Based on a novella by Russian literature giant Alexander Pushkin, Ealing Studios’ opulent adaptation of The Queen of Spades is a cult classic in search of an audience. Produced by Anatole de Grunwald and directed by Thorold Dickinson (Gaslight), this Poe-like tale of deceit and ghostly vengeance is sumptuous and effective. Penny-pinching Army Capt. 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. 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. Though the film 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 heiress (a blankly beautiful Yvonne Mitchell) having picked up the pieces of her ruined life and buying all the caged birds in the marketplace and releasing them. Never mind the naive, 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?
- Monogram Pictures
- 95 min
- Thorold Dickinson
- Rodney Ackland, Arthur Boys
- Anton Walbrook, Dame Edith Evans, Ronald Howard, Mary Jerrold, Yvonne Mitchell
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