Monday, October 27, 2008

The Queen of Spades holds all the cards

The 1949 BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) Award for Best British Film went to Queen of Spades, directed by Thorold Dickinson and starring Anton Walbrook. The two had worked together previously on the first film version of Gaslight, made in 1940 and released in the United States as Angel Street. Queen of Spades was a critical and commercial success in Britain but never enjoyed the same success across the pond. I recently watched it for the first time on a newly purchased DVD twofer, Dead of Night/Queen of Spades, a DVD set I can highly recommend, and found it to be an absorbing and expertly made film from start to finish. I can only assume someone somewhere dropped the ball in the marketing department because it should have been a hit here, and it should be more widely known everywhere.

Still, I think I know why it wasn't a success here. It is billed as a macabre ghost story and yet the supernatural does not make an appearance until late in the film. The vast majority of the film plays as straight drama and this may have thrown off viewers expecting a chiller. It may still disappoint today for the same reasons but it shouldn't. As straight drama it works exceedingly well and Anton Walbrook, a personal favorite, gives a cold, chilling performance as Capt. Herman Suvorin, an officer in the Russian Army obsessed with discovering the secret of Faro, a card game he hopes will make him rich. He wants to know how to win, and he's willing to kill to find out.

Early in the movie he visits a bookshop to discover what he can and is given a book that will reveal to him the one person who knows the secret of the cards, the 102 year old Countess Ranevskaya, played by Edith Evans in an absolutely stunning performance. Long ago the Countess sold her soul for the secret of the cards and now the Captain is willing to do the same. But first he must get to her and to do so he must string along her attendant, Lizaveta, played by Yvonne Mitchell.

As straight drama this story is unnerving enough, watching the bitter and spiteful Captain lie to Lizaveta, making her believe he is madly in love with her, but by the time he finally gets to the Countess it's downright riveting. Walbrook's only scene with Evans is intense, captivating and, forgive the movie review cliche, electrifying. The two actors are at the top of their form here and watching Walbrook's now desperate and insane Captain plead with the Countess who cannot reveal the secret before she dies is an amazing viewing experience.

And if that's not enough, when the Captain finally receives his ghostly visitation late in the movie, it's mesmerizing. Most ghost entrances make use of light wind swirling about, blowing through the actor's hair as we the audience understand a supernatural entity has entered the room. Not Queen of Spades. My God, it's like a hurricane has descended upon the Captain's rented room. When the ghost makes its entrance, it really makes its entrance! And all of this leads the story to its end. Is the end a twist, a surprise or a foregone conclusion? It's hard to say. In many ways it is all three. It is certainly satisfying.

There are only two problems with the film that stand out. One, the opening gypsy dance sequences in the beer hall which go on far too long and feel as if they're being stretched out to get the film past the 90 minute mark. Two, the epilogue feels all wrong, as if tacked on by the studio in an effort to bring happiness and joy to Lizaveta whose life has been destroyed by the Captain. In fact, reading up on the film and Dickinson after watching it, I discovered that's exactly what happened. Not only does it feel phony, but displays her happiness as a result of incredible wealth she has married into. This coming at the tail end of a movie that has just presented two of the most miserable characters imaginable (the Captain and the Countess) suffering due to greed and wealth. Not only is it phony, it's contradictory. Sometimes the mind boggles at the ideas of Producers and Studio Heads. As Dickinson himself wrote about producers, ""It is the incomprehension of these men, who hold us all enmeshed in their bank balances, which inhibits and imprisons the artists and strangles ideas at birth." And did I mention the forehead slapping eye-rolling symbolism? She buys all the birds in the marketplace and sets them free. Oh brother. God I hate Studio Heads. But the film is great enough to survive even this dreary epilogue, and that's saying something.

The British recognized the film for the great work it is when they saw it but it was never heavily promoted outside the country. Thorold Dickenson made only nine films but many directors believe, from Martin Scorsese to John Boorman, that he should be considered among the greatest British filmmakers nonetheless. Boorman said Dickinson had "Michael Powell's daring, David Lean's taut editing and Carol Reed's emotional tension." All of those come into play in Queen of Spades, available on the new DVD twofer with Dead of Night. Both are terrific films to take in but I recommend the Queen of Spades more highly, if only because it is not as widely known and because of the great work of Walbrook and Evans that is splendid to behold. As is the movie. Queen of Spades, pardon the pun, comes up aces.


