Film Reviews

The Queen of Spades (1949) – Blu-ray Review

New from Studiocanal is a release of the 1949 Thorold Dickinson film The Queen of Spades, based on a short story by Alexander Pushkin. As reflected in the bonus features, Dickinson is today almost certainly known to fewer than he deserves, with his nine films largely unremembered, with probably only 1940’s Gaslight widely known to casual audiences (although many may have heard of The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939). His second collaboration with actor Anton Walbrook, this film also sports turns from future Bond villain/henchman Anthony Dawson, also known for his role in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder. There is also a relatively rare (at this stage of her career) film appearance from legendary stage actress Dame Edith Evans. Presented in a nicely restored academy ratio picture, with decent stereo audio, this is a fine release for a film modern audiences will likely not have seen in vast numbers.

As for the plot, Walbrook plays Captain Herman Suvorin, a Russian officer we meet in 1806. Despite frequently watching colleagues playing cards, he avoids it himself out of fear of losing money. In the course of events he hears talk of the elderly Countess Ranevskaya (Evans), who is reported to have sold her soul for the secrets of winning at cards, becoming wealthy in the aftermath of this. Reading around for some kind of corroboration he finds a book that talks of a Countess who won a fortune from gambling. Suvorin assumes this to be the same person, sixty years later.

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In trying to get to the Countess, Herman attempts to seduce her young ward, Lizavyeta (Yvonne Mitchell), and this puts him into direct conflict with Andrei (Ronald Howard), a fellow officer and suitor to the young woman. In time Herman gets the access he seeks, offering to assume her sin in return for her secrets, his desperation for the knowledge pushing his behaviour into unacceptable areas, and the film into the area of psychological horror, as the countess appears to transcend the usual rules of life and death. Finally, this will lead to a confrontation at the gambling tables between Andrei and Herman, where we will learn what fate has in store for him.

Bonus features are led by a commentary from American film critic Nick Pinkerton. He sports a laconic style, yet he provides an incredible density of facts, spilling information about all of the cast (particularly Dame Edith Evans) and crew early on. He is very responsive to what he is seeing, knowing everyone in shot at almost any given time, and he has either got file after file of notes, or a genuinely extraordinary memory for any work he has done (it is most likely extensive notes, but he has done his work). That work involves history, politics, cultural norms, literature, filmmaking, and the full careers of a substantial number of people, as well as differences from the original short story. It actually starts to become overwhelming around the hour mark, but that is a side effect of trying to fit in so much trivia, context, and scene specific commentary as he does. The track is timed perfectly to end the commentary with what happened to the filmmaker afterwards, leaving this as a meticulously researched and well-presented piece of work.

© StudioCanal.

Next up is ‘Anna Bogutskaya plays The Queen of Spades’. In a little over 19 minutes the writer, critic and film programmer discusses the feature. There is little further on-screen context as to who she is: a flaw common to these sets. This is a very standard talking head intercut with shots and scenes from the film as found in many of these releases. That said, she is a fluent, confident speaker with some interesting observations to share, though they serve mainly as an explainer to the main feature. This is complementary to the commentary, as it is less about details and more about choices and ideas. She is excellent on use of sound design though, and does have thoughts on set design, which also go well with what we heard from Nick.

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‘The Nightmare People: Thorold Dickinson on Saturday Night at the Movies’ is around 33 minutes. This is a feature from Canadian network television (a Canadian show that ran from 1974, not to be confused with the NBC’s 1960-70s show of the same title) leading into a screening of the film. It is an interview by presenter, actor and producer Elwy Yost, which dates it to after 1974. Later we find it’s after the death of Yvonne Mitchell, putting it after March 1979, and we’re told also it is shot in May and June – so we can be confident that this is at the very end of the 1970s, about 3-4 years before the death of the director, and the interview takes place at his home in England.

The interview, given the format of the show is purely – in part one – about this feature, and it is interesting to hear his memories of troubled scripts, and of how he got involved in the first place. Also strangely interesting is the fact that he cannot remember everything, or will not give an opinion on something, as this feels more natural, though he has good recall at this point. He also corroborates the commentary on using lenses to shoot around tiny sets. Part One is about ten minutes, though he has another section screened originally after the feature. After the main feature we return to him, the conversation broadens out to his wider career, and the issues he had with the release of Gaslight, in particular, as its influence on films of the time, then onto his grounding in editing, and the importance of writing. It is a good feature, but not the most dynamic interview, so mainly for fans and completists.

‘Analysis of The Queen of Spades by Philip Horne’ is a little under 19 minutes. Philip gets an onscreen description of ‘film critic and historian’. It is shot sat in a cinema seat taking us first through the director’s career, noting he made nine films, and that this feature, in particular, is underseen. We learn that the project was taken by Thorold at five days’ notice and that this is his second collaboration with Anton Walbrook after Gaslight. It is all talking head and mainly trivia from the making of the film and the circumstances that enabled it in the early minutes. From around nine minutes we are onto the filming, again mainly trivia – who did what, and what else they did. Again, standard, if diligently researched, watchable stuff.

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Next up are two audio interviews with Thorold Dickinson: a 17-minute entry from 1951 – a discussion led by Ronald Shields, with little context as to who he was. It is very stiff but there is a good focus on the film, its planning, and the work. Despite sounding very reserved, Dickinson’s care for his work comes across, and he is very much not sounding like a director for hire, despite the short notice in taking the film. It is quite technical in places, though, and purely for fans really wanting to know as much as possible. Though, it is interesting to see how out of step with ‘modern cinema’ sensibilities this work was, even by 1951.

© StudioCanal.

The second interview is a 14-minute entry from 1968, looking back when the film was 20 years old, and he is talking to an audience and looking back at how he came onto the project and the filming process. Of course, there is some cross-over with other features, but it is far more fluent than the 1951 discussion, possibly as he is not being led down technical alleys, and, also, that he has had longer to reflect on the film. It feels more like an after-dinner speech than an interview, but for fans this is gold, as we must remember he has not been with us now for 40 years; to have two different eras of the man talking in-depth (three, if counting the earlier feature) is very satisfying.

The film itself has a brief introduction by Martin Scorsese (very brief at one minute 27 seconds). The great man talks to camera about  how this film deserves to be better known. There is some of the same background about Dickinson’s late entry to the film and how remarkable this is with the controlled final product. We will not spoil what else he says in his brief remarks here, though, if we have one complaint, it is that it cannot be run straight into the film, it is simply a stand-alone feature in the middle of all the others.

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There are two galleries: ‘Behind the Scenes Stills Gallery’, and ‘Designs & Sets Gallery’. It is odd that they are split into two as they are both effectively backstage stuff, lovely though they are. Finally, we have an original trailer. At a little under three minutes, this is vintage offering, complete with dated voiceover from the time. It is well restored and much more enjoyable than the updated versions given on some sets.

In short, it is just a little surprising that this film is not more celebrated today. Although played a little broader than some of the other works of its era, it is beautifully shot (given its clear lack of budget – possibly one of the factors that limits it) and it is just a little unsettling in places. Its slight feel of cheapness prevents it feeling in any way ‘prestige’, but it a fine tale, well told. Its influence on later psychological thriller, horror and supernatural films is clear from early in its running time, which, in itself, does not – at around 95 minutes – outstay its welcome. The disc is supported by a raft of well-thought through features that give credit to cast, crew and, in particular, the director. That said, many of the features will seem a little dry to those obtaining this film for educative or completist reasons, and they will appeal chiefly to existing fans.

The Queen of Spades is out on Blu-ray on 23rd January from Studiocanal.


 

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