on 7 July 2011
Very briefly: If you're looking to choose between this, the Optimum Region 2 DVD, and the Anchor Bay Region 1 NTSC version [ coupled with DEAD OF NIGHT] - choose the Optimum.
The Optimum is FAR superior PQ-wise: very sharp and clean print, with at times an almost three-dimensional visual depth, whereas the [ extremely-expensive at time of writing] US Anchor Bay DVD, was struck some 8 years or so ago from a dirty and grainy print which has none of the startling clarity of the Optimum.
The only aspect of the Anchor Bay disc which is in any way superior, is in the cropping of the transfer which is noticeably less-cramped all the way through than the Optimum, and the fact that there is no PAL speed-up on the US disc, naturally.
on 15 May 2010
' ... 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.
It's comforting to think that Alexander Pushkin, had he been born a hundred years later than he was, could undoubtedly have found employment writing screenplays for Val Lewton. As it is, we'll just have to put up with all those plays, novels, poems, operas and short stories he wrote.
The Queen of Spades, based on a story by Pushkin, is a marvelously atmospheric and menacing tale of obsession and greed. It takes place in 1806 St. Petersburg. Captain Herman Suvorin (Anton Walbrook) is a poor German engineer serving in the Czarist army. Gambling has become the rage and faro is the card game of choice for all the rich, aristocratic and arrogant young officers who laugh at Suvorin. He hasn't the means to gamble and he hasn't the means to purchase advancement. Then he hears the story of Countess Ranevskaya (Edith Evans), who, a generation earlier, is supposed to have sold her soul for "the secret of the cards"...the three cards to choose which will win a fortune at faro. Amazingly, the Countess is still living, almost a recluse, with a beautiful ward. Suvorin determines to find a way to woo the young woman as a method to gain entry into the Countess' palace and to the Countess herself. He is determined to learn from her the three cards. He does, or thinks he does, and we witness madness and death. Says one character, "I believe all human beings are fundamentally good. I'm convinced of it. Yes, and I believe that evil is a force, a mighty force, that is abroad in the world to take possession of men's souls, if they will allow it to." Oh, Suvorin.
Now if Val Lewton had produced this we might have a cult classic on our hands. As it is, we have a movie which has been nearly forgotten. Too bad. The film might have been made with little money but it doesn't look it. Snow and slush cover the frigid St. Petersburg streets. Candles flicker and gutter. Deep shadows hide cubbyholes and doorways. There are ragged peasants and beggars, an ornate opera house and a dazzling ballroom filled with dancing aristocrats. There is the Countess' palace with it's decorated rooms, angled staircases, bare kitchens and cold servants quarters. There is the Countess' bedroom with it's secret passage and the stone steps leading to a hidden entrance. The black-and-white cinematography is excellent; everything shadowed might hold madness or a threat. Making everything work are the two mesmerizing performances by Walbrook and Evans. With these two actors it's a pleasure just to observe Suvorin's growing obsession and to hear the tap of the Countess' cane and the slow, steady swish of her silk gown.
Anton Walbrook was one of the great actors of his time. Sometimes he would almost teeter on the brink of mannerism, but he'd invariably deliver performances of startling quality. With his intensity, his Austrian accent and his ability to draw out a vowel for effect, it was difficult not to keep your eyes on him. At 53 he is playing 20 years younger and does so with ease. Edith Evans was 57 when she made this, her first film after years of stardom in the theater. She plays a selfish, irritable 90-year-old woman, querulous and suspicious. When Suvorin and the Countess finally meet in the Countess' bedroom, an acting student could learn much just by watching the two. Walbrook has all the lines; Evans watches and reacts. It's a toss-up as to which betters the other.
I think both Pushkin and Lewton would have enjoyed this movie. Please note that I have no idea if this DVD release will have been restored. The earlier DVD release with discs of Dead of Night and Queen of Spades in one package could have used some work.
To appreciate just how good Anton Walbrook was, watch him in La Ronde, The Red Shoes and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.
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.
on 20 March 2010
This a very British style of classic film.
The black and white medium greatly enhances the moodiness and ambience of this ghost story. The ghost is never actually seen on screen (no white sheets or PC animations needed), which adds to the tension. The acting is good old fashioned melodramatic style with no punches pulled.
Story?..The protagonist of the film is obsessed with how to obtain the secret of winning at cards..'the Queen of Spades'.
A very nicely executed studio film, in moody black & white and with good music. The period is set in Imperial Russia in Napoleonic times, complete with costumes and cold white snow.
The Queen of Spades is directed by Thorold Dickinson and adapted to screenplay by Rodney Ackland and Arthur Boys from the story written by Alexander Pushkin. It stars Anton Walbrook, Edith Evans, Yvonne Mitchell and Ronald Howard. Music is scored by Georges Auric and cinematography by Otto Heller.
A Tale of Old St. Petersbvrg.
"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 QVEEN OF SPADES."
The dead shall give up their secrets.
