The Countess Ranevskaya in her “high powdered wig” rumoured to be over a hundred years old, a witch who “sold her soul to the devil” in order to obtain great riches, she has become of fascination to Captain Herman Suvorin, stationed in St Petersburg and frustrated by what he sees as favouritism which prevents him from gaining further promotion, an officer of the engineers who is neither wealthy nor well-connected.
Sending letters to Lizavetta Ivanova, orphaned ward of the Countess, Suvorin seeks to woo her but it is only to gain access to the Countess, to accost her to divulge the truths she learned which are mysteriously assigned to “Countess R***” in The Strange Secrets of the Count de Saint Germain; expiring from the shock of the intrusion into her chambers, Suvorin is not dissuaded, a later chapter in the same book entitled The Dead Will Give Up Their Secrets convincing him that his cause is not yet lost.
Based on Alexander Pushkin’s short story of supernatural suspense and cruel fate Пиковая дама (Pikovaya dama) published in 1834, director Thorold Dickinson’s adaptation of The Queen of Spades was the sixth version of the text across stage and cinema, including an opera by Tchaikovsky and several silent films, and though successful when released in 1949, nominated for the BAFTA for Best British Film and entered at Cannes, it was for many years considered a “lost” film until a print, fortunately complete and in good condition, was discovered.
This original negative restored and scanned at 4K and now released as part of StudioCanal’s Vintage Classics range, The Queen of Spades is entrancing, cinematographer Otto Heller capturing the sets and costumes of designer Oliver Messel which embody the splendour and glory of Russia at the turn of the nineteenth century, belying the difficulties of the modest post-war production which suffered problems securing financing and was shot next to a factory and a railway line where noise constantly intruded.
A star of the stage who returned to the screen after an absence of three decades, Dame Edith Evans is the eccentric Countess Ranevskaya, dressed in ringlets and silk bows like some doll defying death and decay, while Nineteen Eighty-Four‘s Yvonne Mitchell is Lizaveta, a caged bird who seeks to escape, and The Red Shoes‘ Anton Walbrook is the devious narcissist Suvorin, with support from Night of the Demon‘s eternally eccentric Athene Seyler as Princess Ivashin and even the Black Guardian himself, Valentine Dyall, lurking uncredited as the sinister envoy of the Count de Saint Germain.
A visual spectacle from gambling dens and gypsy dances to snowbound palaces and their secret passages to formal balls and the haunting funeral of the Countess, The Queen of Spades is a symphony of light and shadow, of gowns, furs and veils and assignations and betrayals, not least by the cards themselves, preserved immaculately in the new restoration supported by a plethora of new and archive material including interviews with Dickinson from 1951 and 1968 and an introduction from Martin Scorsese.