The Seventh Veil (1945, Compton Bennett)


This British time capsule of misogyny and Freudian psychiatrics opens with a woman (Ann Todd) attempting suicide by leaping out of a window — she fails, and thanks to a somewhat arrogantly confident psychiatrist she undergoes hypnosis so we as a paying film audience can discover the dramatic source of her miseries. We learn that she’s a virtuoso pianist whose life has been under the stewardship and emotional terrorism of one Nicholas — that, of course, would be James Mason — who tries to break her hands in a jealous rage and generally attempts to guard her from living a rich and fulfilling life outside of his watch. It’s all very lurid, dime novel stuff, negating its delving into an individual inner life by casting her completely as a weakling incapable of knowing what’s best for her; indeed, the film is downright confusing to watch now, since it now seems to be telegraphing the opposite conclusion it reaches now that we all are aware — let’s hope — that hitting the people you supoosedly love is kind of unforgivable. Did we mention they’re cousins?

For the first two thirds or just a bit longer even, this is nevertheless a riveting and quite daring film; as much as it inherits the problem of seeing a woman’s life completely through the eyes of men, it is amply respectful to Todd’s character of the gifted and deliciously named Francesca. Thanks to director Compton Bennett’s veiled eroticism, it also sells the music-romance metaphor, I feel, with greater sensuality and dignity than the Hollywood Intermezzo. Beneath the voyeuristic misogyny, there is a sweeping sense here, via one flashback after another, of how a life gets broken down when it’s entirely at the mercy of others’ whims. It’s easy to get swept up in the wonderfully tasteless soap-opera manner of so many “woman’s pictures’ of the period, with an added edge of both stuffed-up dignity and cynicism that would be missing from a Hollywood interpretation of the same film. (You’ll end up wishing Mason had taken on Heathcliff in the William Wyler Wuthering Heights; one assumes he would avoid all the hypersensitive teddy-bear stuff.) Viewed through a modern lens, The Seventh Veil is hard not to see as either a vaguely sadomasochistic story or as a deeply troubling odyssey of abuse reinforced by abuse.

Veil picked up an Oscar for writing, but its most laudatory element is its casting. Mason is a divine variation on Mr. de Winer here, constantly threatening and spiteful and — admittedly — vaguely erotic. Todd is nearly unrecognizable from the put-together housewife of The Paradine Case, vivaciously individual as a woman who finds herself and her greatest love in art but also as someone ruthlessly carted around by a controlling pervert who wheels her from room to car to room to room for years on end. She responds not with brattiness but with the constant need to burst out of her limiting frame that would define any artist in any field, time or situation. The film and Nicholas set out to break her spirit, and that only makes Todd’s work more haunting. Herbert Lom, long a personal favorite of mine, is so goofily ideal as the heady, compassionate shrink I wish he’d made it into the similar but far more ridiculous Spellbound or, for that matter, the last scene of Psycho.

It’s a pity, then, that the film doesn’t pick up on a lot of its most promising threads. Early on, for instance, Francesca is confronted at one of her concerts by an old childhood friend Susan (Yvonne Owen), a blabbermouth schoolmate we learned in a previous flashback was the reason she was constantly in trouble as a teenager. Because Susan, for all her rudeness, visibly senses the imbalance in Francesca and Nicholas’ freakishly creepy relationship, we can’t help wishing the film would let her stick around and create a bit of trouble — but the matter is dropped, thus abandoning one of the film’s most perceptive and accurate documents of abusive behavior (the cutting off of the manipulated person from all outside friendships).

It’s a much greater pity that Francesca doesn’t just walk out the door at the finale; anyone who sees this now and doesn’t emit a loud expression of throw-something-at-the-TV “oh, come ON” frustration is, as they say, Part of the Problem. I mean, I get it — the handsome limping crank is a more interesting figure than the rapey sax player or the lecherous creepo painter, but he’s the biggest asshole of all and the one whose abuses are most directly documented by the film. It’s almost as if the story’s purpose is to underline how putting complete faith in something like Freudian psychology can lead to some pretty horrendous life decisions. This stands as one of the most infuriating endings to a film I have ever seen. There’s simply no excuse to have a lead character walk away with the man who has worked from the beginning to destroy every semblance of life and joy she might have had from the start of the picture, unless this is some elaborate BDSM fantasy text — and even then, such things are preferable when they indicate some respect for even the wilfully dominated.

But the heavy dramatics here work quite beautifully, surprisingly florid and absorbing for a film about what’s going on inside someone’s head. And the modern audience’s empathy for Todd’s plight will be absolute; neither her brilliance nor her suffering are trivialized. It’s too bad the movie can’t give her that courtesy.

[I could only track this down as a DVDR bootleg. Thus, the stills above were gathered from the internet.]

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