Director – Thorold Dickinson – 1949 – UK – Cert. PG – 95m
A Russian army officer seeks the occult secret of playing cards that will earn him a vast fortune, but has not bargained for the dark, supernatural forces involved – 4K restoration is out in UK cinemas on Friday, December 23rd and on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital on January 23rd
1806, St. Petersburg. Unlike his well-connected aristocrat contemporaries in the army, Captain Goeman Suvorin (Anton Walbrook) sees no opportunity for advancement. In a bookstore, he chances upon an arcane volume which the store owner suggests will offer various opportunities for personal betterment fraught with danger. Reading up on “people who have sold their soul”, he learns that the Countess (Pauline Tennant) made her fortune in a gambling den with the secret of three unbeatable playing cards for which she agreed to sell her soul after one of her lovers stole her considerable personal allowance, taking advantage of her needing him to leave quickly in order to prevent her husband’s discovering his presence in her bedchamber, which stolen monies she then needed to find a means of replacing.
As the Countess is now an old woman (Dame Edith Evans), Goeman resolves to get close to her by romancing her ward Lizavyeta Ivanovna (Yvonne Mitchell) using words for love letters suggested by contemporary aristocratic officer Andrei Andreyonov (Ronald Howard) with neither of them aware that they are actually interested in the affections of the same girl. Goeman later reveals to Lizavyeta that he used her to get close to the Countess for the sole purpose of discovering the secret of the three cards, breaking her heart. Goeman challenges Andreyonov to a game of cards, but he in turn is tricked by supernatural forces…
A prestige production adapted from an Alexander Pushkin short story that had been previously filmed many times before but never in English, which director Dickinson was offered by producer Anatole de Grunwald five days before shooting with much of the pre-production work already done, this nevertheless has a strong directorial sense of vision as if the inevitable momentum of the short-notice production job was firing up director and crew to a level above and beyond. Judging from the audio only interview with Dickinson on the Blu-ray, the level of invention on the production (which was shot in a studio rather too small for the job) was high throughout. Certainly, the gothic production design is striking as is the use of sound – for example, in a scene where a ghost appears, she appears in voice only – a highly effective screen device.
A clutch of impressive lead performances include a suitably tormented Anton Walbrook, Dame Edith Evans as a cruel force of nature and Yvonne Mitchell as the young woman innocent of the ways of the world, the latter two appearing here in their first starring screen roles. Veteran cameraman Otto Heller, who adds bags of gothic atmosphere with crisp blacks and whites, would go on to shoot The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick, 1955) and Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960). Dickinson’s years of prior experience working as a film editor serve him well here, as he pulls his various resources together to make the film. Before this current restoration, I’d never heard of it: yet it turns out to be a film worth discovering by a wider audience.
The Queen Of Spades is out in a 4K restoration in cinemas in the UK on Friday, December 23rd and on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital on January 23rd.