"A tale of old St Petersburg. In 1806 the craze for gambling had spread throughout Russia. Faro - a simple card game similar to our Snap - was all the fashion, and fortunes were won and lost on the turn of a card. As a result there arose many superstitions concerning the cards - one of these was the evil influence of The Queen Of Spades".
So opens this superior British slice of supernatural shenanigans from 1949.
Then we meet Andrei (Ronald Howard) and his military buddies, relaxing in a Russian bar playing cards for money while local Gypsy girls sing folk songs for their amusement.
In the corner, Herman (Anton Walbrook, appearing here without his trademark moustache) quietly watches them. This perturbs the men and they instigate a verbal assault upon him, freaked out by the way he always watches the games but never plays. Andrei, a former acquaintance of Herman, manages to simmer the argument down as Herman and his well-lacquered quiff retire for the evening.
Later, Andrei pops in to Herman's room and apologises for the earlier scene. But it's too late for apologies - Herman has already vowed to himself that he'll have the last laugh on the affluent soldiers who mocked him earlier.
Herman, you see, is a greedy and bitter middle-aged man who resents the fact that blokes younger than him can sit drinking and gambling in the bar each night while he resides upstairs counting his pennies. He sees his opportunity to rectify this when he encounters the written musings of an elderly Countess (Edith Evans) who claims to have sold her soul to the Devil in order to guarantee winning at cards.
All Herman needs to do is find a way of getting in with the Countess and getting her to reveal her secrets. He sees a way in, if he can just woo the lady's pretty granddaughter Lizaveta (Yvonne Mitchell) - but she also happens to be betrothed to Andrei ...
Based upon a short story by celebrated Russian author and poet Alexander Pushkin, THE QUEEN OF SPADES takes a simple and fairly traditional story and retells it - thanks to Rodney Ackland and Arthur Boys' unfussy adapted screenplay - as a supremely stylish, focused and restrained morality fable.
The allegories are brazen and familiar throughout, with my favourite visual metaphor being that of a spider eating a fly during a soft edit between footage of Walbrook and Mitchell. But the storyline never gets too preoccupied with such (non) subtleties; rather, this is a satisfyingly straightforward and yet intelligent yarn that says as much about the human condition - not just Herman's, but those of the Countess, Andrei and Lizaveta too - as it does about the supernatural.
Indeed, the supernatural elements of the film are expertly understated for the large part. When they do come to the fore, director Thorold Dickinson (GASLIGHT) pulls off the master-stroke of escalating into overwrought dramatics without ever damaging the consistency of tone that the film easily achieves.
It's masterful filmmaking: the simple, no-frills storytelling; the astute observations into characters' psyches that can be subtly felt in the most seemingly trite moments; the superb nuanced performances, Georges Auric's truly stirring score ... I could go on, but instead I'm going to centre on a couple of particular strong-points:
Firstly, there are the visuals. THE QUEEN OF SPADES impresses deeply in each and every frame. The monochrome cinematography of Otto Heller is an absolute joy, delighting in positioning cameras low and lighting dark sets with small lamps aimed at actors' faces for maximum theatrical effect. Each scene is so well-considered visually that QUEEN emerges as a thing of pure beauty - it's a bonus that it's as pleasurable as a fable too.
Although completely different in terms of style, the consummate use of black-and-white images as atmosphere here are on a par with the likes of James Whale's THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and Mario Bava's BLACK SUNDAY: formidable bedfellows indeed.
Elsewhere, a special nod is deserved to the immaculate period design. This ranges from hairstyles and fashion, to interior decor and music. Here is a film that has been researched and thought out at every turn.
The best examples of all of these elements coming together in electrifying style are during one scene where Herman confronts the Countess and she finally reveals the truth, and the last several minutes where events come to a head in riveting style. It's brilliant stuff, and needs to be seen to be fully appreciated.
The film was nominated for Best British Film at the 1950 BAFTA Awards, but lost out to THE THIRD MAN. It was a fair film to lose out to, but makes you think that had THE QUEEN OF SPADES perhaps been released a year earlier or later and it may have enjoyed a higher profile as an Award winner.
The film is presented in a 1.33:1 full-frame ratio. Despite the film reportedly being shot in 1.37:1, the framing appears correct and there is no obvious evidence of cropping. Images are clean and clear throughout. Minor specks are not unexpected, but grain is minimal while blacks are pleasingly strong throughout. For a 50-year-old film, this is a very good presentation indeed.
English audio is presented in its original mono mix and again offers a very satisfying, clean mix. Though a tad quiet as may be anticipated, it's consistent throughout and the years have inflicted surprisingly little damage on the track.
A static main menu page plays out to the film's haunting score, leading into a static scene-selection menu allowing access to the main feature via 12 chapters.
A collection of intelligent, worthy extras comes as a most welcome surprise on this great disc.
First off, Martin Scorsese provides a too-brief introduction to the film. It's only 80 seconds long, but he manages to convey a healthy amount of passion across for the film. Scorsese's wonder at Dickinson's last minute stand-in job as the film's director is canny to witness, and his thoughts on the film's marvellous editing and sound design stick out too.
"An Analysis By Philip Horne" finds the film critic and author extolling the virtues of the film over the course of 19 enthusiastic minutes, pouring some keen insights and interesting production facts into his heartfelt appraisal.
A 17-minute archive audio interview with Dickinson follows, recorded in 1951 at the British Federation of Film Societies. A nice lobby card reproduction acts as a screensaver as this priceless relic plays out, offering the extremely British Dickinson's thoughts on his masterful film. It's a rare piece of insight for any fans out there.
As is a second audio clip featuring Dickinson - a 1968 introduction to a screening of the film that plays for an enjoyable further 14 minutes.
Finally, we're treated to the original theatrical trailer for THE QUEEN OF SPADES, which clocks in at just under 3 minutes. It's great melodramatic stuff that benefits from an earnest narration in the style of Harry Enfield's Mr Cholmondley-Warner. The trailer exhibits occasional specks but otherwise comes across as remarkably well-preserved. This full-frame presentation does however seem to be more obviously cropped than the main feature.
Optimum present THE QUEEN OF SPADES in stunning style and have unearthed some hugely complementary extras to go with it, making this disc a highly recommended proposition.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Optimum Home Entertainment|
|Region 2 - PAL|
|see main review|