Monday, October 20, 2008

THE ALEXANDER PUSHKIN STORY "THE QUEEN OF SPADES" I first read in a book then heard in an episode of the old radio show MYSTERY PLAYHOUSE starring Peter Lorre and finally, years later, saw the 1949 film version as part of a two DVD set paired with the classic 1945 British ghost classic DEAD OF NIGHT. I've always loved DEAD OF NIGHT and it's probably understandable that the first time I watched QUEEN OF SPADES I was a little let down. Simply put, the ghostly horror elements are much more subdued and I was probably expecting more of a spookfest than I got. However, on subsequent viewings I found THE QUEEN OF SPADES to be a remarkably beautiful and creepy film. Perhaps a better pairing on DVD would replace DEAD OF NIGHT with the Josef von Sternberg/Marlene Dietrich Russian extravaganza THE SCARLET EMPRESS.
The basic story goes like this: It's 1806 and a soldier in Imperial Russia Captain Herman Suvorin saves all his money and never gambles. However, Suvorin learns of a legend involving the immortal Count de Saint-Germain and a Countess Ranevskaya who sold her soul to the devil in order to learn the secret of the three cards which, if played in exact order, would always ALWAYS win! Suvorin learns that the Countess is in fact still alive; the ancient countess lives in opulent seclusion cared for by Lizaveta. Suvorin determines to seduce the gullible and lonely Lizaveta in order to gain access to the ancient Countess and learn the secret of the three cards. After a time, Suvorin gains access to the Countess' bedchamber and pleads with her to give him the secret of the cards. Unfortunately, the elderly woman dies of fright at the intrusion of a stranger into her chambers and Suvorin returns home dejected. But then, he is visited by the restless spirit of the Countess who in fact, in a ghostly whisper, imparts to him the secret sequence of three cards. Suvorin challenges his rival to Lizaveta's affections, Andre, to a card game in which he bets everything he has. How the game turns out is the boffo finish of the film.
THE QUEEN OF SPADES is ably directed by Thorold Dickinson whose only other film which I've seen is the original 1940 version of GASLIGHT -- not the one with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman but the earlier version starring Anton Walbrook -- who just happens to star in THE QUEEN OF SPADES. German actor Anton Walbrook is fast becoming one of my favourite actors of yesteryear; he is simply brilliant in every single role I've seen him in. He's brilliant here in THE QUEEN OF SPADES and he was in GASLIGHT, and the Powell & Pressburger films THE RED SHOES (1948), THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP (1943) and THE 49TH PARALLEL (1941). A relatively little known actor who cried out for rediscovery, Walbrook has never given a bum performance in a single second of any movie I've seen him in. The Old Countess is played by Dame Edith Evans in, believe it or not, her first film appearance. Crotchety and slyly funny, Evans is made up to appear even older to portray the ancient countess. Dame Edith is shown in many scenes wearing a huge, towering powdered wig and buried in enormous dresses. Her performance is knowing and deft with just a touch of brimstone; she occasionally demonstrates a barely-hidden fear of dying now that her soul belongs to the Devil.
Also in her first film is young Yvonne Mitchell as Lizaveta, who plays the part with the lonely yearning for a great love her character demands. Mitchell, like quite a few of the players here, would later appear in Hammer Horror films: specifically in the 1972 psychological mess called DEMONS OF THE MIND. Other later Hammer alumni appearing here include Ronald Howard as Andrei (later to appear in Hammer's CURSE OF THE MUMMY'S TOMB (1964) as well as 3 episodes of Boris Karloff's THRILLER including "Well of Doom" and "God Grante That She Lye Stille"), Anthony Dawson as Andrei's pal Fyodor (who would play the ancient, paralyzed Noirtier de Villefort in the 1975 Richard Chamberlain TV version of THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO as well as the scab-picking Marques Siniestro in Hammer's CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF) and the extremely busy character actor Miles Malleson whose credits include the aforementioned DEAD OF NIGHT ("Room for just one more inside, sir"), THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1940) (as the daffy toy-loving Sultan), the great and sadly unavailable on DVD Russian Revolution drama KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOUR (1937) starring Marlene Dietrich, classic Ealing comedies KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS (1949), THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT (1951) and THE CAPTAIN'S PARADISE (1953), Michael Powell's PEEPING TOM (1960), I'M ALL RIGHT JACK (1959), THE HELLFIRE CLUB (1961) and the Hammer Horrors HORROR OF DRACULA, HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, BRIDES OF DRACULA and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA! Another really nice touch is the brief cameo appearance of the sepulchral-voiced Valentine Dyall as the demonic Count de Saint-Germaine's henchman.
The look of THE QUEEN OF SPADES is opulently beautiful and lushly photographed by cinematographer Otto Heller (also to lens Hammer's CURSE OF THE MUMMY'S TOMB as well as Powell's PEEPING TOM). The black & white photography can match any other film made at the time; and indeed, even years later. Special mention must also be made of the sumptuous period costumes of the Russian Imperial court provided by costume designer Oliver Messel and the remarkably expensive looking sets by art director William Kellner. One would honestly believe someone jumped in a time machine with a movie camera and shot the film in 1806 Russia! But at the same time the look and feel of the film puts one in mind of a fairy tale; which, in fact, is just what this old Russian tale purports to be. THE QUEEN OF SPADES is a masterfully shot and acted film which provides a few genuine eerie moments of supernatural unease. Of particular note is the moment when Walbrook walks up to the Countess' open coffin to pay his respects and the corpse's eyes open and glare at him. Further chills are provided by the ghostly visit of the Countess to Suvorin's rooms. If you haven't seen it, it's well worth tracking down.

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