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.

1 comment:

  1. I'd like to see this one -- it sounds like a gem, and I'm always interested in Anton Walbrook performances. Thanks for this!