Sunday, August 3, 2014

Movie Review: The Queen of Spades

The Queen of Spades (1949)
directed by Thorold Dickinson, starring Anton Walbrook, Yvonne Mitchell, Edith Evans

(Note: This is my entry in The British Invaders Blogathon, hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts.) 

Night after night, Captain Herman Suvorin (Anton Walbrook) goes with his fellow officers to a club, where the laughing sons of nobility stare at the gypsy dancers and play the card game faro until the sun rises. Suvorin, a strange, solitary man, never spends any time with the dancers and never spends any money, but there's a furtive hunger in his eyes as he watched the cards. Andrei (Ronald Howard), the only one in the company nice enough to try to be Suvorin's friend, is puzzled by his behavior, but Suvorin, a poor man who despises his wealthier comrades, is determined not to play faro until he's certain he'll win.

One night, Suvorin discovers a book that promises him the key to unbelievable wealth. The book tells the story of the Countess Ranevskaya, a beautiful, desperate woman who sold her soul to the Devil in order to win the secret of the three winning cards. With the secret of the cards, she won enough money at faro to keep herself from ruin. Suvorin is excited beyong measure at the story, especially when he discovers that Ranevskaya is still alive now an old and irascible crone (Edith Evans) who's never once breathed a word of the secret cards to anyone. Suvorin becomes obsessed with learning the three cards at any price. Even if it means seducing the countess's innocent young ward Lizaveta (Yvonne Mitchell). Even if it means loss of life or sanity. Even if he throws his own soul onto the fire...

For a film that Martin Scorsese himself referred to as a "masterpiece," The Queen of Spades has been strangely overlooked for decades. Even now, while it's attained a certain small cult status with those who've seen it, in the U.S., it still only pops up on a dual DVD with Dead of Night (not that Dead of Night isn't a good film in its own right) and it doesn't usually pop up when people are chatting about all the great films of Britain's postwar period. Maybe it just has too much competition; The Queen of Spades was nominated for a BAFTA in 1949, the same year as another little film you might recollect, oh, The Third Man that was it. Maybe it's because Thorold Dickinson, the film's director was born under an unlucky star since despite his own good reputation, his movies (the 1940 British Gaslight, Secret People, Hill 24 Doesn't Answer) haven't always been the easiest to get a hold of. Or maybe it's because The Queen of Spades is easy to mistake for just another cozy British ghost story. 

In fact, the film is tremendously arresting in its visuals, its set design is amazingly elegant for its shoestring budget, and its performances are all topnotch. It's creepy, it's thrilling, and it horrifies in all the right place. Finding The Queen of Spades kicking around on Youtube or in out-of-date DVD releases is like realizing that the eccentric little old lady neighbor you've been ignoring for years was really Miss Havisham all along.

Adapted from a Pushkin short story, The Queen of Spades tells the story of Herman Suvorin, a man who becomes convinces that the riches and esteem he craves will be his if he can learn the secret of how to win at cards. It's a simple enough tale that teases you as to whether our hero is literally selling his soul or just going completely off his head. But for me, The Queen of Spades takes that simple story and makes it beautiful. Despite the fact that director Thorold Dickinson was given the assignment only five days before it started, despite the fact that they had the budget of a mayfly supper, and despite the fact that it showcases little actual horror, The Queen of Spades is a visual feast, creating a cold, haunted vision of Imperial Russia that could rival The Scarlet Empress.

Much of the credit has to go to Dickinson, who's endlessly inventive in his distorted camera angles, twisted mirror shots, and imagery. In one moment that made me literally catch my breath, he goes from a shot of Herman Suvorin scratching out a love letter while a spider spins a web in his dusty room to a shot of Lizaveta swooning away on her bed, her fingers suggestively reaching under the pillow to caress his letter as the transposed image of the spider keeps spinning over her face. 

In another sequence where a younger and more beautiful version of the Countess makes her bargain with the Devil, Dickinson blurs the edges of the scene, as if we're watching something not quite of this world. To hint at the doom that will befall her, all he has to do is show a shot of some mysterious figure's gnarled hands slowly working out the details on a tiny doll, a little miniature of the Countess. And when the Countess does make her fateful visit to the place that, in the film's cryptic words, "left a mark on her soul," Dickinson leads up to it by showing us the Countess walking through a shadowy tunnel, coming to a door that enters into pitch blackness. We hear her scream and we hear the scream of her horses but nothing more. And when the light comes back,  the tiny doll is being trapped under a glass bowl by those same unknown hands. When the movie cuts to the real Countess, she's pleading to a painting of the Virgin Mary for mercy but in a merciless answer to her prayers, the faces of Virgin and Infant slowly turn to black. It's as great as anything you'll find in a Val Lewton film.

