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"There are plenty of people who believe in things neither looked for nor heard of."
on 20 January 2015
An overlooked minor classic from a tragically overlooked director, Thorold Dickinson's 1946 version of The Queen of Spades is not a fantasy (Dickinson leaves the question of whether there is any genuine supernatural agency at work open to the viewers' interpretation) but a story of the horror of being caught up in an all-consuming fantasy that destroys all sense of reason and reality.
As gambling fever sweeps St. Petersburg, Anton Walbrook's impoverished officer of engineers, his career stifled because he is not rich, high born or socially well connected enough, becomes increasingly obsessed with stories of a mysterious countess who knows the secret of the cards and determines to discover it for himself to win the position he knows he deserves. Convinced that Edith Evans' Countess Ranevskaya is the woman in question, he sets out to breach the walls of her fortress by seducing her maid (Yvonne Mitchell), setting in motion a chain of tragic events that leave death and destruction in his wake.
Stylish and atmospheric, it's very much a companion piece to Dickinson's original and long-suppressed British version of Gaslight - as in that film, Walbrook uses sex as a weapon, planning his seduction like a military campaign to get the treasure that eludes him - but there's also a very strong element of class consciousness underpinning it and driving him over the cliff. Advised to take life as he finds it he retorts "I'd rather take it by the throat and force it to give me what I want!," the only way he feels he can advance in a society that values birth and position over ability. Not that he's a sympathetic character: we may understand his motives, but his methods are utterly despicable, as is his cold indifference to those who stand in the way of his obsession.
It's such a remarkably confident film that's it's surprising to discover that Dickinson only got the film days before shooting started after the original director walked out, and then only on Walbrook's insistence and because the producer was afraid the whole production would collapse if no replacement was found quickly. Despite the huge success of Gaslight in 1940, it had done Dickinson little good - when MGM bought the remake rights they demanded all copies be destroyed, and but with Dickinson turning down an invitation to go to Hollywood to stay in Britain making public information films during the war he found himself unable to establish much of a career after hostilities ended, especially since he was legally barred from showing prospective employers the print of Gaslight he had saved from the furnace. When Walbrook called on him to take the film over he hadn't worked for three years: despite its success, he would only get the chance to direct two more films.
It's a tragedy because he turns much of the film into something visually remarkably, managing to not only hide the modest budget and nightmarish working conditions but fill it with subtle but telling touches, like the shot briefly revealing the tear in the seams in the back of Mitchell's dress giving away the penury she tries to disguise with needle and thread or the way that when she reads Walbrook's love letters, copied with a hint of the Cyrano De Bergeracs from a book (at one point seen through a spider's web) and hears his voice in her head it has a passion and sincerity completely absent when he writes them, while the sound of the train of Evans' dress scratching the floor as she shuffles towards her opera box is used to especially chilling effect in a key "Was that real or just his fevered imagination?" sequence. He even draws surprisingly layered performances from usually rather one-note actors like Ronald Howard and Anthony Dawson, while he taps into the same fevered intensity he drew out of Walbrook in Gaslight so effectively that you're as completely blindsided as he is by the final turn of the cards.
Optimum's UK DVD is surprisingly impressive, boasting an excellent remastered transfer, two archive audio introductions and Q&As with Dickinson from screenings in the 50s and 60s, an informative critic's appraisal of the film and history of its production, original trailer, brief intro by Martin Scorsese and a reproduction copy of Film Dope magazine devoted to a lengthy and fascinating interview with Dickinson covering his entire career with candour and surprising detail (though you may need to get out a magnifying glass for that since it's printed in a reduced size to fit in the DVD). It's such an impressive package that you can't help wondering if they originally intended it as a prestige Bluray release before deciding the film wasn't well enough known to take the risk.