Here is a short video clip I uploaded from the film where the Captain first obtains the book. I just love this scene because of the sinister shop owner and his little cackle at the end.



* The quotes used in this piece come from The Guardian article on Thorold Dickinson, Something Happened, found here.


Fox said...

You know, reading your posts this month that touch on 30's-50's horror makes me wonder if horror was marginalized back in the day as much as it is now. Maybe MORE so.

I say this b/c I haven't heard of many of these films, yet other "classics" of the time - as in Gaslight - I have. Were horror films of the 40's-50's treated with the same shruggedness as they are today? Because I wonder if that's why they've somewhat fallen into the cracks of history. Not completely, obviously, b/c you're writing about them, but you don't see much mention of them in modern film books.

Also... I LOVE me some Anton Walbrook! I mean, Michael Powell is my all-time favorite director, so, that kind of explains it, but he kind of became my favorite director on the back of Walbrook's performance in The Red Shoes. Also, I have Le Plaisir at home right now waiting to be watched. Can't wait!

bill r. said...

So that's a DVD I'll have to pick up. What are the extras like? Are there any, or is it bare bones? Old horror movies on DVD often have the best extras (by which I mean, the best commentary tracks).

Countess Karloff said...

I really like Queen of Spades and Dead of Night. Both are terrific movies and great examples of early British horror films but I agree with you about their problematic moments (I don't care for the golfing scene in Dead of Night and the epilogue does feel tacked on in Queen of Spades).

I haven't watched my double DVD of both films since it was first released but I may give it another look this week for fun.

By the way, over the weekend I started finally feeling the Halloween spirit a little bit after indulging in a horror movie marathon of epic proportions (TCM was partly to blame).

One highlight was seeing Boris Karloff in The Black Room for the first time. It's one Karloff film I had never seen before and I absolutely loved it. As usual, Karloff was fantastic and I adored Marian Marsh in it. I now have a girl krush on her and I really want to see her in more films. Svengali and Crime and Punishment are high on my "must see" list but if anyone can recommend any other Marsh films, please do!

Dr. Jonathan Lapper Moreau said...

Fox, Horror's always been marginalized in my opinion. The Bride of Frankenstein is a much better movie than Mutiny on the Bounty which won the Oscar that year (1935) and The Bride wasn't even nominated. Neither was Cat People, Psycho or The Shining. The Exorcist is one of the few that actually received a host of nominations but it's an exception, not the rule.

And I love Powell too as well as Walbrook who was so extraordinary in Colonel Blimp. This movie is definitely one of his best.

Dr. Jonathan Lapper Moreau said...

Bill, the extras aren't much. Stills from the set, trailers, stuff like that. It's a pretty basic release. It's not a Criterion release but in this case I actually bought it for the movies themselves so I was pleased anyway.

Dr. Jonathan Lapper Moreau said...

Countess, as I said in the comments last week ( I think ) I haven't The Black Room yet and didn't even know it was on. Dammit. I think I've only seen Marsh in Crime and Punishment in which she was excellent but aside from The Black Room I really want to see Svengali with Marsh and John Barrymore which you also mention. I've moved both to the top of my queue so hopefully I will have seen them by this time next week.

houseofmirthandmovies said...

I'm happy to say I've seen this one, I discovered by happy accident while looking at Anton Walbrook's page on IMDB. It's certainly not perfect, but the atmosphere is so dark and cold. I love the winter scenes, and Walbrook's performance though a little over the top, seems perfectly suited. I'm happy you've dedicated a post to it, hopefullyl a few more people will look out for it!

Dr. Jonathan Lapper Moreau said...

Thanks for stopping by. Walbrook is great at coming unhinged and I think he does it beautifully in this movie. And I love those winter scenes of him standing on the street in the snow staring up at her window, she thinking he is enamored of her and he just wanting to get to the Countess.