The Seventh Veil
d. Compton Bennett / UK / 1945 / 94 mins
Viewed at: A3.03 @ UEA (Norwich, UK)
Produced in the final months of the Second World War, Compton Bennett’s The Seventh Veil was Britain’s biggest box office success in 1945, and one of its biggest of all time. Six years earlier, just twenty days after British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had declared war on Germany, Austrian neurologist and psychoanalytical theorist Sigmund Freud died in London aged 83. So what is the connection between one of the most successful British films of the 1940s and the father of modern psychology? Well, The Seventh Veil not only has a plot which centres upon the psychoanalytic treatment of a former concert pianist, but the whole film is littered with the kind of subconscious symbolism that so intrigued the father of modern psychology.
Ann Todd plays concert pianist Francesca Cunningham, whose mysterious psychological trauma has left her a suicidal, silent mess in the care of the enigmatic Dr. Larsen (Herbert Lom). Under the watchful eye of Nicholas (James Mason) – her tutor, manager and legal guardian from an early age – Francesca has spent years performing in the world’s greatest concert halls. Even so, Nicholas’ overprotective gaze has ensured that the outside world is always kept at arm’s length.
The film’s title refers to Larsen’s theory – adapted from Salome’s ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ – that explains human personality as a series of ‘veils’ which are removed, one after the other, in accordance with levels of personal intimacy. The exception, of course, is the ‘seventh veil’, which is never lowered for fear that it may reveal our deepest, darkest secrets. It is this ‘seventh veil’ that Dr. Larsen hopes to lower as he treats Francesca with hypnotherapy and psychoanalysis.
Like the film itself, Nicholas’ life is a minefield of subconscious Freudian symbolism, his gothic mansion a virtual ‘House of Freud’. Abandoned by his mother at a young age, he now ‘despises’ women and has surrounded himself with male servants in his self-styled ‘bachelor’s domain’. There is also plenty of suggestion that his traumatic experience with the feminine form has left Nicholas with a ‘questionable’ sexuality, the kind of subconscious cause-and-effect on which psychoanalysis thrives.
The Seventh Veil‘s mise-en-scène is littered with phallic symbolism, from walking canes to cigars, but there is also a neurotic obsession with hands – the tool of Francesca’s trade – a recurring symbol which culminates in a quasi-orgasmic montage featuring an exclamation of ‘hands, hands, hands!’.
Beginning with one of Cunningham’s suicide attempts, The Seventh Veil is told largely in flashback (itself something of a Freudian cinematic trope) and remains a fairly compelling melodrama, despite the fact that the years haven’t been kind to the rather outdated psychological processes that underpin its narrative.
Ordinarily this would have been typical Gainsborough Pictures fodder – strong female-driven narrative with a mysterious, brooding male – but The Seventh Veil was actually a relatively low-budget, independent production, which reportedly cost under £100,000. It also won its writer-producers, Sydney and Muriel Box, a Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 1946 and eventually led to the rather less successful appointment of Sydney Box as Gainsborough’s studio head.
A fine film, and an underrated British classic.