Monday, February 20, 2023

Classic Films in Focus: THE QUEEN OF SPADES (1949)

Once considered lost, The Queen of Spades (1949) is an example of buried cinematic treasure that was luckily rediscovered so that we can enjoy it again today, an ironic twist since it's a tale about the fickle turns of Fortune's wheel. The plot comes from a short story of the same name by Alexander Pushkin, which explains its Russian setting and Romantic bent, but the movie is a British production directed by Thorold Dickinson, with Anton Walbrook, Edith Evans, and Yvonne Mitchell in its most significant roles. A meticulous 4K restoration by Studiocanal means that modern viewers can enjoy The Queen of Spades in all her baroque glory, and it really is a stunning picture, with a moody atmosphere reminiscent of Val Lewton and a delirious mix of romance, menace, and supernatural chills.

Anton Walbrook stars as Herman Suvorin, an officer in the Russian army who envies the wealth and good fortune of his nobler and more successful peers. When he hears the story of a beautiful countess who sold her soul for the secret of winning at cards, he sets out to learn it from her by first seducing her lonely young companion, Lizaveta (Yvonne Mitchell). Soon Suvorin comes face to face with the now ancient Countess (Edith Evans), but his meeting with her does not go as planned, and his manipulation of Lizaveta rouses the resentment of her honest admirer, Andrei (Ronald Howard).

The horror element of The Queen of Spades relies more on Gothic ambience than overt terrors, but it's always there, pulsing in the undercurrent of the narrative and rising with Suvorin's paranoia in the third act, when he might or might not be experiencing supernatural encounters. We're introduced early to the idea that malevolent forces are at work in this world, as we hear the story of Countess Ranevskaya and her desperate bargain to regain a fortune stolen from her by a secret lover. Faustian deals with the devil, wax figures containing lost souls, and unseen horrors prime our imaginations for the unfolding tale of Suvorin's obsession. The resulting narrative exists somewhere between the Lewton oeuvre and classic thrillers like Gaslight (the British 1940 version was also directed by Dickinson and stars Anton Walbrook). The reality of the supernatural is up for debate, especially where the final climactic scene is concerned, but there's a fantastic turn of the screw quality to Suvorin's increasing hysteria, and if anyone deserves to be haunted he's top of the list. Fans of the 1961 anthology film, Black Sabbath, might appreciate the parallels between the haunting scenes and those found in the segment titled "The Drop of Water," although Mario Bava's movie provides more lurid terrors for the guilty protagonist.

Elegant performances help to elevate The Queen of Spades and complement its gorgeous period settings, with Walbrook especially compelling as the ambitious Suvorin. He opens the picture tightly controlled and standoffish, and it's enthralling to watch him succumb to his envy, avarice, and guilt as he worms his way into the presence of the elderly Countess. Dame Edith Evans, looking about a hundred years old and outfitted in full 18th-century finery with a stupendous wig, still manages to be shrewish, funny, pathetic, and terrible by turns. Neither she nor Suvorin is a good person, but both retain degrees of humanity and frailty that excite some sympathy from the viewer, especially because Lizaveta feels pity for both of them. Yvonne Mitchell invests Lizaveta with moving Gothic sensibility; as a paid companion she's very similar to a governess, inhabiting an uneasy liminal space between servant and family member, but she burns with longing and a desire to be loved. The film's brilliant visual metaphors make it clear that Suvorin means to trap Lizaveta in his web of lies, but she attracts a nobler suitor in handsome Andrei, played to great effect by Leslie Howard's son, Ronald. 

Arresting cinematography by Otto Heller also makes this picture a gem. It's a stunning feast for the eyes, making the most of the gorgeous costumes and elaborately decorated sets created by Oliver Messel. Memorable moments abound: we see the young Countess hurrying down a secret passage, Suvorin waiting in the snow at night, and a beautiful dancer entertaining the amorous officers. Most of the central characters are shown in mirrors at various times, confronting themselves, reflecting themselves, or revealing their natures to the viewer, and the scenes in which we see one character directly and another in reflection are particularly striking and well shot. The long awaited confrontation between Suvorin and the Countess is absolutely riveting, thanks to the performances of the actors and the ways in which the camera frames them.

For more of director Thorold Dickinson and Anton Walbrook, start with the 1940 Gaslight, which some consider superior to the 1944 Hollywood version. Walbrook's other British films include 49th Parallel (1941), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), and The Red Shoes (1948). Edith Evans earned Oscar nominations for her performances in Tom Jones (1963), The Chalk Garden (1964), and The Whisperers (1967), but don't miss her as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest (1952). Yvonne Mitchell, who made her screen debut in The Queen of Spades, can also be found in The Divided Heart (1954), Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957), and Sapphire (1959). For an eerie period double feature, try pairing The Queen of Spades with Bedlam (1946), or follow up with Gothic thrillers like The Uninvited (1944), The Spiral Staircase (1946), and Dragonwyck (1946).

