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Queen of Spades, The (1949)


Main image of Queen of Spades, The (1949)
35mm, black and white, 94 mins
DirectorThorold Dickinson
Production CompaniesWorld Screen Plays, Associated British Picture Corporation
ProducerAnatole De Grunwald
ScreenplayRodney Ackland, Arthur Boys
StoryAlexander Pushkin
PhotographyOtto Heller
MusicGeorges Auric

Cast: Anton Walbrook (Herman), Edith Evans (the old countess), Yvonne Mitchell (Lizaveta Ivanovna), Ronald Howard (Prince Andrei), Mary Jerrold (old Varvarushka), Anthony Dawson (Fyodor)

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A young officer terrifies an old countess into revealing the secret of winning at cards.

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If the period between 1944 and 1949 is often seen as a golden age for British cinema, one of its more neglected gems is Thorold Dickinson's superb film version of The Queen of Spades (1949), from the short story of Alexander Pushkin. The film's achievement is all the more remarkable because Dickinson took over the direction at only three days' notice. The co-writer, Rodney Ackland, had been the original choice but had quarrelled with the film's producer, Anatole de Grunwald, and its star, Anton Walbrook. Walbrook suggested Dickinson as a replacement, probably because the two had worked very well together on Gaslight (1940) and because there was a certain similarity of theme between the two films: once again Walbrook plays a greedy seducer operating his charms on an innocent young woman; once again it will end in insanity. Adding to Dickinson's difficulty, though, was the fact that his two leading ladies, Edith Evans as the Countess and Yvonne Mitchell as Lisaveta, were making their screen debuts. Both acquitted themselves superbly, however, and Walbrook was never finer. His cries of fear (when the dead Countess opens her eyes) and later of anguish (when he loses at cards) both wring the heart and chill the blood.

Dickinson later said that, after the first day, he decided to throw caution to the wind and in every scene aim for conscious and colourful contrast. The film's cinematic panache, bold visual symbolism and emotional intensity struck admiring critics at the time as un-British. The film really comes into its own when dramatising the sinister supernatural elements of the tale. Horses rear in terror as the young Countess enters St Germain's palace and screams as she seems to be swallowed into an abyss of darkness. A shot of a spider's web is pointedly superimposed on that of the sleeping Lizaveta as Herman is composing a letter designed to ensnare her in his plan. In particular, the scene in which Herman, alone in his room, is haunted by the tapping of the Countess's stick and the trailing of her crinoline gown on the floor contains one of the most chilling and atmospheric uses of sound since Blackmail (d. Alfred Hitchcock, 1929). This is one of British cinema's greatest ghost stories, from a director described by Martin Scorsese as "a uniquely intelligent, passionate artist," adding, "they're not in endless supply."

Neil Sinyard

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Video Clips
1. The Countess' story (3:04)
2. The Countess' death (3:15)
3. Secrets of the dead (3:37)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Auric, Georges (1899-1983)
Dickinson, Thorold (1903-1984)
Evans, Edith (1888-1976)
Heller, Otto (1896-1970)
Malleson, Miles (1888-1969)
Walbrook, Anton (1896-1967)