The Seventh Veil
Reviewed in February 2010
Director: Compton Bennett. Cast: Ann Todd, James Mason, Herbert Lom, Hugh McDermott, Albert Lieven, Yvonne Owen, Grace Allardyce, Ernest Davies, John Slater, Arnold Goldsborough, Muir Mathieson, David Horne, Manning Whiley. Screenplay: Muriel Box and Sydney Box.

A conversation with Tim Robey of Mainly Movies and the Daily Telegraph

Photo © 1945 Universal Pictures/Sydney Box Productions
c/o MovieMail: The Quality Film Shop
ND: Three things to say about my initial investments in checking out The Seventh Veil: 1) the top-billed star is James Mason, who has struck me in the past as constitutionally unable to put a foot wrong; 2) when it made its American debut in 1946, it won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and winners in the writing categories that aren't spotlighted in the picture or acting fields are reliably points of interest; and 3) I could never stop confusing it with the 1943 Val Lewton chiller The Seventh Victim, which I also haven't seen, so it was time to start settling the matter.

But you're the one who plumped for this choice out of a list of several possibilities. What sparked your interest?

TR: Well, passing swiftly over my somewhat masochistic fetish for 1940s melodramas about piano-playing, the Mason factor was front and centre, for me. He has that enviable actorly knack of lending instant weight to whatever he's in, right? And though I've seen him squandered or underemployed in a lot of his later roles—hey, we watched Evil Under the Sun together—I can hardly think of a Mason performance that's less than an asset to the film it's in. To include his desultory charm with a croquet mallet and proud lack of alibi in Evil Under the Sun. This seems an interesting moment in his career, too—one of the last films of his British matinee-idol period before Hollywood came a-calling.

One of the things this movie is not, I'm guessing you'll agree, is exactly a prime opportunity for Mason to strut his stuff. Devilish suavity is a given, but he feels like a star name for hire, no? He has the eye-catching but stunted supporting role of a filthy-rich bachelor guardian, pressing Ann Todd into endless, joyless piano practice and thwarting her dreams. I acquit Mason of major blame for these scenes not working. But I don't acquit the screenwriters, the director, or Ann Todd. She's several months Mason's senior, trying to play someone who the script dictates must be practically half his character's age. And, even making allowances for Herbert Lom as her rather vain psychiatrist, I think the movie gets off to an instantly preposterous start with flashbacks to our lady pianist's school days. The 36-year-old Ann Todd in pigtails—yikes. Her whole performance is so brittle and cut-glass and kind of well-behaved and wrong I don't know where to begin. Do you? Who came up with this casting?

ND: Excitement is afoot: I'm not sure we straightforwardly agree on almost any of these details, even though I get the sense we're going to come out around the same place on how much we like or enjoy the film. I'm not anti-Todd or even categorically against the pigtails, and I didn't clock the massive incongruity of their generational casting at all. Whatever that says about me.

But let's pause with Mason, since that's where you started (though I actually have lots to say about the mid-40s genre of Concerto Macabre, as well). I think we're basically seeing the same phenomenon play out in terms of Mason's role and performance, but to me this amounts to a fantastic use of Mason. He's so crustily ornery, and yet he's able to dial so precisely among bitter regret, acidic impatience, real cruelty, frustrated aloofness, etc. etc., that he makes this tyrannical svengali so interesting that the movie frequently feels driftless without him. Adding in the homosexual "sub"text ("This is a bachelor establishment... It means I don't like women around the place"), Mason basically inherits a version of the queer, captating, live-alone aesthete that Clifton Webb plays in Laura but in an absolutely different way. Are you less excited about the performance or just more inured to his typical excellence, and disappointed that the movie doesn't spend more time with him?

And as for Todd, I don't much like her at the beginning, when she seems like a curdled, beady-eyed stepsister of Eva Marie Saint. but once her character starts breaking away from Mason's, emotionally if not always behaviorally, her gruff, "cut glass" implacability became kind of intriguing to me. She's a tough cookie, much more so than these movie amnesiacs and Galateas usually are. Is she ever right for you, or always wrong?

TR: Mason first. It's not that I don't think he gives some exciting edge and shading to the role. I love the first scene of him lurking with his cat in a winged, throne-like armchair and letting drip that poison about his female-free household. I don't think there are many actors who could give the line "Spare me your suburban shopgirl trash!" quite such an authentic flavour of highbrow scorn, rather than just milking it as a campy put-down. I'm perhaps being unfair in importing later performances into my take on this one—swap the limp for a whisky bottle and there's quite a bit of A Star Is Born's Norman Maine in Nicholas, and maybe just a touch of that supercilious aesthete Philip Vandamm. I have to admit I think it's a lesser performance than either of those—though the bar is awfully high—but that's mainly because of the way the movie uses him in the second half, where the character seems to have nothing left up his sleeve, and we realise Muriel and Sydney Box (love the names!) have only gone halfway to writing him a satisfying part. So it's not that Mason lets the film down remotely: the reverse is true.

