Friday, October 2, 2015


Thorold Dickinson, 1949
Starring: Anton Walbrook, Edith Evans, Yvonne Mitchell

Based on a story by Alexander Pushkin and set in 19th century St. Petersburg, Queen of Spades concerns a down on his luck Russian soldier, Captain Suvorin, who is determined to improve his lot in life, but cannot without the necessary finances or political connections for a promotion. After reading a book on the occult, he believes that a local aristocrat, Countess Ranevskaya, has sold her soul to the Devil in order to win a vast fortune gambling. Determined to discover the Countess’s secrets, Suvorin learns she has a niece, Lizaveta, who she treats as a maid. He woos Lizaveta in order to get into the Countess’s home, even though another honest, aristocratic solider is actually in love with her. Suvorin makes his way into the house, but before he can pry the Countess’s secrets from her, she dies. He admits his plan to Lizaveta, whose heart is broken. But the Countess’s death is not the last Suvorin will hear from her.

Queen of Spades made somewhat of a comeback in recent years, but it’s incredible to believe that this film has been neglected for so long. It’s easily one of the best British films of the ‘40s and deserves to have a much wider audience. Though it was well received at the time of its release, it never really made its way to the US and has languished in obscurity over the years, though it should be mentioned in the same breath as Gothic films like Rebecca, Jane Eyre, and Gaslight.

Though this is more of a historical melodrama, there are a number of horror tropes, such as secret passages, ghosts, and occult tomes, and the story is fairly lurid. The Countess sold her soul in order to save her reputation; she had an affair with a member of her husband’s regiment and would have been ruined both socially and financially if her husband had found out. It is intimated that this affair was not the first and the Countess used a secret chamber in the house to indiscriminately sneak lovers into her bedroom, but the money she makes gambling ultimately protects her from these indiscretions. 

The impressive cinematography from Otto Heller -- who also worked on the even more impressive Peeping Tom -- is stark, textured, and certainly one of the film’s strong points. There are sounds and images layered on top of one another, perhaps influenced by Citizen Kane, such as a wonderful scene where Lizaveta lays on her bed and reads Suvorin’s deceptive love letters and the camera looks at her through a spiderweb. Images are reflected in mirrors and windows and the characters are regularly framed next to dramatic portraits and statues. 

In addition the memorable visuals, the performances are all wonderful. Stage actress Edith Evans is great as the Countess and the lovely Yvonne Mitchell (Demons of the Mind) is sympathetic as Lizaveta in her first film role. Ronald Howard (Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb and son of renowned British actor Leslie Howard) is likable as Andrei, Lizaveta’s quiet, earnest, and concerned savior, and fortunately does not overdo his portrayal as the romantic hero. Keep an eye out for Anthony Dawson (Dial M for Murder, Dr. No), who has a small, but memorable role as the Countess’s grandson.

This is -- swoon -- absolutely Anton Walbrook’s (The Red Shoes) film. He has such a commanding presence that the scenes without him pale in comparison. Though Suvorin is unlikable and there is almost something perverse about him, Walbrook makes him compelling and charismatic, and he is undoubtedly one of the decade's best Byronic villains. He runs the full range from charming to mad and malevolent to pathetic and his performance here is a good example of the wide range of his talent. It is easy to believe how the impressionable, naive Lizaveta could have fallen in love with Suvorin, despite the fact that she knew nothing about him. Walbrook and highly underrated director Thorold Dickinson had previously worked together on the first version of Gaslight (1940) -- not to be confused with the enjoyable American remake with Ingrid Bergman -- which also comes recommended.

Walbrook was in roughly 50 films throughout his career, but he should have been in a lot more. Seriously, look at this profile. His picture should be in the dictionary next to the word "smoldering," as he fits both definitions.

Queen of Spades is a great film and only suffers from a few minor flaws. There are a few slow moments (mostly those without Walbrook) and overall I wish more time had been spent on the Faustian, supernatural plot rather than the melodramatic love story -- an issue with a lot of the Gothic melodrama-horror film mashups produced during the '40s. There are two scenes with singing and dancing, one set in a gambling hall and another during a ball, and though these look great, they feel as though they are only there to pad out the running time. 

Queen of Spades comes highly recommended. It’s on DVD with another underrated British horror film from the same period, Dead of Night, or on a superior region 2 disc from Studio Canal. You can also find it various places streaming online. It's definitely an appropriate choice for the Halloween season.

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