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At long last, "The Queen of Spades" has appeared in a form worthy of its
excellence. Anchor Bay's new DVD set includes a beautiful presentation of
it, along with the 1945 anthology horror film "Dead of Night." I've read
nothing but good things about "Dead of Night," but haven't gotten around to
seeing it yet. To me, it's immaterial. I would pay three times as much for
the "Queen of Spades" alone. Once seen, it's hard to forget.
Anton Walbrook may have played more multi-dimensional characters in other films, but never with the same frightening intensity as in this one. The cast is uniformly excellent, but it's his performance as Hermann that really makes the film memorable. Hermann is a strange sort of cinematic hero with no redeeming characteristics whatsoever. His personality is dominated by four of the seven deadly sins: pride, envy, wrath, and greed. As for lust, he lusts only for power, money and influence, his declarations of love being completely false. Gluttony is not an issue, as he lives in poverty in order to horde what money he has. As for sloth, he exerts extraordinary effort into fulfilling his schemes, which are entirely self-serving. Sounds like a thoroughly unpleasant fellow. But Walbrook makes this brooding, scheming, petty, and utterly reprehensible nonentity with a Napoleon complex into a fascinating character study -- a real tour-de-force. The Vienna-born Walbrook (originally named Adolph Anton Wilhelm Wohlbrueck) exaggerates his Teutonic accent to Peter Lorre-like intensity, to great effect. It's this film that made him one of my all time favorite actors.
The look of this film is also extraordinary. Even in this pristine presentation, the cinematography is very dark and deeply shadowed. The shadowy look of the film, along with some oddly angular or distorted shots, is suggestive of expressionist style. The story is told very directly and the plot moved along efficiently, with no superfluous action, which adds to the unreal atmosphere of the piece. Everything associated with the story seems to take place in quick succession. In a city as huge as St. Petersburg, Hermann wanders from the spooky booksellers' shop directly to the old countess's house purely by chance. Every element of the story is essential, and executed with maximum effect and style. The funeral scene in particular is unforgettable.
What a pleasure to find that this terrific, but relatively obscure, film has finally gotten a DVD release, and looks better than I've ever seen it looking. Almost everyone who's commented on it cites the fact that it is little known, and maybe this new DVD will change that a bit.
Adapted from a short story by Pushkin, this brilliant film is far too
seen or mentioned, which is tragic, because it is without question one of
the best British films ever made.
I was fortunate enough to see it on cable, where by coincidence it was shown right after 'The Third Man' and just before another Brtish b/w masterpiece, 'The Haunting' -- what a triple bill! In fact there are several connections between QOS and 'The Haunting', including Jack Clayton, who produced the former and directed the latter, and composer Georges Auric, who scored both. There are also close connections with The Archers (Powell & Pressberger) -- Anton Walbrook featured in three P&P films, and co-writer Rodney Ackland also scripted one of those films, P&P's '49th Parallel'.
Watching 'Queen Of Spades' it's obvious that many of the team who made it learned their craft in the silent era -- lighting, costumes, set design and cinematography are all fantastic, and though on a slightly smaller and more restrained scale, QOS is almost on a par with Von Sternberg's baroque masterpiece 'The Scarlett Empress'.
Brilliantly directed by Torold Dickinson (who also did 'Gaslight', in which Walbrook also features), the incredible, wildly expressionistic b/w cinematography is by legendary Czech-born DOP Otto Heller, who began his career in 1922(!) and who also shot Olivier's 'Richard III', 'The Ladykillers', Powell's 'Peeping Tom' and those three classic Michael Caine films of the 60s, The 'Ipcress File', 'Alfie' and 'Funeral In Berlin.'