Haunting, poetic, lyrical, romantic and visually arresting, Thorold Dickinson's take on the Pushkin story is a magnificent picture of many wonders. It's a film that (thankfully) is hard to pigeon hole, it's very unique, a uniqueness that marks it out as an oddity of sorts, ensuring it has stayed as a cult classic rather than a mainstream one. However, now widely available on DVD (the Optimum Region 2 issue is a spankingly fine transfer), and with Martin Scorsese lending his weight to the film's greatness, it's hoped that more people will get to see and embrace this masterpiece.
Dickinson (Gaslight) was only brought in at the last minute, literally days before the picture went into production. Armed with only a tiny budget and confined to the stages of Welwyn Studios, the director gave a lesson in classic film making. The story is a more than solid source to work from, Walbrook's Tsarist Captain Suvorin aspires to gain wealth by learning Countess Ranevskaya's (Evans) secret to wining at the card game Faro. Working from a book he located about people making deals with the Devil, Suvorin worms his way into the affections of the Countess' ward, Lizaveta Ivanova (Mitchell), so as to get close to the aged and fragile Countess and put the squeeze on the old dear. He is obsessed and oblivious to the feelings of others and ignorant to the age old adage about being careful about what you wish for.....
Filmed in subtle black and white by Otto Heller (They Made Me A Fugitive), film is big on shadows, odd camera angles, clinical sound work and haunting imagery. Atmosphere is everything in a film like this, and this has it in abundance, even during the more exuberant passages, such as the gaiety of a dance, there's a disquiet hanging in the air, William Kellner's brilliantly baroque sets observers of impending doom. A number of images burn into the soul, a spider climbing its web, a doused candle and the eerie sight of distorted figurines in glass jars, these are just some of the shots worthy of inspection. Mirrors, too, play a prominent part in proceedings, hauntingly so, while many of the characters have an other worldly sheen to them.
3, 7 & Ace.
Mostly the film is highly thought of by those that have seen it, what negative reviews I have come across appear to be written by horror fans unhappy with not getting the horror film suggested by tag words such as ghost and the Devil. For the first hour it's pretty much about characterisations, psychological make ups and back story, it's not until the hour mark when things start moving towards the spooky. But this film is not horror, as mentioned earlier, it's hard to pigeon hole it for it covers a number of bases. It's more in line with Rebecca and either of the Gaslight movies, an opulent period piece with supernatural overtones, while the visual style of it is very much like The Spiral Staircase. If you like those movies? Then it's pretty nailed on that this is the movie for you. Cast are terrific, Walbrook (Gaslight/The Red Shoes) is intense and maniacal, Evans (The Importance of Being Earnest ) is oddly scary but pitiful, Mitchell is beautiful but perfectly staid and Howard (son of Leslie) is straight backed and gentleman like.
From the opening credits that are off kilter written on scratchy looking paper, accompanied by Auric's blunderbuss music score, to the "devilment" of the denouement, this is a classic Ealing film for true classic film fans. 10/10
Anton Walbrook, Dame Edith Evans and Yvonne Mitchell star in this long-overdue release of the much in demand: 'The Queen Of Spades'.
It's interesting to note here that two great stage actresses made their film debut; Dame Edith Evans (at aged 62!) and Yvonne Mitchell. Both made memorable and lasting impressions - Evans plays the aged Countess (playing a character years older than she was in real-life -even then!) and Mitchell who plays her young Ward - contrarily playing a part years younger than she actually was. (she was 35 at the time!)
This is a great movie from so many aspects; the story, the acting, the outstanding cast which also includes Athene Seyler, Miles Malleson and Hay Petrie - not to mention the production! It's not a movie to be watched late at night and alone - full of atmosphere with plenty 'jolts' and eerie feeling - particularly Evans' great portrayal of the death of the old Countess which will certainly have the hair on the back of your neck standing on end and afraid to go to bed! This is also helped along by the fact that this Picture was made in black and white.
Several dashing guys as eye -candy in this too - not least a very handsome Anthony Dawson - and all in gorgeous uniforms...
I recall wanting this on Video almost twenty years ago - and nobody had even heard of it... Great to see that it's finally out on DVD at long last! It's been well worth the wait!
Includes 'Extras' - featuring fascinating Interviews on how the movie was made, and how Edith Evans and Yvonne Mitchell had to be 'coached' through the new medium for their work.
on 7 February 2015
I have had this on VHS tape recorded from television many years ago, the tape is giving up now, hence the DVD. This film is superbly acted and it is an example of Edith Evens in a role other than that Oscar Wilde play. This is a film that echoes the old saying 'Be careful of what you wish for'. Well worth buying .
on 3 January 2016
This is the first Thorold Dickinson film I've seen, and it was a real surprise. Every aspect of the film was excellent - the script, the camerawork, the direction, the acting. For an English film of the period, albeit one based on a Pushkin story, it was unexpectedly expressionistic, without the usual stiff-upper-lip understatement. Immediately promoted to one of my all-time top ten!
on 6 April 2013
Optimum Release is an infamous distributor for all of us that require that a movie comes with subtitles.
They do not even bother with "English for the hearing impaired". This is an old movie and, while the video quality is really good, the same can not be said for the audio.
The movie itself is very good (5 stars) but this release, as usual for Optimum Release, is all but "optimum".