Tuesday, 23 April 2019

I recently saw the 1949 British film "The Queen of Spades" for the first time: what a masterpiece!

I ordered the DVD for Christmas, and was waiting for a rainy Sunday afternoon to watch it with my wife, who remembered seeing part of it in on television a few years ago. I'd read the short story, but had never heard of the film, until coming across it in a handful of "Must Watch" movie lists...

...towards the end of last year. I've seen a lot of surprisingly good vintage British films in the past two years, but I didn't expect to encounter anything quite as earth-shakingly brilliant as this extraordinary interpretation of Pushkin's famous supernatural tale of a Russian officer determined to extract the formula for winning at Faro (a variant of Snap) from a crotchety, aged countess, rumoured to have sold her soul to the devil in return for the Secret of the Cards.  

The film seems to support the auteur theory, which maintains that every film worth its salt is the result of a single creative force, i.e. the director. The Queen of Spades is such a coherent aesthetic whole that it must represent the vision of one creator, who must have nurtured it from inception to birth. Except that the director Thorold Dickinson was drafted in five days before shooting was due to start, when the original director left the production (either through ill health or disagreement, or both). If Dickinson hadn't been available, the film would probably have been cancelled. To make Dickinson's job even harder, his three main actors were the notoriously prickly Anton Walbrook (a half-Jewish, homosexual, Viennese thespian who had wisely left Austria in 1936 to settle in England, and had even more wisely changed his first name from Adolf to Anton), and Edith Evans and Yvonne Mitchell, neither of whom had ever made a film before.
Yvonne Mitchell and Anton Walbrook
Dickinson - who immediately set about rewriting parts of the script - had directed Walbrook in Gaslight, the superb 1940 adaptation of Patrick Hamilton's play, which might partly explain Walbrook's fully-committed performance here. Had he played the part of Captain Herman Suvorin in a typically muted British style, it's doubtful the film would have worked. Instead, Walbrook throws himself at the role in the bravura manner, moving through the gears from skulking mysteriously in the background while richer officers lose and win fortunes at cards to full, shrieking over-the-top, Grand Guignol, nutsoid ranting. Never has an actor ssssounded more ssssibilantly ssssnake-like. His magnificently unbridled approach is matched by the sets, the costumes, the script, the cinematography, the direction, the editing and the lighting. As for his ingenue co-stars, it's almost impossible to believe that they had never acted in a film before: the fact that the film is is so theatrical may, I suppose, have helped the two stage actresses triumph in what was for them a new medium. But this is undoubtedly Walbrook's film - I'm not sure I've ever seen a performance which so clearly announces, "There's nothing I won't do to make this bloody film work!" (That determination extended to his off-camera behaviour: Yvonne Mitchell later said that he spent a lot of time being kind, calming her nerves and banishing her self-doubt.)
Anton Walbrook and Edith Evans
The reward for all this effort was general critical and public lack of interest. In particular, European critics - then under the spell of Italian neo-realism - dismissed it as hopelessly old-fashioned. The movie fell into such neglect that it was considered a lost film for many years, until it was rediscovered and eventually re-released in cinemas in 2009 and on DVD in 2010. It is now widely recognised as a masterpiece of supernatural cinema - deservedly: the scene in which Captain Suvorin is visited in his dingy rooms by the dead countess's unseen spirit is masterfully creepy. In fact, it's widely recognised as a masterpiece of cinema, full stop.

I realise I probably sound as over-the-top as Anton Walbrook in the movie, but The Queen of Spades (which displays the sort of febrile, half-mad, mystical energy to be found in some Powell-Pressburger classics) caught me completely by surprise. The horror director Wes Craven places it sixth in his personal list of great British films: I certainly wouldn't disagree.

The Queen of Spades is available from Amazon on a DVD with some excellent extra features thrown in. 


  1. Intriguing film which I must watch one day. I thought perhaps the producer was related albeit tenuously to the German Renaissance artist who was also a Master of drama in a different medium, but the spelling of Grunewald and our Russian/British film producer is different, besides it was a longshot.
    Anatole due Grunwald was interviewed by ex KCS Roy Plomley and his favourite book - Golfing stories by PG Wodehouse.

  2. That should be De Grunewald of course.
    While we're on the subject of KCS, I just found an old tome from my book collecting days at university. Humour And Fantasy by F. Anstey who was at Kings when it was in The Strand.
    They don't write 'em like they used to!