*** 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.
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