“The Dead Shall Give Up Their Secrets!”
The Queen of Spades is a masterpiece if ever I saw one. Associate Producer Jack Clayton was on board for this film, directed by Thorold Dickinson (Gaslight 1940) who came onto the project last minute. Adapted to the screen by Rodney Ackland and Arthur Boys from the story written by Alexander Pushkin. The story could have easily been dreamt up by Aleksei Tolstoy, Ivan Chekhov -(The Drop of Water) Nikolai Gogol or even Oscar Wilde.
My partner Wendy even mentioned Edgar Allan Poe as she watched along with me. It brought to my mind, his short story Never Bet The Devil Your Head. Which of course was brought to life by Frederico Fellini in the segment of Spirits of The Dead 1968 called Toby Dammit, featuring the work of actor Terence Stamp.
It’s clear that Russians are very good at telling Ghost stories and notorious for telling tales about selling your soul to the Devil!
The gorgeous music scored by Georges Auric (Beauty and The Beast (1946), The Innocents (1961), and Wages of Fear 1953 just to mention a very few!) is as heart wrenching as it is heroic, drawing out the exquisite melody and chord changes to reach the soul and twist it into knots while it lingers.
What can I say about the gorgeous cinematography by Otto Heller.The odd camera angles are reminiscent of the great German Expressionist movement, something from Fritz Lang or the use of light and darkly dreamy angles like that of Carl Theodor Dreyer.
Even without any sound, the story would have emerged from the screen as a powerful cautionary tale, rife with grotesque and compelling characters.
The film is an arresting fairytale, that’s dreamy, and haunting in it’s imagery and perhaps, yes perhaps as visually stunning as I dare say Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête 1946 or Julian Duvivier’s Flesh and Fantasy 1943 and collaborative efforts of Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer’s Dead of Night 1945.
There are frames so masterfully conjured in shadow, that you might even think you’re watching Film Noir or an obscure Val Lewton production. Either way, The Queen of Spades sort of defies being labelled a specific genre.
It has it’s own melancholy fantasy that draws from many elements of the mystery/suspense crime/noir and supernatural horror gems of that golden age, when visual structure was as essential to the narrative as was the character development and dialogue.
Anton Walbrook plays the bitter and venomous Capt.Herman Suvorin an army engineer, who is so poisoned by his resentments toward the ruling aristocracy , that he wants to gain his own wealth, and punish those around him who have benefited by their birthright and title. Suvorin does not want to take life as it comes, he wants to “Grab life by the throat and force it to give him what he wants!”-Suvorin.
This he conspires to do by trying to learn the secret of winning at a card game named Faro, from the Old Countess Ranevskaya, played by Edith Evans.
After a frustrating night of watching a few of his fellow army officers play Faro, taunting Herman as if he was not of the same class, he bursts out of his room in a self absorbed rage, and wanders onto the streets and into a dusty old book store, first picking up a book about Napoleon Bonaparte whom he admires (his portrait hangs in Herman’s humble room) because Napoleon came into his power at age 26!
Herman Suvorin possess a similar intensely maniacal quality that makes him a very unapproachable,manipulative and unlikable man. Looking at him was like “looking into the eyes of Satan!”
Fatefully placed next to Napoleon’s book is another book, suddenly and with a creepy alacrity, the old bookshop owner picks up the ancient bound leather and starts relating it’s contents to Herman, as if he’d been chosen the messenger… warning Suvorin about the secrets and dangers of tampering with the universe. The old man told Herman that he’d either wind up having riches… or lose his eternal soul!
In terms of appearance and demeanor I thought of Riffraff from Rocky Horror Picture Show, and wondered if this little bookish crypt keeper was an inspiration for Richard O Brien!
Herman purchases the book for 3 rubles, and starts reading aloud to us. This mysterious book, about people making deals with the Devil, and a certain mysterious Count d. Saint Germaine who lived in an isolated palace and molded wax images of his chosen victims, thereby trapping their souls forever in his power.
Herman Suvorin slowly and thoughtfully recites to us from the book:
Containing the true stories of people who sold their souls in return for wealth, power or influence… Chapter IV The Secret of The Cards
Countess R…(Countess Ranevskaya )
In the year seventeen hundred and forty six, (60 years ago)
The Count d. Saint Germain arrived in St. Petersburg.
He chose for his residence, a palace on the outskirts of the city.
and soon there were strange rumors, about the weird dwelling and it’s mysterious occupant. It was certainly true that in the vaults of the palace. he had a curious collection of wax figures, which, so it was whispered, contained the souls of those who had fallen under his evil influence. He would derive intense please from modeling the wax figures from his intended victims, each one of whom was chosen.
with deliberate appreciation. Thus the countess Ranevskaya, acknowledged as the most beautiful woman in Russia came to excite his attention. He learned that in spite of a jealous husband, all the men had vied for her favors.
