BRITISH CULT CLASSICS - The Queen of Spades / DVD Review

I last saw Thorold Dickinson's The Queen of Spades nearly thirty years ago when it was shown late one night on BBC2. I was probably too young to appreciate it, what with a head full of lurid Hammer films and blockbuster science fiction epics, so it was an absolute delight to see it again courtesy of the recent DVD release from Optimum.

A shame that I failed to understand how this underdog of a film clearly stood out as something very different from the British films released in 1949, one retaining a cult appreciation to this day.

In a year dominated by three of Ealing's finest films, Kind Hearts and Coronets, Passport to Pimlico and Whisky Galore, Powell and Pressburger's The Small Back Room and Carol Reed's The Third Man, Dickinson's supernatural period piece flared only briefly into life before becoming forgotten.

But what a delight it is to rediscover it all over again and to consider its place as one of the best films made in the post-war period that ranks as high, if not higher, as those already mentioned.

Based on a short story by Alexander Pushkin, The Queen of Spades tells of a Russian army captain Herman Suvorin (Anton Walbrook) who desires the wealth and position of his fellow officers and becomes obsessed with learning the secrets of the card game Faro. He finds the journal of an alchemist Count St. Germain in a bookshop and discovers that the aged Countess Ranevskaya (Edith Evans) once sold her soul to gain the very knowledge about the cards he covets.

He eventually inveigles his way into her household by seducing and playing upon the affections of her long suffering and naive ward Lizavetta Ivanova (Yvonne Mitchell) and plans to steal the information from the old woman. However, he pays a particularly high price by acquiring this information...
a desire to “throw caution to the wind"
Dickinson took over as director from Rodney Ackland at just five days notice after Ackland had a dispute with producer Anatole de Grunwald and lead actor Walbrook. It was perhaps having to deal with the film's small budget and the ill-prepared production that galvanised Dickinson into fashioning it into such a richly textured, stylised period piece. His invention, borne out of a desire to “throw caution to the wind and in every scene aim for conscious and colourful contrast”, is cemented by the opulent sets created by Oliver Messel and Otto Heller's stunning expressionist cinematography where the chiaroscuro he commands complements the hyper-realism of the silent era, of Ophuls and Lang. An extraordinary achievement created in a tiny studio by a Shredded Wheat factory next to Welwyn Garden City's busy railway line.

Between the pair of them, and with Dickinson's drive to exacerbate the melodramatic, feverish atmosphere, they make a virtue out of the small budget and limited sets, using mirrors, shadows, candelabra, religious icons and period paraphernalia to encrust the Countess's palace and its myriad doorways, passages and rooms. The Countess's boudoir and the ornate Russian church used in the heartstopping funeral sequence of the film are brilliant examples of their craft and they emphasise the film's squeezing in and expansion of space, from claustrophobia to agoraphobia.

The doomed seduction of Lizaveta by Suvorin is wonderfully played by Mitchell and Walbrook and is visually summarised by an extraordinary moment where, as Lizaveta swoons to the romantic outpourings of her suitor's love letters and suggestively running her fingers over them as she lies in bed, Dickinson superimposes a spider's web over the image, condemning Lizaveta to the status of prey in this particular relationship.

This lyrical use of imagery, a very European stylisation that sets it apart from most British films of the period, is also typical of the film and it gradually spills over into the main narrative after an earlier flashback sequence where Suvorin first reads the account of the Countess's bargain with evil. Like something out of Cocteau's La Belle et La BĂȘte (made only three years earlier in 1946) he narrates a nightmarish odyssey as the young Countess begs for forgiveness from an icon of Mary and Jesus and their faces turn black as they deny her in light of her misdeeds. The European mode is further heightened by the score from Georges Auric, one of Cocteau's major collaborators.
... the twisted narcissism of Suvorin's seduction
In the boudoir, Dickinson's grasp of the film reaches apotheosis. Suvorin has managed to steal his way into the palace and, after awaiting the return of the Countess from the ball, he finally gets his chance to confront her and demand the secret of the cards. Performance, design, lighting and editing all converge on this scene. The symbolic use of the mirror, previously used to emphasise the twisted narcissism of Suvorin's seduction of Lizaveta as she gazes at her herself while recalling the entreatments of his forged love letters, is here seen as the old woman prays to the reflection of her reliquary of the Virgin Mary. The Virgin is then obscured by the reptilian form of Suvorin as he implores her to reveal her secret, his passionate begging a reversal of her earlier prayer. As he pulls a pistol on her, she drops dead from fright.

