seven veils – like the notorious “Dance of the Seven Veils” in the opera Salome (though I’ve read that some sopranos like to do the dance of the eight or nine veils, just so they can leave a veil or two on). Employing narcosis, he induces Francesca to tell him about her past, which the movie reveals in a series of flashbacks.

As an orphan of fourteen, Francesca was sent to live with her distant cousin Nicholas (James Mason), a brooding, wealthy, sophisticated and rather sinister woman-hater with a limp who has little use for a child in his house (but he likes cats!). However, when he discovers that she loves music and can play the piano, he sets out to transform her into a concert pianist, teaching her himself for hours a day. The film follows his oppressive hold over her and her many attempts to break free of his influence, all the while indeed becoming the great pianist that he dreamed she would be.

In some ways, it makes me think of Red Shoes. Francesca can’t live without her music any more than Vicky Page can live without ballet. And they both have a Svengali-like controlling influence hovering over them, who are necessary to their success.

James Mason as Nicholas is, of course, perfect. Nobody can brood better than Mason, or be suavely sinister and yet intense at the same time in the way he can. He absolutely dominates her life…almost living musically through her, like she’s possessed by him.

Ann Todd and James Mason

And Ann Todd’s cool reserve as an actress actually enhances this, because although we know she cannot live without the piano, she rarely seems to take much pleasure in it. Her oppressive fear of Nicholas and of injury to her hands (going back to a childhood caning that destroyed her chance of a music scholarship, later exacerbated by Nicholas’s constant focus on her hands) seems to sap all the transcendent joy of playing. She’s like a zombie at times.

The film is highly claustrophobic, echoing Francesca’s sense of being trapped in a small world of Nicholas and her music. And who knew a piano concert could be so tense? At her debut, where she plays Edvard Grieg’s piano concerto, her psychosomatic fear of her hands swelling makes one honestly wonder if she will make it through the concert.

Ann Todd also does an excellent job of “playing” the piano. Pianist Eileen Joyce taught Todd how to move her hands and arms and look convincing as a pianist and it is clear Todd must have worked very hard at it, though any close-ups of her hands at the piano were done by Joyce. But the film by no means shies away from showing Todd at the piano and the result is very convincing.

(Plot Spoilers) But that ending! The film has its share of a melodrama’s improbabilities (the psychological angle makes for great cinema, but is hardly realistic, and Ann Todd is not even remotely convincing as a fourteen year old child in the beginning), but I confess that it is the ending that irked me. Though there are two other men who Francesca loves at different times in the story, by the end she is rescued from her suicidal thoughts by Dr. Larsen and realizes that her true love is…Nicholas! Abusive, controlling Nicholas.

Ann Todd, Herbert Lom, and a nurse

It’s the inverse of Red Shoes. Instead of killing herself because she cannot have both love and her piano, she sidesteps that issue by centering both her love and music on Nicholas. But I have a hard time believing that she could love him. She spends the entire film clearly resenting and fearing his control, unless we are to mistrust her flashback memories (which would ironically give the lie to Dr. Larsen’s idea that he can strip away all the veils). It seems inconsistent, and Nicholas far too sinister, for it to be a satisfactory resolution to the story. It would be like Trilby marrying Svengali and the author expecting his readers to rejoice. Or perhaps we are supposed to be made uneasy by the end?

But apart from the ending, it is a compelling movie that is well worth watching, especially for those who like James Mason or British cinema. The film fits squarely in that time period when Hollywood was also obsessed with psychology. The Seventh Veil was even released before Alfred Hitchcock released Spellbound. It’s well-acted (Herbert Lom is also excellent as the kindly Svengali-like psychologist), very much of its time, and has great music. It is also currently available on youtube.

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2017 in Movies

 

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Madame Bovary (1949)

220px-madamebovarymovieposterMadame Bovary is one of those classic novels I’ve been meaning to read for a long time, along with watching the 1949 film adaptation of it, so when Love Letters to Old Hollywood announced the “Vincente Minnelli Blogathon,” I was quite excited to see the film and read the book (though I haven’t actually read the book yet).

Vincente Minnelli is one of those directors I am always aware of enjoying, even though I am not as good at observing the distinctive style or techniques of a director. I associate him with musicals (The Band Wagon being one of those movies I never tire of seeing), but he also did comedies and dramas and, in the case of Madame Bovary, costume dramas.

