I couldn’t be more excited to ring in October by penning an entry for The James Mason Blogathon hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films! This is the second blogathon in a row of Maddy’s that I’ve participated in, though in contrast to the first I have to admit that I truly adore James Mason as opposed to Deborah Kerr. His presence onscreen is always so suave and dignified, as is his incredible speaking voice. In the past I’ve enjoyed his films like Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1950), North By Northwest (1959), Lolita (1962), and The Verdict (1982), but something about him always made me think of him as a supporting actor no matter what role he played. As soon as I saw this blogathon, I knew that it was time for me to check out one of his earlier roles that might finally cement him in my mind as a leading man. I quickly found The Seventh Veil (1945), which I thought would be the perfect solution as Mason was top billed and the film was released half of a decade before anything else of his that I’d previously seen.
What I had expected was something quite different from what I actually watched. The Seventh Veil (1945) really tells the story of Francesca Cunningham (Ann Todd), a famed and beloved concert pianist who escapes from a hospital after an injury and attempts suicide by jumping off of the nearest bridge. This attempt is unsuccessful, and from there her case is given to psychoanalyst Dr. Larsen (Herbert Lom). Dr. Larsen is known for using hypnosis on his patients and explains to his colleagues that the human mind has seven layers that are similar to Salome’s seven veils. A person may uncover three or four of them for friends and possibly even six for their lover, but he or she always keeps up the seventh veil, which covers their innermost thoughts and secrets. Hypnosis is his way of revealing what lies beneath that seventh veil, and as he puts Francesca under a trance, the majority of the film is shown in flashback as she tells him the story of her life and what led her to her current state, starting all the way back to when she was a schoolgirl.
Playing the piano began as something that Francesca adores, and the only hobby that she partakes in that doesn’t break the rules at her private school. After her father passes away and the school year ends, she is sent to live with her “Uncle” Nicholas (James Mason), who in reality is her second cousin. We find out that Nicholas’ mother betrayed his family by having an affair and leaving his father, and from that betrayal stems Nicholas’ dislike and distrust for women. At first he all but ignores his new ward, but when he finds out about her musical gifts, Francesca becomes the only thing that he focuses on. He whisks her away from Peter (Hugh McDermott), her first love who nearly became her husband, and relentlessly abuses and trains her night and day so she may become a great pianist. Over the years his aspiration becomes her reality and Francesca is a great success. While she resents Nicholas at first for ruling over her life with an iron fist, she later accepts him as her guardian as there is no obvious way to escape him. Soon love enters her life once again, however, as she falls in love with Maxwell Leyden (Albert Lieven), the man who Nicholas hires to paint her portrait.
He makes no promises of marriage to Francesca, but she still finds herself willing to live with him in Italy. Once again Nicholas opposes the match, though this time his ward is of age and is legally allowed to flee her guardian and marry Max anyway. Feeling enraged and hopeless as his only companion attempts to leave him and take the musical talent that he bestowed upon her, he bashes Francesca’s hands in hopes that she will never be able to play the piano again. She still escapes his clutches, and despite a fiery car crash with Max afterwards, her hands remain intact with the exception of a few burns. Waking up in the hospital with bandages covering her primary physical asset proves to be too much for her, however, and she attempts suicide because she believes that her hands truly are marred beyond repair and because she cannot live without playing the piano, the only thing she loves. After she wakes up from her hypnosis, Dr. Larsen slowly but surely puts her on the path to recovery, trying multiple times to convince her that her hands are in perfect condition and that she really can play the piano. The three loves of her life gather in hopes that she’ll come back to them once she’s rehabilitated, but who will she choose: Peter, Nicholas, or Max?
The Seventh Veil (1945) was produced and written by Sydney Box along with his wife, Muriel, and completed with a budget of less than £100,000. Despite its humble beginnings, the picture was a resounding success and became the largest British box-office success of the year, was entered into The Cannes Film Festival, and won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, its only nomination. The concept of the film was concocted by the couple after Sydney was asked to complete a documentary about rehabilitation of shell-shocked soldiers using truth drugs and hypnosis, and Muriel saw potential in a movie about the rehabilitation of a famous dancer or violinist using these same methods. Some help with the script was also given by leading lady Ann Todd, who suggested the name of her daughter, Francesca, for the main role. In fact, our star of the day James Mason even attributed the prosperity of The Seventh Veil (1945) to Todd, remarking that “This was Sydney Box 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.” After praise like that, it was no surprise that Mason campaigned (albeit unsuccessfully) for Ann Todd to receive top billing, and in the years after the film’s release Todd even claimed that the two of them had an affair during production.
I didn’t expect to be reviewing a romantic thriller as my first post of October, but I’m certainly glad that this turned out to be one! For the most part The Seventh Veil (1945) is a stunning work of art with a brilliant gothic script and cinematography that deeply reminds me of both Rebecca (1940) and Limelight (1952), but my main issue with the picture is its ending (spoilers ahead!). While the chemistry between James Mason and Ann Todd is very apparent in both the heated scenes as well as its tender ones, I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that Francesca chooses to be with her own guardian and abuser at the film’s end. They’re distantly related, and even if their relationship after the credits roll is a platonic one, Francesca deserves much more happiness than Nicholas could ever provide for her. Who’s to say that he wouldn’t try to cripple her any time she desired to leave and lead her own life, just as he had done in the past? This is a riveting and passionate story that I absolutely adored James Mason and Ann Todd in, but if the controversial ending is one that you might have an issue with like I did, I would recommend ending the film about two or three minutes early and pretending that Francesca rushes down the stairs, then out of the door to start a new life without any of these men to hinder her.