The name of Thorold Dickinson is not well-known today, but it should be. As a director, his masterpiece is The Queen of Spades (1949), but he also directed, among other things, the British version of Gaslight (1940), Audrey Hepburn’s film debut in Secret People (1952), and the first feature film produced in Israel, Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer (1955). Dickinson quit directing in his early 50s to do other work, including helping to found the Film Department at the Slade School of Fine Arts at University College London, where he became Britain’s first Professor of Film Studies, and serving as Chief of Film Services for the United Nations Department of Public Information.
I first came across The Queen of Spades on a dual disc that paired it with another neglected British masterpiece, Dead of Night, The image and sound quality weren’t great on that particular disc, but still the merit of both films was still obvious. Happily, both Dead of Night and The Queen of Spades have been restored and are now readily available from Kino Lorber. And both are well worth your time—if you don’t believe me, just ask Martin Scorsese.
Anton Walbrook plays Herman Suvorin, a Russian military engineer from a modest background. He hangs out with the other officers in gambling dens, but never takes part himself because he can’t afford it. The other officers speculate about systems to win at cards, and one mentions an elderly countess (Dame Edith Evans) who is reported to have sold her soul in exchange for “the secret of the three cards”— a sure system for winning . Thus is the seed of Suvorin’s downfall planted in his mind—if only he could win big and escape the constraints of his relative lack of wealth, all would be well. Anyone who has chafed at the need to get by with just enough, when those around flaunt their much greater wealth, can sympathize with Suvorin’s desire to “grab life by the collar and make it give me what I want,” even if you don’t endorse his methods.
The backstory is presented efficiently: Suvorin reads about the countess as her story is played out on the screen with the use of some delightfully old-fashioned cinematic techniques. Back in the present day, Suvorin feigns interest in the countess’ ward Lizaveta (Yvonne Mitchell), in order to gain access to the house and, of course, the countess. Lizaveta is something of a bird in a gilded cage, making her a ready victim for Suvorin’s deception. His obsession with the secret of the three cards grows into a madness, until there is nothing he wouldn’t do to get what he wants.
Despite being a period piece set in the early 1800s, based on a short story by Alexander Pushkin, The Queen of Spades is anything but fusty. Dickinson infuses every scene with drama, and Otto Heller’s cinematography and William Kellner’s art direction ensure that the frame is always packed with visual interest. The use of sound is also particularly good—not only the score by Georges Auric, but also the use of ambient sound to direct your attention. On the down side, this film incorporates some ethnic stereotypes that would not be included today, but that’s the case with many older movies.
That The Queen of Spades works so well is particularly remarkable given the circumstances under which Dickinson became involved in the project—as a replacement director, brought in on just a few days’ notice, on a production in which both female leads were making their film debuts. Dickinson decided to go for broke, and the result is a very un-British-feeling production, full of big ideas and grand feelings along with the psychological intrigue and hint of the supernatural that give this film a special edge. | Sarah Boslaugh
The Queen of Spades is distributed on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD by Kino Lorber. It comes with a generous package of extras, including an audio commentary track by film critic Nick Pinkerton, an introduction by Martin Scorsese, an analysis by film critic Philip Horne, an audio-only interview and introduction by Thorold Dickinson, and the film’s trailer.