As for Todd, I'll admit that I was so put off by her attempts at girlish frivolity (the legs-akimbo dawdling in that chair is a disaster) that she had a job on her hands winning me back round, but she certainly improves immeasurably the second Francesca shows some backbone: there's a hard spite to the way she cuts Nicholas out of her life that's quite surprising, and her acting choices start to pay off a little there. Still, I continue to find the character a terrible bore really, and Todd is too often complicit in making her a prissily remote goody-two-shoes, an unconvincingly robotic world-renowned classical pianist, and movie psychiatry's dullest and most instantly soluble puzzle-box head-case. Give me Crawford in Possessed or de Havilland in The Snake Pit! Francesca is so uptight that it did produce one sequence of unexpectedly clammy-palmed, hands-in-front-of-eyes suspense for me—I have this thing, probably going back to recitals at school, about watching unconfident pianists in the movies play to a packed crowd. I have to know it will be all right! And every furrowing of Todd's brow, neurotic clenching of her hands, and darting look up at Mason's box (or down to her thoughtless schoolfriend in the stalls) led me along in the perspiring conviction that she was going to botch the Grieg in some hideous flurry of atonal chords, scream, and fling herself into the first violins. Pure agony for me, that sequence, even more so than Romain Duris's touch-and-go exam at the end of The Beat That My Heart Skipped. I could hardly bear to watch it, but I'm oddly impressed by the combination of performance and context (and irrational personal anxiety) that worked me up into such a state.

ND: "Spare me your suburban shopgirl trash!" is indeed an amazing line. And yes, if we're ever in the same place for Halloween, I think we should go as Muriel Box and Sydney Box.

I'm worried that, given your anxieties about fraught classical musical performances on film, the mid-1940s must be a minefield for you. I thought quickly about Laura, for reasons mentioned, and about Gaslight, with its svengali-tormentor, although in that case it was Boyer who tickled the ivories. But then, just after The Seventh Veil, I saw the ghoulish Edwardian noir Hangover Square, in which Laird Cregar has to flop-sweat his way through a concerto he's been working on the whole movie while staving off the intrusions of a lethal psychosis that's actually triggered by discordant notes... and the music he's playing is by Bernard Herrmann, no less, so imagine the roiling and pounding! His psychiatrist (George Sanders, inevitably) warns him that to avoid going crazy, he'll have to cut himself off from music entirely.

I was prepared for the 40s' frequent and often clunky addiction to pop-Freudianisms, which, for those who don't know, comprise the whole bedrock of this film: the "seventh veil" is the final layer of personality that you never allow even a friend or a lover ever to lift, such that it's up to prematurely gray and vaguely Nordic-Teutonic Dr. Larsen to figure out why this traumatized, suicidal pianist is convinced that her hands and her psyche are irretrievably mangled. But I didn't know that the 40s repeatedly cast highbrow art as a stain of the captor-controller and/or as a tempting route to madness all by itself. What sense do you make of whatever it is that Fantastic Mr. and Mrs. Box are suggesting along these lines?

ND: Well, I really have no idea. In the minds of the era's screenwriters, something about brilliant musicianship sure does seem to go hand in hand with repression, sadism and outright psychosis -- I tend to think of Colin Clive in Mad Love (aka The Hands of Orlac) as the prototype for these portrayals. And it's so often the piano. A machine of madness! Demonic! Inspired!

It must be possible to enjoy this kitschier side of the movie, so I'm wondering why I got so little actual fun out of it, when all's said and done. It all has a stale feel to me, like the Boxes and co are simply packaging up a formula they already know works, with a male star who can be relied upon for that Olivier-in-Wuthering Heights, Welles-in-Jane Eyre brooding marquee value, and a female protagonist who is as scared, pliable and ultimately well-behaved as any of those dreary Joan Fontaine ingenues from the period. This movie just isn't weird enough. And can we mention that ending? Which is... wrong-weird. For one thing, it's so canned and weakly-directed, the three suitors all pitching up and waiting for Todd to emerge, psychologically healed, and fling herself towards... well, without spoiling it, the man whose previous scene with her involved the self-same hysterical assault which must have partly brought on her breakdown. What are we to make of this? I wish I could credit the movie with some ominous ambiguity here, but it winds up with a C for me because it shamelessly seems to pitch this as the Ending We Want, and every interesting beat in it prompts me towards the exact opposite conclusion.


Academy Award Nominations and Winners (1946):
Best Original Screenplay: Muriel Box & Sydney Box

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