From this moment on we see Suvorin's quick descent into madness. When he pays his respects to the Countess at her funeral, much to the disgust of Lizaveta who suspects that he killed the old woman, there is a terrifying moment as he leans in to kiss the corpse and the old woman's eyes snap open and stare at him. The Countess, brilliantly played by Edith Evans in her first film role, has clearly not finished with him and in yet another fantastic scene, comes to haunt Suvorin and whispers to him the secret of the cards. In both this scene and the one showing her dying of fright, her eyes fix upon Suvorin, ambiguously suggesting that her own sin and hubris is now being transferred to this equally avaricious man.

Here, Dickinson's already impeccable use of sound design is superbly allied to the atmosphere generated and though we do not see the Countess's ghost we hear her as her heavy crinoline dress repeatedly shuffles across the floor and her walking stick taps away in the darkness. Again, lighting and editing ramp up the creeping claustrophobia of the film and the sound, incorporating a reversed recording of a jet engine taking off and bomb blasts during the Blitz, is all the powerful suggestion the sequence requires. The post-war environment in which the film was made is also ironically suggested by the blizzards that howl through the streets of St. Petersburg, the fake snow made from the shredded perspex windows of crashed German planes.

"it's a great film about longing and lust for sex, money, power"
As well as this use of sound, including the doom laden peal of Russian church bells and the feverish, seductive gypsy songs, there are wonderful visual touches that litter the film. From Edith Evans old crone locked in a time capsule of swishing crinolines and over-sized wigs, the camera looking directly through the card table as Suvorin plays his last dramatic hand at the film's conclusion and to his mental breakdown expressed in the Lang-like vision of superimposed eyes. As Philip Horne rightly claims, "it's a great film about longing and lust for sex, money, power" and this heightened desire is visually suggested throughout.

At the centre of this web of seduction is Walbrook, superbly showcasing the disintegration of a man to greed and eventually to the fateful turn of the unluckiest card of all, the Queen of Spades. It is a mesmerising, fullsome performance, certainly on a par with his impresario Lermontov in Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes from the previous year, the sympathetic German officer Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff in their The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. While he is manipulative and cruel with Lizaveta, one does ultimately feel some sympathy for this pathetic creature who dares to toy with unnatural forces and loses his mind into the bargain.

It's a sumptuous film, thick with atmosphere, full of dread and unrequited desire that seems to indicate that British films could and should be seen as part of the wider expression of European vision and art rather than become insular, self serving vehicles. This was, it would seem, the constant battle Dickinson fought to get films made during an uneven career where rescuing commercial projects gained him more success than any of those he initiated himself.

Special Features
- Introduction to the film: Martin Scorsese
Very brief opening intro from Scorsese who has, for a long time, championed the film.
- Analysis by Philip Horne
A brief account about the making of the film with some interesting anecdotes about its production and Dickinson's career. It's a little dry and lacks dynamism but the content is first rate and Horne, author of 'Thorold Dickinson: A World Of Film' clearly knows his subject.
- Audio interview 1951
An 18 minute audio recording made by interviewer Ronald Shields that reveals more about the paucity of the film's budget and how the crew responded to such limitations as well as Dickinson's response to the criticism about Walbrook's flamboyant performance.
-Audio interview 1968
More anecdotes about the making of the film and some nice observations about the funeral scene and how they created the interior of the church with limited scenery.

You also get the trailer, a reprint of a 1977 edition of 'Film Dope' magazine and its interview with Dickinson as well as an extract from Ian Christie's essay on the film in Horne's book.

The Queen of Spades
World Screen Plays - Associated British Picture Corporation 1949
Optimum Releasing / DVD - OPTD1684 / Released 18 January 2010 / 91 mins / Cert PG
Black and White / Region 2 / 1.33:1 / English Mono 2.0

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