wed 30/09/2020

The Queen of Spades | reviews, news & interviews

The Queen of Spades

The Queen of Spades

Reissue of Thorold Dickinson's classic supernatural melodrama is ace

Family been bickering over games again this Christmas? Take the blighters to this fabulous supernatural melodrama and they'll learn soon enough what happens to a dirty card cheat. Long unavailable, Thorold Dickinson's 1949 adaptation of Alexander Pushkin's eerie short story, wherein a penniless Russian officer and crusty beldame sell their souls for the secret of winning at a simple game of chance, will be released on DVD, not before time, on 18 January. Meanwhile, it opens today for a short run in cinemas where its baroque imagery and outsize performances, from Anton Walbrook and Dame Edith Evans, properly belong.

Not a lot of soldiering seems to go on in old St Peterburg, anno 1806. Instead, life for the Russian army is one giddy round of vodka, women and song - and, of course, gambling: as the cliché goes, and the film's introduction reminds us, it was a heady era when fortunes were won and lost on the turn of a card. Hovering hungrily at the edge of the table is one Captain Suvorin, whose paltry engineer's salary prevents him from playing. However, when he learns of a countess who once made a pact with the devil for the winning formula, he makes it his mission to prise the secret from her wilted lips.

QueenOfSpades-SuvorinPlayingFaroDickinson was drafted into the project at less than a week's notice, yet, as Martin Scorsese remarks in his filmed introduction to this digital reissue, so effortlessly polished is the result that it's as though he had been planning it for months. Scorsese's prologue is brief - a scant 80 seconds - but his passion is, as always, irresistible and his insights very much to the point: he has long been a champion of The Queen of Spades, and enthuses about it in much greater detail in a recent book of essays, Thorold Dickinson: A World of Film.

The film's occasional longueurs betray its origins as a short story. But it drips with atmosphere. And amazingly, this romantic, seemingly luxuriant vision of imperial decadence was shot in a shoebox of a studio next door to the Shredded Wheat factory in Welwyn Garden City (the sets were also near a railway line, and a crew member had to be despatched to the roof to warn of approaching trains). The swirling drifts of snow were made from the shredded perspex windows of crashes German planes, and one of the extra features on the DVD is a sound recording of Dickinson's urbane voice relating these and many other fascinating stories.

SpadessetdesignThe director is regarded by Scorsese and many others as one of the British cinema's great undervalued artists, but credit must also be due to the brilliant production team clustered around him. The designer, Oliver Messel, has disguised his parsimonious sets with mirrors, shadows and a superabundance of candles and period clutter, creating a sinister chiaroscuro labyrinth of doorways and alcoves, secret passages and shadowy nooks and crannies (the image right is from the V&A Theatre Collection). A single pillar and one wall are transfigured, with the help of some scavenged bits of ecclesiastical furniture, into the ornate Russian church in the funeral scene below; Otto Heller, the Director of Photography (who later shot The Ladykillers, Peeping Tom and Victim) employs artfully chosen camera angles and short focal-length lenses in the wider shots to create the illusion of space.

The other main reason for seeing the film is the two corruscating central performances. A cad and bounder of the first water, Suvorin even copies his love letters cynically out of a book (the still below pictures him in a clinch with his victim, played by Yvonne Mitchell), but Walbrook, a Viennese-born actor who fled to Britain from the Nazis, brings a Mittel-European finesse and a perversely compelling quality to this parvenu consumed by envy and avarice (Walbrook can also be seen as the devilish impresario in the current revival of Michael Powell's The Red Shoes).

spades_4Dame Edith (in her first major role, before her famous handbagging turn as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest three years later) is an equally extraordinary creation, a hilariously dyspeptic old biddy clinging on to her long-lost youth in old-fashioned crinolines and huge powered wigs; yet also a tragic figure tormented by her fear of imminent death and eternal damnation. The actors have just one scene together - two, if you count the funeral - but it's a doozy. Made near the end of a small golden age of costume melodrama, which included such films as Gaslight (also starring Walbrook), The Wicked Lady and The Man in Grey, The Queen of Spades is a treasured relic of a time when the British cinema momentarily abandoned its good manners and revelled gloriously in visual and emotional excess.

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Don't know whether it's still around, but I've enjoyed this masterpiece on DVD for some time, in an Anchor Bay double with the perfect flesh-creeping post-Xmas entertainment Dead of Night. Some double bill, that. Another recommendation: if you're operatically minded, do go on and get the Glyndebourne DVD of Tchaikovsky's operatic version with the charismatic Yuri Marusin in the title role and Felicity Palmer as the old woman. Richard Hudson's designs for Graham Vick are extraordinary.

The Anchor Bay double bill looks on the surface like a fantastic deal, but it is, I believe, now out of distribution (second-hand copies are being offered on Amazon from £43), and the extras (posters, stills galleries) are less interesting. Also, it's a North American (Region 1) format, so you need a multi-region DVD player.

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