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Review: Thorold Dickinson’s The Queen of Spades on Kino Blu-ray

Kino’s transfer highlights the alluring beauty of Thorold Dickinson’s gothic horror classic.

3.5

The Queen of Spades

Ealing Studios’s opulent adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s novella The Queen of Spades is a cult classic in search of an audience. Directed by Thorold Dickinson, this Poe-like tale of deceit and ghostly vengeance is sumptuous and effective. A penny-pinching army captain, Herman Suvorin (Anton Walbrook), dreams of one day “grabbing life by the collar and making it give him what he wants,” which translates, rather mundanely, to winning big at cards. When he happens upon an old book that tells of negotiations people have made with the devil, he discovers that a local countess, Ranevskaya (Edith Evans, wonderfully teetering between doddering camp and tacit menace), has possibly sold her soul in exchange for the secret combination of cards that will always result in victory. And in order to gain entry to the countess’s chambers and demand that secret, Suvorin wins both the trust and lust of her young beneficiary, Lizavetta Ivanova (a blankly beautiful Yvonne Mitchell).

Though The Queen of Spades is suffused with macabre grace notes, Dickinson wisely chooses to keep his style from edging into highfalutin hysterics until it really counts (see the Dali-like penultimate scene where Herman begins to see the secret card numbers in the architecture of the gambling house). More often, his style is almost below the radar, as if the entire production were being shot on the lam. The end result is that of an accumulating stress fracture that, in the film’s climax, breaks completely apart along with Herman’s sanity.

Curiously enough, the denouement attempts to put a happy spin on the entire package by showing the supposedly lovesick Lizavetta having picked up the pieces of her ruined life and buying all the caged birds in the marketplace and releasing them. Never mind the naïve, implicit notion that money ruins some and betters others (Pushkin died in immense debt, so it’s unlikely that he would approve of this sequence). It’s more distressing to witness just how much the mood of a dark and uncompromising masterpiece can be sabotaged by a producer with his eyes on the easy uplift. The Magnificent Ambersons, anyone?

Image/Sound

Kino’s 1080p transfer is surprisingly strong, considering it’s not sourced from a new restoration. The image is consistently sharp, allowing for a full appreciation of all the minute details found in the film’s elaborate costumes and luxurious sets, particularly inside Countess Ranevskaya’s mansion. Thorold Dickinson and his cinematographer, Otto Heller, made ample use of expressionistic lighting, and this transfer really shows off the strong contrast between blacks and whites. There are a few blemishes here and there, usually in the form of small scratches, and the lack of substantial grain leaves the picture with a slightly plastic look at times. The lossless audio track boasts a well-balanced mix that accentuates the subtleties of the film’s layered sound design and Georges Auric’s moody, atmospheric score.

Extras

On his informative and sprightly commentary track, film critic Nick Pinkerton touches on The Queen of Spades’s expressionistic cinematography and lush sound design, as well as provides detailed background information about Pushkin’s novella and the film’s cast and crew. Especially of note is his analysis of Napoleon Bonaparte’s influence on early-19th-century writers, including Pushkin, who had begun to incorporate power-hungry Napoleonic characters into their stories. A 20-minute analysis by film critic and author Philip Horne covers Sergei Eisenstein’s influence on Dickinson, who started off as an editor, as well as how the director’s worldliness aided his depiction of 19th-century Russia. Also included are two audio-only extras, both featuring Dickinson. The first is a 1951 interview in which he discusses the challenges of adapting the source material and how the limitations of his budget and the studio space spurred his creativity, and the second is his introduction to a 1968 screening of the film. The disc also comes with a brief introduction by Martin Scorsese and several trailers.

Overall

Kino’s transfer highlights the alluring beauty of Thorold Dickinson’s gothic horror classic.

Cast: Anton Walbrook, Edith Evans, Yvonne Mitchell, Ronald Howard, Mary Jerrold, Anthony Dawson, Miles Malleson, Michael Medwin, Athene Seyler, Ivor Barnard, Maroussia Dimitrevitch Director: Thorold Dickinson Screenwriter: Rodney Ackland, Arthur Boys Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 95 min Rating: NR Year: 1949 Release Date: October 15, 2019 Buy: Video

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