When the last of the guests had left. the countess went down the secret stairway.. To admits the young stranger she had promised to meet. She alone had the key to the hidden door. They had an amorous meeting. He was a cad and threatened her with scandal. Taking all her money. She was haunted by the fear of scandal. She needed to replace the money. In her despair she remembered the message from Saint Germain. she had no alternative but to answer the mysterious summons. She would sell her soul… anything to save herself…
In a very chilling scene, which helps transport this obscure classic into the realm of Gothic horror film, is where the young and beautiful Ranevskaya (Pauline Tennant, daughter of actress Hermione Baddeley) is approached by Saint Germain’s messenger played briefly by Valentine Dyall. Once at the eerie Saint Germain palace, the horsemen leave her off through a large wooden door with a Skull set atop as augury to what lies in wait. She begins to descend into the darkness, until WE hear her… a horrifying scream from outside. The horses rear up and begin to kick violently as they whinny. And then a sudden quiet as the camera frames the cloudy night sky, dreary and desolate and still. The scene fades to Saint Germain’s vault, which contain obscurities in darkly glowing glass jars.
Herman reads some more:
“Saint Germain gave her the secret of the three winning cards. In return she made a solemn vow that no one else would ever know the secret.”
One hour later she was on her way to the gaming rooms. She played the three cars in succession. She won a fortune, but the horrors of her visit to Saint Germain left a mark on her soul for the rest of her life.
As The Old Countess, a freakish sort of caged bird herself, Evans is incredible as she inhabits her environment like a grotesque caged thing. One who understands her captivity and so settles into her misery. Surrounded by wealth, she is still damned for eternity.
She shows no kindness or love, except to her little dog. She moves along the floor in her tremendous apparatus of a dress, scraping the ground as she drags her obscene body around. Her hair, yet again a macabre decoration of human foliage, feathers and fur. The use of sound in this film highlights, the scraping as if The Countess were a large serpent or reptile, slithering along the ground. After all, Raneyskaya has entered the dark side, where the serpent reigns.
Contrary to this hideous existence the decrepit and noxious Countess inflicts on her servants, in particular her ward, the kind and gentle Lizaveta, is Lizaveta who makes reference to birds in cages, after she meets Andrei at the market in the village. Lizaveta wants to “set them free and watch them fly away with the clouds.”
Along with images of birds in cages, often times the camera is framing one character or another within a ‘mirror’ There’s a great usage of mirrors in this film. The symbolism of duplicity, of souls being trapped inside an alternative reality. The players often see themselves as WE see them, acting and expressing themselves within their reflective self.
To continue with our story:
While glancing at this fatalistic book in the streets of St.Petersburg, Herman notices a young woman sitting by a window. She winds up being The Old Countess’ ward Lizaveta Ivanova played by the absolutely beautiful Yvonne Mitchell.
It is then, that Herman Suvorin conspires to win Lizaveta’s affections in order to gain access to The Old Countess herself. And so Herman begins his ‘cold blooded seduction’ of Lizaveta.
The rumors and the book itself speak of how The Countess Ranevskaya made a deal with the devil to learn the secret of the cards, so that she could win a fortune at Faro. Herman begins a feverish mission to gain entry to the Countess and force her to tell him the secret of the cards.
The overall feeling of impending doom, and unease set the stage for a very arcane atmosphere. Though set against the opulence of the Baroque style interiors and lavish costuming, there is still a sense of dread that we are suspended with. There are various moments of illuminating portents.
When the Countess as a young women kneeling, prays to The Holy Virgin for mercy, we see the icon lit up in detail, until the face of the blessed virgin is eclipsed by a blackness, at the same time the candle which burns in her honor goes out and so drifts it’s whitish vapor across the screen as young Countess Ranevskaya puts her hand on her face in shame and abject fear or what is to come, what has been done…
There are images of glass jars containing unfocused and undefined objects that might be waxen figures of people trapped inside. But the camera does not linger on this long enough and so we are left with a feeling of unease, that creates a reluctant horror in us. The horror you do not see, is the one that terrifies the most!
The presence of Gypsy adds a layer of the ‘mysterious’ as they have always been associated with magic, mischief, darkness and unsavory behavior. They act as ‘the other’ in this film to let us know that dark forces are afoot in St. Petersburg. The unfortunate bigotry that has been associated with Gypsy throughout film and real life history is a subject that is dear to me, as my own lineage stems from Gypsy blood, but I won’t elaborate on it here in this post…
Also in the supporting cast is Ronald Howard son of Leslie Howard, who bares a striking resemblance to his father. Andrei is of a noble background, a soldier as well and Herman’s only friend. He is truly in love with Lizaveta. The evil Herman even steals a few poetic words of Andrei’s to use in one of his love letters to lure Lizaveta.
She is unaware that the real reasons for Herman’s constant vigils outside her window, are merely to learn the secret of the cards from her Benefactor.
Andrei discovers this and tries to warn her of Herman’s duplicitous nature and motivation for his romantic overtures toward Lizaveta but she is already caught in Herman’s web of deception.
Will Herman be able to convince The Countess to reveal the secret of the cards? I won’t tell you. Watch The Queen of Spades sometime for yourself and please let me know what you think!
There are thousands of wonderful films in my collection, this is just one of them. So remember, keep your head darlings, it’s okay to grab life by the throat as long as you know , it might just grab you back with a vengeance!