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Monday, October 10, 2016

On two film adaptations of Pushkin's 'The Queen of Spades'

"Three. Seven. Ace....Three.  Seven. Ace."  

If you want thrills and chills this October with a healthy gothic dose, do not overlook Alexander Pushkin's 1834 story of greed gone berserk, literally.  The Queen of Spades lodged permanently in my subconscious after, as a young child, I saw a revealing snippet of the 1949 British film on TV (not knowing exactly what it was, but hearing the movie's title from my Dad, who was giving it rapt attention).  The shock value was off the charts for an 8-year old, and I've only recently had the guts to approach this story again.  What prompted me was the opportunity to see a live screening of the 1916 Russian silent film version a month ago at the Harvard Film Archive.  After that, I watched the 1949 version in its entirety, read the original story, and watched portions of the famous 1887 operatic version by Tchaikovsky.  This post shares some of my observations about the story on film.

The basic outline of the plot is as follows:  In Imperial Russia in the early 19th century, Hermann, an officer in the Russian engineers, is of a lower class than his military compatriots who spend their off hours gambling at cards, in particular, faro.  Hermann avoids the card games because he doesn't want to risk what little he has, but he's fascinated nonetheless.  He hears one officer tell a story of the 'Countess', an old lady now who in her youth won a fortune by learning a 'secret' of cards from a mysterious acquaintance -- a secret no one speaks of and seems to have dissolved into a questionable legend.  Hermann becomes obsessed with learning the secret, to the extent that he insinuates himself into the acquaintance of the old Countess's demure but beautiful ward Lizaveta.  Eventually he confronts the Countess in a fateful encounter, and in the course of subsequent critical and supernatural happenings believes he's got the secret, and acts on it.  The results are not happy.

1916 Film The Queen of Spades (Pikovaya dama) D. Yakov Protazanov.
As the date indicates, this film was made immediately prior to the Bolshevik revolution, and I couldn't help imagining a reflection of class consciousness and critique of the elite played up in the drama of the film.  At 63 minutes, the film was an efficient and true telling of the Pushkin story.
From Harvard Film Archive:  Ivan Mozzhukhin standing at right as Hermann
For a relatively early silent, the supernatural effects were, if not refined, at least intriguing, and the storytelling making use of flashbacks to add interest.  The camera was mostly static, not showing the 'montage' style famous in later Russian/Soviet silent cinema. The character of Hermann as portrayed by Ivan Mozzhukhin, while not admirable, is more as a victim of his addictive personality, as opposed to a cunning villain.  For his part, Mozzhukhin was a very popular Russian actor, who barely escaped with his life during the revolution, and worked mainly in Western Europe thereafter, and had a short unsuccessful stint in Hollywood.
Hermann caught in an imaginary spider web
The entire film can be seen on Youtube:

The 1949 film The Queen of Spades D. Thorold Dickinson
The film that spooked me so many years ago is one Martin Scorsese has called 'a masterpiece, one of the very best films of the 1940s.'  Made at England's Welwyn Studios, it's gripping and haunting, with gothic beauty and tragedy dripping from every frame.  Similar to the 1916 film, it was quite faithful to the original story.  I was simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by Anton Walbrook's Hermann.  In contrast to that of Mozzhokhin, his portrayal was of a truly subversively haughty and vile person, who cannot resist the lure of wealth, and does not value human relationships.  While I felt he overplayed at times, he was mesmerizing and the camera idolized him.  Yvonne Mitchell portrays Lizaveta as a beautiful, if weak, young woman who lets others rule her life.  Dame Edith Evans is convincing as a bitter old woman who has found that wealth does not make up for the lack of love and true companionship.  Just over 60 when the film was made, Evans was made up to look much older.
Anton Walbrook cuts a dashing figure as
Hermann, if cold and not particularly sympathetic.
Dame Edith Evans as Countess Ranevskaya
The scene that I remembered from my childhood, set at the Countess's funeral, did not disappoint this time around, for its ability to shock and chill.  The story is unique in that it offers no strong protagonists worthy of our admiration, if you discount the secondary character of Andrei, the young officer in love with Lizaveta played by Ronald Howard, son of legendary Leslie Howard of Gone With The Wind fame.  As entertainment, the film offers a bit of everything; supernatural and elements of horror are neatly included in the dramatic narrative and will satisfy fans of the genre.  As social commentary there is much to digest as well, which likely is at least partly why Pushkin's original story has such staying power.  This is a society that today one is glad to have avoided.  New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther said it well in his inimitable style at the time the film had its U.S. run:  "Wild gypsy dancing, shadow lighting, and an excellent musical score are well used for mood creation in this weirdly fascinating film."  
Yvonne Mitchell as Lizaveta
Anton Walbrook as Hermann woos Yvonne Mitchell as Lizaveta.
As a postscript, the Tchaikovsky opera presents the original story with several deviations in the narrative to appeal to operatic audiences, who demanded more romance, and more death (!).  It does not lack for dramatics, and the music is romantic; it's still popular today.


  1. I haven't seen "Queen of Spades" (49) in many years, yet I too recall it dripping with tragedy. A movie that truly gave me goosebumps and, one scene in particular, made my eyes pop out of my head.

    Thank you for this insightful rundown on two films, the second of which I will now (well, after the Jays play Cleveland in the first game of the ALCS) hasten to YouTube to watch.

  2. It really is a fascinating story and seems to me should be included in any list of thrillers to be considered for 'October viewing!'

    I can understand you prioritizing the ALCS. Should be a good one!! My teams are out but I still enjoy the great competition happening.