The casting is perfect, and it's easy to see why Anton Walbrook was one of Michael Powell's favourite actors. His portrayal of the odious Suvorin is a tour de force, and he is matched by the great Edith Evans as the Countess. The crucial scene in which Suvorin tries unsuccessfully to beg, cajole, and finally force the secret of the cards from the Countess is truly electrifying -- Walbrook is absolutely rivetting, and Evans -- who has no lines and plays the scene only with her eyes -- shows why she was considered one the greatest actors of her generation. The climax of that scene, the look of stark horror on Walbrook's face, is one of the most powerful film moments I've ever seen, perhaps only surpassed by incredible card-game scene at the end of the film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
*Possible semi-spoilers, but as the story has been around for over 150
years, these may not surprise many...* 1806 Sankt-Peterburg: Herman
Suvorin (Anton Walbrook) approaches middle-age as a bitterly
disappointed man. Outranked by young bucks in more fashionable
regiments men from aristocratic families who can afford to waste
money on gambling, drinking and wenching he envies the meritocratic
rise of Napoleon. When he learns that old Countess Ranevskaya (Edith
Evans) the grandmother of one of the officers he envies allegedly
sold her soul to the Devil in exchange for learning an infallible way
of winning at Faro, he sees a chance of advancement. But how can he, a
mere Captain of Engineers, and a commoner, get access to the old lady's
household to learn her secret? The Countess has a pretty, downtrodden
young companion Lizaveta (Yvonne Mitchell) sure to be easily beguiled
by his attentions...
However, Andrei (Ronald Howard), an aristocratic officer and friend of the Countess's grandson, begins to see through Herman's schemes. Can Liza be saved from seduction? And can Herman himself escape the curse of the cards? 'The Queen of Spades' is a magnificent black-and-white chiller from the golden age of British film. Made on a post-war shoestring budget, it nevertheless conjures powerfully the atmosphere of early 19C Peterburg: the gaming houses, the palaces and street-life. Indeed, it brings out the story's powerful prefigurings of Gogol' and Dostoevskii, and its ambiguities. Are there really supernatural forces at work, or is it all in the anti-hero's obsessed mind? - Either interpretation is possible.
Anton Walbrook is brilliant as Herman, although it takes a little while to get used to seeing him without his moustache, which would not have been appropriate to this period setting! While he excelled at playing wise, noble heroes for the Archers (Peter in '49th Parallel', Theo von Kretschmar-Schuldorff in 'The Life & Death of Colonel Blimp', and - most magnificently - Boris Lermontov in 'The Red Shoes'), for Thorold Dickinson both in 'Gaslight' and 'The Queen of Spades' he provided fine studies in scheming ambition, subtle menace and deception. Herman is in some respects a natural successor to his earlier performance (as Adolf Wohlbrück) as another tragic, tormented gambler - Balduin in 'Der Student von Prag' (1935). Herman's bitterness and frustration, his duplicities, his rising hysteria, and the pathos of his final scene are rendered with the conviction and skill which make him one of *the* all-time great film stars (sadly under-appreciated nowadays, while many less gifted actors have cult followings). However reprehensible Herman's behaviour, it is impossible not to feel some pity for him as his military bearing crumples, and the devastation of his breakdown is conveyed in his eyes.
Yvonne Mitchell is poignant as Lizaveta, and Ronald Howard displays some of his father Leslie's sensitive charm as Andrei. Edith Evans, as the Countess, acquits herself well playing a woman some decades her senior: spoilt, vain (still dressing in the high wigs and panniers of thirty years before), bullying - and beneath the show, pathetic and terrified.
As a Pushkin adaptation, I would rate this film as highly as Martha Fiennes' 'Onegin'. As a subtle thriller, it shows what can be done on a low budget with imagination, intelligence and a quality cast. It's a lesson in fine craftsmanship - as small (in budget and length) and intricately fashioned as a Fabergé ornament.
This macabre little fantasy has so far largely remained under the
radar, which is a shame, because it's one of the better British
productions of the '40s and '50s. It's the kind of highly stylized
costume mystery/horror, that will undoubtedly appeal to lovers of old
The story is based on Alexander Puschkin's novella, "The Queen of Spades (1834), about a young captain in the Russian army (Anton Walbrook), an outsider (because he's German) who secretly covets the wealth and position of his fellow officers. When he discovers that an aged countess has sold her soul to the devil in exchange for eternal fortune at the card table, he attempts to gain entry to the household by seducing the countess' naive ward, but his envy envy leads to the dowager's death, a loveless marriage, and Herman's descent into madness.
The production initially ran into some trouble with director Thorold Dickinson entering the project when a great deal of the pre-production was already done. With his limited resources and the inadequate sets and sound stage facilities of the Welwyn Studios, he incorporated as many camera, lighting and special effects as he could devise, and with good effect. The film looks great. Atmosphere in these kind of films is half the work, and they surely did a great job. The acting is somewhat stagy and highly stylized, but this was probably a common characteristic in British acting in those days, and I don't think of Anton Walbrook as a great actor, but the rest of the cast is fine, with Edith Evans in great form as the countess. All in all, not an undiscovered masterpiece, but a fine British chiller with a great period atmosphere.
