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.
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.
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.