Saturday, 4 February 2023

Shudder Saturday: The Queen Of Spades (1949)

A British horror film from the 1940s, The Queen Of The Spades may not be something you think you should prioritise ahead of many other choices, but it's not one that you will regret making time for. A film full of intrigue and atmosphere, the nearest comparison point for this would be one of the wonderful tales featured in A Ghost Story For Christmas. If you want jump scares and overt chills then look elsewhere, but if you want something that builds an impressive sense of dread, culminating in a moment that's very reminiscent of coming to from a fever dream then this will hit the spot.

It begins with the explanation of a card game featured in the film. The card game is mentioned as being similar to Snap, but someone is a dealer and the other person has three main cards that they try to play at just the right time. I won't lie, I didn't entirely understand the mechanics of the gameplay, but viewers are shown enough to get the gist of things. Herman (Anton Walbrook) stumbles across a tale of a woman who once made a deal that allowed her to win a fortune at this game, her soul in exchange for great wealth, and he becomes obsessed with finding the woman, and of having her reveal her secret to him. Convinced that it is actually an elderly Countess (Edith Evans) who lives nearby, Herman puts a plan in motion to get close to her, which involves him pretending to be falling in love with her young carer/companion, Lizaveta (Yvonne Mitchell).

Clocking in at a shade over 90 minutes, The Queen Of Spades may feel a bit creaky and tame to modern viewers (because it IS a bit creaky and tame), but it's an undeniably well-crafted tale that is leading to a great finale we can sense coming from the very beginning. Herman isn't a sympathetic character, which is why we are just waiting for his plan to go awry at some point, but Walbrook plays him with an entertaining deviousness and intensity. Mitchell is sweet and innocent throughout, and Ronald Howard is very good as the kind and earnest Andrei, someone who is genuinely interested in Lizaveta. Evans may seem as if she doesn't have too much to do, but every part of her performance helps to keep her character at the very centre of a dark and dangerous web.

Based on a short story by Alexander Pushkin, the script, written by Rodney Ackland and Arthur Boys, mixes some lovely character study moments with the con artistry, and using a British cast to portray people and events who are clearly supposed to be Russian gives the whole thing an extra layer of strangeness that helps to make it so memorable.

Director Thorold Dickinson may not be a familiar name to many, although he also directed, among other films, The Arsenal Stadium Mystery and Gaslight (the near-lost original that MGM attempted to wipe out of existence when it bought the remake rights), but he does an excellent job here of maximising the impact of what is essentially a rather slight tale. 

Ironically, I only just heard about this film when it was being discussed on a podcast this week, but I then jumped at the chance to see it when it appeared in the Shudder line-up. I wasn't disappointed, and I don't think others will be. It's pretty ace.


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