The legendary stage actress Edith Evans, here playing the old, crabbed Countess Ranevskaya, is the film's most impressive visual effect. Just watching her hunch across the screen, with her huge powdered wig teetering on her head and her eyes darting around suspiciously is like watching some grotesque oddity from Alice in Wonderland come to life. The Queen of Spades was actually Evans' screen debut, but she's so assured onscreen that you'd think she'd been doing films for years. In her line delivery, Evans is a perfectly banal, constantly complaining old woman, but you can't help but notice something haunted and despairing in her eyes. She strikes the perfect balance, keeping you guessing as to whether Evans is an ordinary woman who's become the unfortunate target of Suvorin's delusions or a soulless crone who knows far more than she's telling.

Dark-eyed, regal Yvonne Mitchell, also making her screen debut after years on the stage, is surprisingly very good as the naive, romantic Lizaveta, the Countess's companion. She's lovely and good-hearted, but her life with the Countess has kept her sheltered from the outside world. Despite Suvorin's brusque manners, poor situation, and unattractive appearance, his ardent love letters (diligently copied out of books) are enough to set her head spinning. It would be easy to write off Lizaveta as just another ingenue, a helpless pawn in Suvorin's schemes. But Mitchell has too much dignity in her manner to let you dismiss her entirely. Instead, you get the sense of a woman who could very well grow into strength and intelligence, given the chance to experience the world. By forcing her ward into seclusion and servitude, the Countess has ironically turned her into the same reckless, unhappy woman she herself once was, seeking relief in a faithless lover.

Ronald Howard, son of Leslie Howard, gets the film's most thankless role as the pure-hearted Andrei, Suvorin's aristocratic foil. As the only character not to originate from the original Pushkin story, his main purpose is to provide Lizaveta with a happy ending. Still, Howard shows more than a few sparks of his father's talent, giving Andrei a genuine warmth and sensitive watchfulness that makes you root for him to bring Suvorin down. Judging by his work here, Howard should have had more of a career.

Like his other great obsessive role, Lermontov in The Red Shoes, Anton Walbrook is again the cold, vaguely inhuman creature whose eyes light up and whose hands tremble, not for a fellow human being, but for something intangible. In this case, it's privilege, not art. He looks at the beautiful, adoring Yvonne Mitchell as if he can stare right through her to the life of wealth that awaits him. Considering that the only other character he spends any time with is an attractive young man, who seems rather fond of him for no apparent reason, it's tempting to try to work in a gay subtext here. However, Walbrook doesn't play it that way; he's just as bored making small talk with Andrei as he is writing love sonnets to a woman. 

That chilly detachment certainly fits for the character, but it did leave me feeling a little removed from Suvorin for a good part of the film's runtime. Unlike Lermontov, who can at least boast that he's bringing beauty into the world, Suvorin's concerns are all wrapped up in himself and so his downfall doesn't feel particularly tragic or shocking. I'm not one to complain about characters being likable or not, but I couldn't help wishing for a little more insight into Suvorin.

Still, that minor complaint aside, Walbrook's performance is knock-out spectacular once Suvorin goes from pinched misanthropy to complete insanity. Intensity was Walbrook's great gift as an actor and he brings it full-force to this role, commanding your attention simply because his needs are so raw. He wants the secret of the cards and he wants it so much that everything else in the world has turned to ashes for him. His one scene with Edith Evans is a stand-out, but I'm also enthralled by the moment when he finally feels he's won. Walbrook mutters to himself, hardly daring to believe it. He closes his eyes in relief. And then he stands up as if to stretch but instead, Walbrook put his hands to his chest, clawing at his own skin in some kind of bestial triumph and then makes this undefinable noise. It's like a bird of prey cawing, I quite literally can't think of another actor ever doing anything like it. And then to cap it all off, Walbrook lifts his hands up, lets out a few hysterical sobs, and ends with a glass-rattling scream that would unnerve even the most jaded horror fan. You don't know whether to be more terrified of him or for him. There's plenty of actors who can make a meal of a mad scene, but Walbrook truly makes this unique and memorable.  