Madame Bovary is adapted from the novel by Gustave Flaubert and is set during the mid 1800s. Emma Bovary (Jennifer Jones) is the daughter of a farmer, who grew up on romantic literature much in the way Don Quixote gorged himself on chivalrous adventures. She fully expects life to be a romance, to be beautiful, and when she first meets the doctor, Charles Bovary (Van Heflin), she assumes he is her knight in shining armor, so to speak, even though Charles warns her that he is not a very exciting person and only an adequate doctor who will never rise in the world.

But married life inevitably disappoints. Everything inevitably disappoints her, including motherhood. Charles adores his wife, but cannot figure out how to make her happy. Emma increasingly tries to achieve her illusive dreams of beauty and romance and all the while increasingly digs a hole for herself and her family, leading to tragedy.

It was hard for me not to come away with the impression that Emma Bovary is essentially a silly woman. Not a pragmatist like Scarlett O’Hara, she lacks her grit. She also lacks cleverness. My understanding is that this is not radically different from Flaubert’s portrayal in the book, though. She makes Anna Karenina look wise by comparison.

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Vincente Minnelli directing Louis Jourdan and Jennifer Jones

Because of the book is (I’m getting this from hearsay) about her desire for something extraordinary in a very un-extraordinary world, I also couldn’t help wondering if MGM was maybe the wrong studio to make this film. The film looks a bit too pretty, too picturesque and charming. It tends to work against our sympathy with Emma. Flaubert is noted for his realism, which is not something MGM was noted for. Having said that, however, Vincente Minnelli does some beautiful things in the film.

The most famous scene is the ballroom scene, where Emma and Charles have been invited to the Marquis D’Andervilliers’ house. Charles is clearly out of place, but Emma is in her element. It is the high point for her, where she has temporarily achieved her dreams, the Cinderella at the ball with Louis Jourdan’s Rodolphe Boulanger as the prince charming. The way Vincente Minnelli films it, it is a delirious dance, spinning around so that the audience feels every bit as dizzy, dazzled and disoriented as Emma does.

I also liked Minnelli’s use of mirrors. Emma sees herself in the gilded mirror at the ball, surrounded by admiring men. In a later seen, having a tryst with a humble clerk living well above his means, Leon Dupuis (Alf Kjellin), who is also madly in love with her, she looks at the cracked mirror in her cheap hotel and wonders how she came so low. She views herself through mirrors, it seems, as she appears in her surroundings rather than who she really is as a person.

Another moment that stood out to me was when Rodolphe Boulanger is attempting to seduce her at the local fair. They are inside a building while just outside the windows, speeches are being made about agriculture. Rodolphe speaks words of love and the speaker calls out for more manure. It was the most striking examples of the mismatch between her romantic illusions and reality.

This movies seems to have reminded me of a lot of different movies and books, because I also couldn’t help comparing it to Letter From An Unknown Women, which also stars Louis Jourdan as a womanizer. The leading lady (played by Joan Fontaine) also entertains romantic illusions that are out of step with reality, though in the case of Letter From An Unknown Woman, her illusions are centered on one man rather than a more inchoate future. Emma’s dreams don’t require any particular person

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Jennifer Jones, Louis Jourdan, Van Heflin

I also have to say a word about Emma’s wardrobe. Perhaps symbolic of her dreams, her wardrobe always seems to be out of all proportion to her surroundings. I kept wondering how her husband was affording it. As it turns out, he wasn’t and her inability to pay for her clothes turns out to be very important in the plot as she falls prey to a predatory draper, which precipitates her ruin. But when Charles first sees her in her humble farm house, she is festooned with ruffles and bows and whatnot. She looks like a lady in waiting deigning to visit her humble tenants.

Because the story of Madame Bovary is about an adulterous woman, there were some objections made by the Production Code. To make the story acceptable, . Gustave Flaubert’s real-life obscenity trial was used as a framing story. James Mason plays Flaubert and explains to the court how his story is true to life and also quite moral. The result of his narration means that the film is given a slant towards blaming the creators of romantic literature and expectations for her fall…rather like Cervantes does in the first half of Don Quixote. It has made me very curious about the novel and what the differences are.

Thanks so much to Love Letters to Old Hollywood for hosting! For more posts on Vincent Minnelli, be sure to check out “The Vincente Minnelli Blogathon.”

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Posted by on December 16, 2016 in Movies

 

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20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

downloadAfter reading the book, I had to see Disney’s film adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under Sea. Strangely enough, I never saw it before last week. I have some dim memory of seeing Kirk Douglas playing with a seal when I was a child, but I must not have seen the whole thing. I knew of it more by reputation than anything else. My cousin had very strong opinions about the film: she loved the squid and she hated Kirk Douglas.