The Queen of Spades is available on Blu-ray and DVD; the new Studiocanal restoration is region specific, but a 2019 version with some extras is available on Amazon from Kino Lorber.  You can also find it streaming on the horror subscription channel Shudder as of February 2023.

Time to Quit Twitter

It's time to quit Twitter.

I joined Twitter over a decade ago to connect with classic movie fans, writers, fellow LEGO enthusiasts, and other people who shared some of my eclectic interests. It was, for many years, a satisfying experience that introduced me to films, books, and people I would not otherwise have found, including my current gig writing a monthly column for Classic Movie Hub. This week, however, I decided the time had finally come to pull the plug on my Twitter account. 

It has been a gradual process of disillusionment, but the current state of Twitter makes it less useful, less enjoyable, and more problematic than ever. I'll miss the good old days and the classic movie people I interacted with, but I've seen less and less of them in recent years, as my feed became flooded with the most aggressive retweeters and promoted posts. I found that looking at Twitter increased my anxiety but not my knowledge or feeling of connection, and now basic services on the site are rapidly shifting to "paid only" access, while Elon Musk treats Twitter as his personal megaphone and cudgel.

Enjoying real life at Niagara Falls in 2022. So much better than Twitter!

Going forward, you'll find links to my blog posts on my Tumblr account. Classic movie and LEGO content will also continue on my Instagram, along with way too many pictures of my cats. I am not, at this time, attempting to join one of the new social media sites like Mastodon. This blog will continue, too, although I long ago stopped trying to make it profitable. It's purely a labor of love, and I find that the regular writing practice is good for me. I hope my posts here on Virtual Virago occasionally find readers who enjoy them. You can also read my Silver Screen Standards column each month at Classic Movie Hub!

Finally, if you really want to be supportive, you can always visit my Amazon Author page and buy a book.

Thursday, February 9, 2023

Classic Films in Focus: THE SUSPECT (1944)

Warning: This review contains spoilers for The Suspect (1944).

Director Robert Siodmak weaves Victorian sensibility with noir energy in the justifiable homicide story of The Suspect (1944), which sees a mild-mannered Charles Laughton driven to murder by his extremely disagreeable wife. It's an unusual tale in that it pitches our sympathies toward the murderer throughout, even though we know the Hays Code won't let the picture - or its protagonist - get away with the crimes. Laughton, equally adept at comedic and horror roles, here plays an amiable working man who never stops being likable even as the corpses pile up. Ella Raines gives a sweet performance as the young woman whose affection ironically plunges the protagonist into violence, while Rosalind Ivan and Henry Daniell are delightfully horrible as the two antagonists who threaten him to their peril.

Laughton stars as Philip Marshall, a pleasant middle-aged man who manages a cigar store and does his best to placate the wrath of his hectoring, hateful wife, Cora (Rosalind Ivan). After Cora drives away their son, Philip takes comfort in a new friendship with pretty, young Mary (Ella Raines), but his hopes for a second chance at happiness are dashed when Cora refuses to give him a divorce. Cora's threat to ruin both of the lovers by publicly exposing them proves too much for Philip, but his snap decision to take drastic action has unexpected effects, especially when his abusive, alcoholic neighbor, Mr. Simmons (Henry Daniell), sees an opportunity for blackmail.

The success of this picture relies very much on Laughton's ability to play a truly kind, sympathetic man who is also believably capable of outright murder. Philip Marshall is no smiling sociopath like Joseph Cotten's character in Shadow of a Doubt (1943), nor is he incompetent once he commits to the deed. It helps that Cora and Mr. Simmons are so thoroughly rotten that even a saint might be forgiven for wishing them dead. Cora is unhinged enough that she doesn't seem to realize or care that ruining Philip's career would put her in the poorhouse, too; she means to torment him until death do them part. The revelation that Mr. Simmons beats his long-suffering wife (Molly Lamont) makes Philip and the audience hate him long before the blackmail attempt, as ironic as that seems when we consider that Mr. Simmons doesn't actually murder his wife. The Scotland Yard detective, Inspector Huxley (Stanley Ridges), enters this story as a most unwelcome pest; he's determined to prove Philip's guilt but doesn't care at all about the circumstances or the consequences. He might not be a corrupt cop, but he's willing to tell lies, set traps, and ruin lives without a moment's hesitation because he believes in his own moral superiority.

Touches of romance and comedy constantly lighten the mood to remind us of Philip's essential decency and the happiness he and Mary might enjoy if only fate would deal them a better hand, but there are fully realized moments of thrilling noir tension, too. Some of the sweetest scenes feature Raymond Severn as the errand boy, Merridew, whom Philip treats with paternal affection. The mix of moods also leads to black comedy, including a perversely entertaining sequence where Philip attempts to hide a body behind a couch while also entertaining unexpected guests. Laughton carries all of it beautifully, even the tenderest scenes with Raines, which might easily be rendered ridiculous by the difference in their ages and Laughton's cherubic curls atop a round, sad face. The ending might not offer what the audience really wants, but it's as gentle as possible given the inevitable conclusion to Philip's experience, and it leaves some poignant questions hanging in the air. Can you forgive a murderer depending on who they murder and why? How does that change the nature of justice and who gets it? What does the end of the story mean for Mary, or Mrs. Simmons, or Philip's adult son, John? The Suspect is the kind of murder story that begs for group viewing and discussion.

