Friday 23 December 2022

From the archive: "The Queen of Spades"

'Tis a good season for fans of the tall, aristocratic 1940s character actor Anton Walbrook: along with a dazzling new print of Powell and Pressburger's 
The Red Shoes, in which he plays the ballet instructor Lermontov, there's a revival of The Queen of Spades, a 1949 drama in which he takes top billing. Walbrook here plays Herman Suvonin, a Russian officer in 19th century St. Petersburg who learns the secret of winning a fortune at cards resides with an aged former society belle (Edith Evans). She's a formidable type who keeps such secrets close to her chest - and her daughter (Yvonne Mitchell) on the tightest of leashes. Suvonin's tactic is to use one to get to the other, but as the final high-stakes card game makes clear, he's a man who just doesn't know when to stop. Based on a Pushkin short story, it's a film with an acute sense of the pleasures of storytelling, made manifest in the soldiers' barrackroom anecdotes, and the dusty book Suvonin finds in an antiquities shop, offering up its own tales of the unexpected. The director is Thorold Dickinson, whose grounding in silent cinema had left him a supremely visual filmmaker: the screen abounds with snow, smoke, mirrors and shadows. Mitchell now seems a rather insipid romantic lead, and Dickinson lays caged-bird imagery somewhat thickly around her, but it's a worthwhile reissue, returning to our attentions one of the few British directors who appeared unembarrassed by melodramatic opulence and thus closer to the European sensibility of a Max Ophüls than any of his homegrown contemporaries, P&P notwithstanding.

(December 2009)

The Queen of Spades returns to selected cinemas from today.

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