“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…