The Movie Waffler Re-Release Review - THE QUEEN OF SPADES | The Movie Waffler

Re-Release Review - THE QUEEN OF SPADES

The Queen of Spades review
A gambler sells his soul for the secret of winning at cards.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Thorold Dickinson

Starring: Anton Walbrook, Yvonne Mitchell, Edith Evans, Ronald Howard, Anthony Dawson

The Queen of Spades poster

Today, if a film production replaces its director at the last minute it usually spells doom. Back in the days of the studio system however, everything was so well planned that a movie could have multiple directors and still come across like a unique vision; just look at The Wizard of Oz or Gone with the Wind. Even British studios were run with such military precision, which meant that when director Thorold Dickinson took the reins of The Queen of Spades just a week before shooting, replacing Rodney Ackland and rewriting much of his script, the result was a film that appeared like it had been worked on by Dickinson for months.

Adapted from Alexander Pushkin's short story, The Queen of Spades sees Dickinson reunite with his Gaslight star Anton Walbrook for a ghost story of obsession. It's a precursor to the sort of tales that would be gruesomely illustrated within the pages of EC comics in the following decade, with an unlikable protagonist ultimately getting their comeuppance through a twist.

The Queen of Spades review

Walbrook plays Suvorin, a captain in the Russian military during the Napoleonic Wars. We meet him brooding in the corner of a tavern while his fellow officers play cards, swill beer and enjoy the company of gypsy women. Suvorin is unhappy with his status. He's obsessively ambitious, proclaiming how he wants to "grab life by the throat" like some mad scientist working on creating a race of supermen. Suvorin sees a shot at becoming rich when he hears of the wealthy Countess Ranevskaya (Edith Evans). Legend has it that the Countess amassed her fortune through gambling, having learned the secret of the cards via an encounter with a sinister Parisian Count. Such knowledge came at a price however, with the Countess required to essentially sell her soul.

In an attempt to gain an audience with the Countess and talk her into revealing her secret, Suvorin begins a campaign of seducing her young ward, Lizavetta (Yvonne Mitchell), writing love letters that involve plagiarising classic works of romantic fiction and hanging outside her window every day. Of course, when he finally gets to meet the Countess it comes at a terrible price.

The Queen of Spades review

Looking a lot like Roman Polanski, Walbrook's Suvorin is a classic horror short story anti-hero, so ghastly that you're rooting for him to have the rug pulled out from under his feet. While this works well for short stories, comics and episodes of anthology shows, for a feature film you really need someone you can invest in to a greater degree. The film is never quite as creepy as it might be, as we're essentially rooting for the ghost. Our empathy, or perhaps sympathy if we're more honest, lies with the naïve Lizavetta as she is duped by Suvorin, but she could hardly be described as the film's heroine. Perhaps centering Lizavetta, as Dickinson did the similarly victimised heroine of Gaslight, might have made the film more involving. As it is, it's a film that's easier to admire than enjoy.

But there is certainly much to admire here. A product of the post-war British film industry at the peak of its powers, The Queen of Spades is as sumptuous as anything to come out of Hollywood at the time, but with a European attention to visual details. Despite being filmed in the unsuitable surrounds of Welwyn Studios, sandwiched between the noise of a train station and a Shredded Wheat factory, the movie boasts some incredible sets, filled with shadowy intrigue by the lights of cinematographer Otto Heller. Dickinson arrived to find sets that had been originally designed by a newcomer to cinema who constructed them with little consideration for the camera. This meant Dickinson and Heller had to adapt as though shooting in real locations, which gives the film an extra verisimilitude and convinces us we really are inside crowded taverns and aristocratic ballrooms.

The Queen of Spades review

The movie's horror highlight involves a canny piece of sonic hardwiring. Throughout the film we become accustomed to the sound of the Countess dragging her feet by planting her cane on the ground, as though she were scaling a horizontal mountain. When she later appears in spectral form, we never see her, but the sound of those dragging feet proves far more effective, coupled with a blast of wind created by utilising a jet engine on set.

Dickinson does a remarkable job in creating a sense of time and place, and despite the cast speaking with British accents, the snow-covered sets and frosty windows convince us we're in the Russia of the 1800s. It's just a shame there isn't more for us to become emotionally invested in beyond awaiting an awful man's just deserts.

The Queen of Spades
 is on UK bluray, DVD and VOD now.