Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Queen of Spades (1949)

St. Petersburg in the 19th Century. Captain of the Engineers Corps Herman Surovin (Anton Walbrook) is utterly dissatisfied with his station in life. Money is tight, he is looked down upon by his noble peers, and his career doesn't have a much of a chance for further improvement, for he lacks the necessary connections or (again) the money to buy his way up the chain of command. Given this state of mind, it comes as no surprise that Herman becomes obsessed when he hears the story of how young Countess Ranevskaya (Pauline Tennant) sold her soul to the devil via the Count of Saint Germain to learn "the Secret of the Cards".

As the rather ill-meaning fates will have it, a now very old and very frightened of death and what it may bring Countess Ranevskaya (Edith Evans) is still living in St. Petersburg. Herman won't have peace until he can somehow learn the Secret from her, but getting access to the very paranoid old woman won't be easy. Herman's best bet lies in slithering his way into the confidence of the Countess's long-suffering ward/slave Lizaveta Ivanova (Yvonne Mitchell), who is the perfect victim for badly faked love.

At first, Herman's plan seems to succeed, but as it goes with unpleasant plans, fate is quietly waiting to ruin them.

Thorold "Gaslight" Dickinson's British adaptation of Alexander Pushkin's story looks like a film coming from a parallel film tradition that took on as many of the visual trappings of expressionist silent movies as (for example) the noir and hard-boiled traditions, but used them in a way that feels slightly off to someone more used to the US film style of the 40s than the British one. Where the American tradition tends to the stark, Dickinson's variation of the non-naturalistic feels more lavish and softer, if that makes any sense.

There's also quite a difference in the acting styles. Sure, US acting of the 40s isn't exactly realistic looking to our Method-influenced contemporary eyes, but it is of a stylization that always seems based on quotidian human emotions, on heightening gestures and facial expressions people could relate to from their daily lives. In comparison, what I know of British movies of this period tended to something more stiffly theatrical, with gestures and emotions so over-sized it often becomes difficult to take the characters serious as human beings.

In The Queen of Spade's case, this melodramatic overloading of all gestures and speech - a bit as if a silent movie had learned to shout - is surprisingly effective, because it strengthens the artificial mood the film's visuals create. The film is not exactly dream-like as I'd use the word (the film's construction is too bitterly logical for that, and plot too tightly wound), but rather constructs its mythic St. Petersburg as a parallel universe that works on the same logic as our world does, only more so.

It's a bit difficult for me to grasp The Queen of Spades more precisely. I could call it old-fashioned even for its time, or complain about its love for melodramatics, but both critiques would be missing the point. This is the sort of film made to be old-fashioned (or in the view of its director perhaps "timeless") and melodramatic, and if one is willing to go with it, one will be rewarded with a film that is fully, admirably, of one aesthetic piece, completely following its own aesthetic and moral convictions.

The Queen of Spades is not the type of film I'm ever going to love, though. I'm temperamentally inclined to be more interested in slightly broken than in perfect things, more in questions than in answers, and more in ambiguity than in clarity, and none of these things seem to interest Dickinson much (if at all). It would, however, be churlish and dishonest for me not to respect the director for his achievement here; perfection is, or so I've heard, pretty difficult to achieve.


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