Robert Siodmak's other films from the 1940s include classics like Phantom Lady (1944), The Spiral Staircase (1946), and The Killers (1946). Charles Laughton won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and was nominated again for Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and Witness for the Prosecution (1957), but be sure to see him in Hobson's Choice (1954), too. Ella Raines also stars in Phantom Lady, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945), The Web (1947), and Brute Force (1947). If you like mild-mannered men embroiled in murder, pair The Suspect with The Woman in the Window (1944) or Scarlet Street (1945), both starring Edward G. Robinson.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

Classic Films in Focus: DEAD OF NIGHT (1945)

Long before The Twilight Zone came the 1945 British anthology film, Dead of Night, which weaves together a collection of eerie tales within a framework that gathers a small group of people in an English country house. While it's not exactly a horror movie, it does offer plenty of weird and even disturbing moments, and it would profoundly influence future horror anthologies, which have since become a unique and much-loved subgenre. Each segment of this multi-part narrative has its own director and stars, and each has its own charms, but standouts of the group include Mervyn Johns, Googie Withers, and Michael Redgrave as some of the unfortunate visitors to the stranger side of experience.

The frame tale follows mild-mannered architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) on a professional visit to a remote country house, where he meets the owner, Mr. Foley (Roland Culver), and a group of his friends. Craig feels an overwhelming sense of uneasiness as he realizes that he has seen these people somewhere before, but he only remembers that the gathering ends in tragedy. Psychologist Dr. Van Straaten (Frederick Valk) doubts that Craig is really experiencing a supernatural vision, but the other guests try to support Craig by telling stories about their own brushes with the inexplicable, which range from the horrific to the humorous.

The anthology contains five stories in addition to the frame tale with Craig, and each one strikes a different tone. The hearse driver tale has an urban legend quality; it mostly functions as a short opening act for the more complex stories that follow. The Christmas party is a lovely, old fashioned ghost story that briskly moves through its beats, with Sally Ann Howes very charming as the heroine and narrator, also named Sally. In the story of the haunted mirror, Googie Withers and Ralph Michael play an engaged couple who become ensnared by the eerie menace of a newly acquired antique. Fans of iconic TV series like The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery will find the mirror adventure very much to their taste, and the two leads give great performances that really sell the story. In the fourth segment, Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne play golfing pals whose rivalry for the same woman leads to ghostly misadventures; it's a bit of comedic fun that fans of the duo - who first became famous for their appearance in The Lady Vanishes (1938) - will especially appreciate, but you don't need to recognize them as Charters and Caldicott to laugh at their scenes. The final segment stars Michael Redgrave as an increasingly deranged ventriloquist plagued by his sadistic dummy, and it's easily the creepiest and most iconic of the lot, with Redgrave absolutely riveting as the tortured partner of the nightmarish Hugo.

Michael Redgrave hushes the devilish Hugo.

The changes in cast and tone keep each new experience fresh as the picture unfolds, with the haunted mirror and the ventriloquist stories cranking up the horror and the other episodes offering varying levels of relief. In between we return to the frame tale, which works its way toward a hallucinatory climax that merges bits from every segment. The format would inspire many later horror anthologies, leading to genre classics like Tales of Terror (1962), Twice-Told Tales (1963), Black Sabbath (1963), Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965), and The House That Dripped Blood (1971), just to name a few. These later pictures increasingly leaned into the sexuality and gore that Dead of Night eschews, but television series like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller, The Outer Limits, and Amazing Stories continued to provide eerie chills without buckets of blood. It's worth noting that the anthology format is itself a very old literary genre, famously used in Boccaccio's Decameron and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, which makes Dead of Night a fascinating link in a long genre chain that connects 14th century texts to modern hits like Black Mirror.

Ealing Studios is remembered today for its comedies, and Dead of Night was very much a departure from its usual fare, but it includes many of the studio's regular directors and stars. Charles Crichton, who directed the golfing story, went on to make The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), and Robert Hamer, the director of the haunted mirror tale, later directed the classic Ealing comedy, Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). You'll find Michael Redgrave and Googie Withers along with Radford and Wayne in The Lady Vanishes, while Withers and Roland Culver both appear in On Approval (1944). Director Robert Hamer also works with Withers, Mervyn Johns, and Sally Ann Howes on Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945). If Hugo Fitch, the ventriloquist's dummy, fascinates you, check out Magic (1978) or the two Twilight Zone episodes with similar themes, "The Dummy" and "Caesar and Me." The first one is the more iconic of the two.