Camera Obscura --- 8/10
This is a wonderful, unusual suspense story - the black and white
cinematography is masterful, adding to the creepy atmosphere. Anton
Walbrook plays Capt. Suvarin with his characteristic silky menace.
in this film is just perfect, even the charming prince who falls in love
with the little paid companion - a thankless role frequently played with
insipidity. And Edith Evans is utterly unique as the old Countess,
by her fear of death and unable to find peace. The card scene at the end
the film is unforgettable.
I don't know why this film is so unknown. It reminds me a little of "The Haunting" based on a Shirley Jackson novel, in that one is never really sure if supernatural activity is really going on, or if the main character has finally lost his mind and is imagining everything. I long for the day when this film reappears on video.
Why is it that this classic film is not available on any format anywhere? I have to make do with a now very old and worn videotape copy from when this great film was last shown on TV about 8 years ago. A gripping and atmospheric film with excellent performances from Anton Walbrook and Edith Evans, this film is up there with The Third Man as one of the best British films ever made. The real mystery is why has the industry neglected this gem? Score: 10/10
Tchaikovsky took Pushkin's ghost story and turned it into an opera.
Producer Anatole de Grunwald turned it into one of the finest Gothic
thrillers in film history. Why The Queen of Spades is so overlooked is
a mystery to those who have seen it....it is a dazzling tour de force.
Anton Walbrook pulls out all the stops as the army officer obsessed with learning how to win at faro. When he discovers that an aged countess, played by Dame Edith Evans in her talking picture debut, holds the secret he becomes even more obsessed with wresting this secret from her. The countess sold her soul to learn the magic of the cards, 3,7 and Ace and, in the end, that does not bode well for Walbrook.
The baroque sets, assisted by wonderful lighting effects, builds an eerie, almost surreal atmosphere. It will hold you spellbound and haunt you long after it ends.
If you can get hold of a copy of this film - do so!
The plot centers around a card game in which certain cards are said to be lucky. However, a certain countess is said to have made a pact with the underworld in order to know the secrets of the cards. This dreadful woman keeps her servants and paid companions in constant fear and spends her every day complaining about every single thing. What she does not reveal however is her mortal fear of death.
There is a young soldier who would love to get the secrets of the cards from her and agrees to take the sins of her soul upon his in exchange for the knowledge - which does him no good.
Photography and suspense is superb from filmmakers who knew their craft. A must see.
I've seen this now probably 10 times or more over the decades it's an
out and out genuine British film classic, and still only Thorold
Dickinson and Anton Walbrook's second best to Gaslight made 10 years
before. The stories themselves had similarities, Walbrook in both
playing an avaricious amoral character using a weak-willed woman to
meet his own despicable ends. The production values in both were high
lending a richly dark and brooding b&w atmosphere on nitrate film stock
to compliment the inventive camera-work.
Relatively poor Captain in the Royal Engineers jealous of the wealthy Cavalry officers around him dreams of making his fortune at faro, and eventually gets his way at the price of his precious soul. How he does it is a spooky tale involving an ancient irritating Countess played by the perfect Edith Evans and his attempt to get her to acquiesce to his demands. Who can forget the funeral scene when Walbrook is wondering how the dead can give up their secrets! Everyone acted their hearts out, Ronald Howard nicely restrained to Walbrook's occasional lapses into melodrama. Auric's music is spot on and as graceful as ever, we even get a preview of Orpheus in here to which he composed the music for the following year. The game of faro as depicted here always struck me as particularly boring, but I suppose it was as good a way as any for someone to lose money fast. The secret of winning money at cards is not to play for money at all and to keep your money. I simply can't understand why anyone would watch this for the full 90 minutes hating almost every minute and then waste more of their time telling us!
An utterly marvellous film, a UK post-War Wonder which will survive all comments positive and negative.
Anton Walbrook gives a wonderful performance as the ambitious, frustrated Capt. Suvarin, who will do anything, even forfeit his soul, to advance his career. This stylish ghost story avoids the usual cliches, yet manages to create a spooky, brooding atmosphere. It climaxes with what must be the most gripping card-playing scene ever filmed
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