But I enjoyed it very much. It is a much tighter story than the book, which is very episodic. In the documentary to the DVD, director Richard Fleischer said that when he read the book, he realized that the best way to adapt the story was to treat it like a jail break on a submarine and try to make everything feel claustrophobic.

The essential story is the same in the movie as it is in the book. Professor Aronnax (Paul Lukas) and his servant, Conseil (Peter Lorre), go on a sea voyage to locate a mysterious sea creature that is destroying ships. But what they encounter instead is a submarine and when they fall overboard, along with bombastic and hot-headed harpooner Ned Land (Kirk Douglas), they climb aboard the submarine, the Nautilus.

The captain of the Nautilus (James Mason) at first threatens to kill them, but relents when he sees how Aronnax is willing to die with his friends rather than be spared alone. He has a potential purpose in mind for Professor Aronnax. In the meantime, he shows Aronnax the submarine and how it works while Ned Land and Conseil scheme and plot to escape. One of Land’s schemes is to fill bottles with messages about the location of Captain Nemo’s island base (which they found on a chart in Nemo’s room) and send them out into the ocean. He also tries to escape when he is allowed to go ashore on an island, but is chased back by cannibals.

James Mason, Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre, Paul Lukas

James Mason, Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre, Paul Lukas

One big difference between the movie and book is that the Nautilus in the movie is not battery powered, but actually a nuclear submarine and Professor Aronnax is far more interested in Nemo’s discovery of nuclear energy and the potential good it could do civilization than he is in studying fish and other underwater wonders and it turns out that the purpose Nemo has in mind for Aronnax is that he might allow the professor to share his secret of nuclear energy with the world. But Nemo is not entirely convinced that the world is ready to handle something so potentially destructive and prevaricates. Meanwhile, Aronnax is appalled to discover that Nemo is actively engaged in sinking the ships of his unspecified enemies – a Colonial power of some sort.

The cast is excellent. James Mason is perfect as Captain Nemo –  I could even see James Mason in my mind while I was finishing the book. He’s still a Byronic hero, still a Count of Monte Cristo of the Seas like in the book, though with a more pronounced Utopian streak in him. Mason’s Nemo seems even more deeply pained by the state of humanity and their propensity to make war and discusses it more often, especially in relation to whether or not to share his knowledge of nuclear power.

Kirk Douglas’ take on Ned Land, however, is quite different. Land in the book is a tall, relatively silent man while Kirk Douglas is more of a blow-hard, a kind of irrepressible rogue. However, I have to admit that the change was probably for the best and makes a nice contrast with the rest of the characters, who are very earnest indeed. The movie might have gotten a touch lugubrious without him…and his interaction with Conseil. He and his unlikely friendship with Conseil provide the bulk of the comedy in the film.

download (1)Ironically, it is Conseil who somewhat provides the moral conscience of the film, along with Professor Aronnax. But Aronnax in the movie gets wrapped up in Nemo, at one point even making excuses for Nemo’s behavior, and extremely caught up in the potential of the nuclear energy. It is only at the end that he realizes that Nemo is quite willing to have him and his two friends die along with the Nautilus and crew in a death pact. Not quite as mad as in the book, Nemo is still willing to do anything to protect his secret. Only Conseil consistently sees the need for them to escape, partially for their own sake and partially for Ned, who gets himself in trouble with Nemo repeatedly.

Though Ned does save Captain Nemo’s life during the giant squid attack (which looks pretty awesome, even to this day). It kind of throws Nemo’s carefully nurtured misanthropy into disarray, but ultimately Ned’s earlier actions ensure that nothing positive ultimately comes of it (not that you can blame Ned for trying).

The whole film looks great. The ship is opulent as in the book (though I still wonder why Nemo gets all the cushy stuff – what’s up with his crew? They even have a suicide pact with him!). There is the organ and the library and the artwork, the walking on the bottom of the ocean, getting chased by natives, though there’s no trip to Antarctica. There is still a burial underseas. No Atlantis, but that’s okay (there’s actually an Atlantis in the 1959 film version of Journey to the Center of the Earth, also with James Mason, so at least it made its way into one Verne adaptation). It’s still not a fast-paced movie, but it has the same element that captures one’s imagination that the book has.

Captain Nemo's cabin, without color

Captain Nemo’s cabin, without color

It’s also another fine example of how to adapt a book to a movie; keeping the essential flavor, the essential nature of the characters (except Land) and taking the most important plot elements in the story and constructing a cohesive and exciting cinematic experience.

 
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Posted by on September 2, 2015 in Movies

 

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