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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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Intermezzo (1939)

Intermezzo_Poster_-_ArgentinaAn intermezzo is “a short part of a musical work (such as an opera) that connects major sections of the work,” or more simply “a usually brief interlude or diversion” (these definitions come courtesy of the Meriam-Webster Dictionary). When pianists Thomas Stenborg (John Halliday) comes across his student, (Ingrid Bergman) playing an intermezzo with all the enthusiasm of “a climax,” he reminds her that she is giving the intermezzo of the piece too much importance. It’s a metaphor for her relationship with the married violinist Holger Brandt (Leslie Howard).

Intermezzo is an American remake of the 1936 Swedish film, which David O. Selznick liked so much that he bought the rights to the story…and coincidentally signed the leading lady of the film to a contract. And thus Ingrid Bergman came to American.

The plot is not really a plot, but more of a situation. Violinist Holger Brandt goes on long concert tours that keep him away from his family for months at a time and when he returns to his home in Sweden, his wife and his two children, he seems to be feeling a bit dissatisfied. He wants to run off with his wife and tour the world for a year.

But he soon meets his daughter’s piano teacher, Anita Hoffman (Ingrid Bergman), a student applying for a musical scholarship in Paris. She is young and has admired the great musician Holger for many years and before they know it, they fall in love. She feels a bit guilty, but Holger persuades her to go away with him and take that tour his wife would not take.

I have to admit that I like Leslie Howard much better in comedies or playing a character who is supposed to be a bit of a ham (like Professor Higgins in Pygmalion, or in The Scarlet Pimpernel or It’s Love I’m After). As Holger, he’s too mopey and indecisive. Characters are remarkably patient and forgiving considering his dithering and selfishness. What it seems to come down to is that he wants to feel young again, be free of responsibility. One can’t help but feel that he uses Anita because his wife wouldn’t take that year-long tour. Uses her to feel young again. Like he talked himself into feeling that he was deeply in love so he could justify his actions. If it’s true love, then he must be in the right…right? He’s a male Anna Karenina. Like Anna from the novel, he wins his point and goes off with the person he loves to Europe and travels and pretends to be sublimely happy and all the while is missing his family.

Intermezzo-2What holds the film together is Ingrid Bergman, who enters the film like a burst of warmth and sunshine that thaws out the film instantly. Last week I watched Notorious again and seeing Intermezzo not long after made for an interesting contrast. There are not many actresses who can convincingly portray innocence AND worldliness….not equally convincingly. Usually, one doesn’t quite buy one or the other. I think it’s the innocence that we believe least often.

I came across a quote recently by Lillian Gish in reference to her many roles with D.W. Griffith: “Virgins are the hardest roles to play, those dear little girls.To make them interesting takes great vitality.”

Lillian Gish possessed remarkable vitality. And although Ingrid Bergman is not quite as forceful as Gish, she too possessed the vitality necessary to play convincing and compelling innocent characters.

As Anita, she is warm, more girlish, innocent, without being naive or childish, and practically glows (the gorgeous cinematography was done by Gregg Toland). The plot never does much, but she graces it perfectly and she was the only character who commands sympathy and emotional investment.

She’s also the conscience of the film. Supposedly, Holger is suffering because of the deception of their affair, but he looks more annoyed at the inconvenience. It is Anita who is truly, deeply disturbed. And she’s fallen in love more deeply than Holger. However, one can’t help but be glad when she finally decides it is better to leave Holger and go on with her career. He’s not worth it and seems to be a rather needy person who would consume her life, though she does’t think of it in that way.

ingrid-intermezzo1939-1Intermezzo might best be called a romantic melodrama. The story never feels very urgent, it tends to drift along somewhat dreamlike, the dreamlike-quality perhaps owing to Gregg Toland. It really is a gorgeous film. Holger and Anita once tease about Anita being a phantom and in one scene Holger is looking up at Anita, who is standing at a second-story window and in the shadows she seems to be disappearing like a ghost. The use of shadows and light is breathtaking. As is Ingrid Bergman.

This post is part of The 2nd Wonderful Ingrid Bergman Blogathon, hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema. Be sure to read all the other excellent posts about Ingrid Bergman, here!poster-3

 
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Posted by on August 29, 2016 in Movies

 

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