In a lesser film, the director would have just let Walbrook's performance carry the whole thing, but Thorold Dickinson creates a movie that's just mad enough to keep pace with its feverish hero, using mirrors, shadows, sounds, and eyes to tell the old story of what happens when we want too much. More people should know it and more people should talk of it. And more people should be talking about Thorold Dickinson, a man who played his best even when fate dealt him an unlucky hand. The ghosts of the other great movies he could have made haunts The Queen of Spades just as much as the story's ghosts do.

Favorite Quote:

"Take life as you find it."
"I'd rather take it by the throat and force it to give me what I want."

Favorite Scene:

For me, the most thrilling scene in The Queen of Spades comes when Suvorin hides in the Countess's room in order to beg the secret of the cards from her. Dickinson carefully draws out the suspense. He shows us every slow step of the Countess being made ready for bed, her body suddenly shrunken without the weight of her wig and jewels. She mumbles to herself the same prayer we heard the younger Countess make, "Holy virgin, have mercy on me." In the darkness, Evans' eyes look like two black holes. Suddenly she sees a black apparition next to a painting of the Virgin. She rears up and the shadow steps forward to reveal himself as Suvorin. He comes forward, pleading, presenting himself as a supplicant. The Countess looks away from him, mute. Suvorin falls to his knees, asking her to help him in the name of God and any human feeling, but she moves away. Suvorin's pleas turn to demands and then finally to threats. And still the Countess refuses to answer. By this point, the audience is almost as maddened as Suvorin, wanting desperately for this woman to share what she knows. But what if he's a madman tormenting an innocent old woman? The film doesn't tip its hand either way and it ups the tension immensely, as you keep trying to figure out who's most in danger here.

It's hard to overstate just how brilliantly matched Walbrook and Evans are in this scene. Walbrook brings all his vocal gifts to Suvorin's shifting, increasingly savage speech and Evans uses the power of her face alone to show both great dread and a strange, mute contempt. I won't give away how the scene ends or the little shock coda afterwards, but it left me very grateful for directors who know how to let actors bring the horror all on their own. Sometimes you don't need CGI demons coming up through the floorboards or overacting Satans (actually scratch that--you practically never need that). Sometimes all you need is the terror in two people's eyes as they slowly realize they're staring into the face of their own damnation.

Final Six Words:

Sends shivers of delight and horror


  1. Such great writing. Thank you! Love your last line and this one: "Finding The Queen of Spades kicking around on Youtube or in out-of-date DVD releases is like realizing that the eccentric little old lady neighbor you've been ignoring for years was really Miss Havisham all along." That line alone was enough for me to hunt this film down. Leah

    1. Thanks so much for the generous comments, Leah. The Miss Havisham connection felt appropriate since this after all, an Old Dark House story, just like Great Expectations. But I really did expect it to be much more of a tea-and-crumpets ghost story before I saw it the first time. It certainly took me by surprise!

  2. Wow, I cannot wait to see this!! Though your vivid review makes me feel I already have!! Thank you for this!'

    And may I add on a totally shallow note that Anton Walbrook is a totally underrated hottie.

    Warmest wishes,

    Janet (Sister Celluloid)

    1. Greetings, Janet (Sister Cellulod). I don't think I've seen you around here before but it's great to have you. Your appreciation for Anton Walbrook is shared by many, but yeah, I think he could probably have made a steady living playing the suave lover type if he'd been so inclined. Lucky for us, he liked challenging, varied roles. Thanks for commenting!

  3. This sounds wonderful, I can't wait to see it! The only Thorold Dickinson film I've seen is Gaslight, even in the UK a lot of his catalogue is tough to track down which is a real shame, we should celebrate our home-grown directors more! To echo the previous commenters, this was a beautifully written review, I hope a lot more readers are inspired to seek out some of this directors work!

    1. It's fortunate that even his Gaslight is available to us, considering that Hollywood deliberately tried to bury the film so as not to compete with their version. Reportedly, Selznick tried to lure Dickinson to the States, because of his admiration for Gaslight and the director refused out of patriotism. Glad you stopped by!

  4. Anything Scorsese recommends becomes a must-see for me. Your review made me even more curious... and it's good that it comes with Leslie Howard's son as a treat!
    Thanks for the kind comment!

    1. I do love that Scorsese is so happy to bang the drums for lesser-known classics like this; his name carries a lot of weight. As for Ronald Howard, he's very likable onscreen and I'm not sure why his career never went past a certain point.