One of James Mason's most indelible contributions to British cinema was the moment in which he smashed his cane down on concert pianist Ann Todd's hands. Given the date (1945) and the motive (obsessive jealousy), it sounds as though it came from one of the many Gainsborough costume melodramas that helped establish Mason as the era's biggest British star, but The Seventh Veil was in fact made independently by producer Sydney Box, its glossy sheen belying the relatively low budget (under £100,000) and rapid shooting schedule.
However, the film largely adopted the Gainsborough formula of a strongly female-centred narrative revolving around a troubled and complex relationship with a brooding, aloof and faintly sadistic man, and emphasised the debt by casting Mason in a familiar role. Here, though, the setting is the present day, and the story is largely told in flashback, with psychiatrist Dr Larson (Herbert Lom) gently but persistently probing the traumatic events in the life of pianist Francesca Cunningham (Todd) in an attempt to help her come to terms with her past, to break through the "seventh veil" which he believes conceals the secret of her various neuroses.
Although the explicitly Freudian explanation of Francesca's neuroses would probably be dismissed today, this scenario makes for compelling melodrama, the flashback structure serving to present her life as a series of emotional peaks and troughs, her triumphs in the concert hall invariably dashed by romantic disappointment, the resurfacing of unpleasant memories, or her constant paranoia about the sanctity of her hands. In the concert scenes, the latter were doubled by the pianist Eileen Joyce, who generously waived her credit when she saw how convincing the illusion was.
Despite the similarities to its Gainsborough contemporaries, The Seventh Veil was a notably bigger critical success: the Spectator announced it as "an event in the development of the British film industry" and even the notoriously acerbic C.A.Lejeune (The Observer) was unusually complimentary. A huge domestic box-office hit (nearly sixty years later, the British Film Institute calculated that it was still the tenth most successful UK box-office hit in terms of ticket numbers), it also made an impact in the US, where its screenplay won an Oscar. The following year, Sydney Box was appointed head of Gainsborough Pictures, on the assumption that he would work similar magic on the ailing studio - but The Seventh Veil turned out to be an unrepeatable one-off.