' ... ze cards ... ze seecret off ze cards ...' hisses Anton Walbrook as he goes off his head towards the end of this extraordinary film.
THE QUEEN OF SPADES is one of those classic pieces of cinema that lots of people have heard of, but not actually seen - either on telly or in the cinema. I had to include myself in that number until very recently. Now, I am a total convert to this stylish, atmospheric, and utterly creepy piece of work.
This isn't a vintage horror film of the 'Dracula' type - although plenty of things go bump in the night. THE QUEEN OF SPADES is a classic ghost-story, based upon a tale by Alexander Pushkin, and it was made on a shoestring in studios that were decidedly lacking in technical resources, and too small for the spectacle required by the script.
This lack of resources made everyone involved in THE QUEEN OF SPADES doubly creative, and what we have here is a gothic masterpiece, for which the cast and crew have turned up trumps.
The plot hinges simply enough upon the turn of a playing card. The game ? Faro - similar to Snap - but a game that held Europe in thrall for centuries.
Here in the story are jealousy and intrigue, a lust for power and a fight for the heart of a beautiful woman; here are long shadows, dark passageways, cruelty and vice - all mixed up with an obsession that ends in violence and desperate madness among the snowdrifts of winter-bound St.Petersburg.
The film's designer, Oliver Messel, perhaps more famous for his ultra-romantic creations for Covent Garden, conjures up the opulence of the city in its luxurious heyday. He does it by using a minimum of scenery which is shunted about, relit, repainted and reused as necessary. The overall effect is stunning.
There are delicious performances too - from a cast steered away from the oh-so-British stiff-upper-lip of the wartime years into a new and appropriately melodramatic excellence by Thorold Dickinson (he of the original and best version of GASLIGHT).
Dickinson had at his disposal some remarkable talent: at the head of the cast of course is Anton Walbrook, who needs no introduction, and whose sinister presence lurks in every shadow, hissing like a corrupt viper; there is also Ronald Howard - son of Leslie, amazingly like his father, with the matinee idol good looks of Ashley Wilkes and a manner that tells you from the start that he is a jolly good sort. There are devoted servants, officers and nobles, gypsy dancers and singers - and a lot of vodka downed in one, and the whole piece has an operatic intensity that even Verdi would have been hard pushed to rival.
There are also two actresses, new to film, whose names were to become as familiar to cinema-goers as they were already to lovers of the theatre: Yvonne Mitchell, with whose youthful, dark, and willowy form the camera is obviously in love, and Dame Edith Evans - she of the world-famous 'Handbag!' in Asquith's later 'Importance of Being Ernest' (She also excels in Tony Richardson's 'Tom Jones' - a tour-de-force if ever there was one.) These two are the kind of discovery that a casting director nowadays can only dream of.
Edith Evans dominates the film. For somebody who had not appeared in front of the camera before, she takes to it like a duck to water, glowing with that mysterious power that allows you to gaze upon the depths of a character's soul. The ancient and wrinkled Countess Ranevskaya has lived her life in fear of the devil, and now she totters and staggers, bullies and weeps, the centrepiece of some fantastic images and what must surely be one of the most chilling sound effects ever created: the relentless shuffling slide of her feet, punctuated by the tap, tap, tap of her stick upon the cold stone floor of her palace.
The movie-going world must now be divided into two types: those who have seen THE QUEEN OF SPADES, and those who - to their loss - have not. Join the number of those who have, and revel in this classic British film for what it is: a thoroughly enjoyable piece of storytelling - one that should be high on the list of all-time greats in the history of cinema.