Part of the London Film Festival’s remit extends not just to showcasing new creations, but also to discovering, restoring and presenting a few rough diamonds from cinema’s past: films that, for whatever reason, deserve and could use the boost a festival can provide. Considered lost until rediscovered six decades after its initial release in 1948, queen of spades, an adaptation of the short story by Alexander Pushkin, has been restored for display and broadcast on home video, with its champions like Wes Anderson and Martin Scorsese. The sound leaves a bit to be desired, cutting in places (sometimes this happens for stylistic reasons and I’m not talking about those times) but what’s there is very high quality, as is the picture . Before going any further, I must advise you not to read anything else about this film apart from my review. Every synopsis I’ve found online, whether on Letterboxd or the BFI website, spoils the whole story as succinctly as possible. I don’t know why that should be, maybe the writers felt the movie would look too boring if they didn’t entice the audience with the right things, but it was a much more watch dull than it might have been as a result, and your viewing shouldn’t have to share the same fate as mine.
What I will reveal about the plot is that it centers on an ambitious captain in the Russian army (Anton Walbrook) whose lust for the position of his comrades of noble blood leads him to seek his fortune and the secret of success at cards. That’s what he thinks he’s discovered when he meets the pretty young ward (Yvonne Mitchell) of a wealthy elderly countess (Edith Evans) who’s supposedly sold her soul for the perfect hand. The story is treated with all the moralism and indulgent scope one associates with pre-revolutionary classics of Russian literature, as the young girl finds herself torn between the deceitful fortune-seeker and the noble prince (Ronald Howard) .
Walbrook is an excellent anti-hero. He looked at the world, saw its injustice, and resolved to do whatever it takes to bend it to his will and play by its cruel rules. Mitchell plays his innocent role well enough, can’t fault him for the vapid cuteness of his character, nor can Howard, who can play at least half of a fantasy climax. The confused, fragile and demanding dowager is to fill the role of main foil for the social climber, but the two have disappointing screen time together and have little rapport, with Evans sadly short of the cunning and stubborn wits who could have formed a credible rival to Walbrook. Like many films from the Golden Age, The queen of spades is hampered by its moral dampness and the resulting bland simplicity of its heroes. In the end, you find yourself supporting the villain, because despite the immorality of his deception, he’s been the only one you’ve been interested in for an hour and a half.
It’s admittedly quite a slow journey – although in my case it wasn’t helped by the fact that the movie was ruined for me the moment I opened the watch link (thanks again) – with the Walbrook’s attempts to break into the girl’s heart, and thence to the palace, rather devoid of stakes or much warmth or intrigue. With the characters who supposedly love each other being estranged, there isn’t much chemistry between anyone, as there’s concern that the interior monologues that likely supported their relationship on the page aren’t being effectively performed on the page. screen. The film wakes hell up in its final fifteen minutes however, when after an effective supernatural tour we get a blinder from a deck of cards, the most tense I’ve seen outside of Casino Royale or that an episode of Only fools and horses.
The production and costume design are terrific throughout, Walbrook’s bright silk shirt deserves special mention, and there are a few period elements and set pieces that tickle the interest. In their only film roles, Maroussia Dimitrevitch and Violette Elvin make quite an impression as a duo of gypsy singers and dancers, and there are some good supporting turns from Ivor Barnard as a delightfully sinister bookseller and Miles Malleson makes an always- welcome bon vivant pawnbroker appearance. The cinematography by Otto Heller – I think it’s fair to say, the great Otto Heller – is excellent and shows the sets in a grand gothic style. Even though the drama is often a little laid back, it’s always presented in its best light.
The Queen of Spades may not be a true classic, but it’s been called that by very honorable voices and they don’t get it out of nowhere. It matches in quality but comes out ahead whenever Walbrook is on screen, and the highlight is truly dynamite.