All the advance indications predisposed me to like this old-school British melodrama. It’s a shadowy tale of obsession, mystery, and the supernatural set in Catherine the Great’s Russia. The leading man Anton Walbrook had just made The Red Shoes and Colonel Blimp with Powell and Pressburger, and was about to make La Ronde with Max Ophí¼ls. And ranged against him is Dame Edith Evans, in what appears to have been her first talkie, two years before her famous ‘handbag’ role in The Importance of Being Earnest. Quite a debut it is too, lurking in lace, croaking and squalling with that unique voice, quaking in her crinolines and veils like a crumbly old cake on a trolley. She was only 60, just eight years older than Walbrook, but certainly carries conviction as a relic of a generation long past.
The Queen of Spades was described by Martin Scorsese as ‘a masterpiece, one of the very best films of the 1940s’. But I regret to say I think it is more of a curio than a classic. It is not in the same league as Thorold Dickinson’s true masterpiece Gaslight (1940). No doubt times have changed, and the grimy noir tension of the earlier film suits the tastes of today better than the mannered costumery of The Queen of Spades. I found myself unable to make the imaginative leap needed to immerse myself in the story, and could only enjoy it as an uninvolving spectacle. Certainly Dickinson created a remarkably atmospheric St Petersburg in Welwyn Garden City (!), and there is plenty of semi-expressionist visual pleasure on offer, together with a typically grotesque cameo from Ealing stalwart Miles Malleson, and sundry moonlighting ballerinas thrown in for good measure.
So what’s the problem? Partly the source material - Pushkin’s story. It made a great opera for Tchaikovsky in the late 19th century, but I’m not sure there was enough to the plot to sustain a film in the mid-20th - you can see where it’s going, and the twist is not a surprising one. All hinges on the two protagonists, a gambler and an aged countess. In Pushkin’s original, it is love that provides the initial driving force for the gambler, but Dickinson seems to play down this side of the story, perhaps sensing that it declines in interest as events progress, to the point of being forgotten by the end. It is hard work to make a gambling compulsion an appealing foundation for a romantic anti-hero, and I fear that Walbrook distances us from the gambler’s character first by moody brooding and then by wild-eyed raving. He errs on the side of solipsism: the drama is too much an internal one to exert a strong emotional pull.
In the end, though, the buck has to stop with the director: the film is just not as spooky as one would like it to be.