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.