It's comforting to think that Alexander Pushkin, had he been born a hundred years later than he was, could undoubtedly have found employment writing screenplays for Val Lewton. As it is, we'll just have to put up with all those plays, novels, poems, operas and short stories he wrote.
The Queen of Spades, based on a story by Pushkin, is a marvelously atmospheric and menacing tale of obsession and greed. It takes place in 1806 St. Petersburg. Captain Herman Suvorin (Anton Walbrook) is a poor German engineer serving in the Czarist army. Gambling has become the rage and faro is the card game of choice for all the rich, aristocratic and arrogant young officers who laugh at Suvorin. He hasn't the means to gamble and he hasn't the means to purchase advancement.
Then he hears the story of Countess Ranevskaya (Edith Evans), who, a generation earlier, is supposed to have sold her soul for "the secret of the cards"...the three cards to choose which will win a fortune at faro. Amazingly, the Countess is still living, almost a recluse, with a beautiful ward. Suvorin determines to find a way to woo the young woman as a method to gain entry into the Countess' palace and to the Countess herself. He is determined to learn from her the three cards. He does, or thinks he does, and we witness madness and death.
Says one character, "I believe all human beings are fundamentally good. I'm convinced of it. Yes, and I believe that evil is a force, a mighty force, that is abroad in the world to take possession of men's souls, if they will allow it to." Oh, Suvorin.
Now if Val Lewton had produced this we might have a cult classic on our hands. As it is, we have a movie which has been nearly forgotten. Too bad. The film might have been made with little money but it doesn't look it. Snow and slush cover the frigid St. Petersburg streets. Candles flicker and gutter. Deep shadows hide cubbyholes and doorways. There are ragged peasants and beggars, an ornate opera house and a dazzling ballroom filled with dancing aristocrats. There is the Countess' palace with it's decorated rooms, angled staircases, bare kitchens and cold servants quarters. There is the Countess' bedroom with it's secret passage and the stone steps leading to a hidden entrance. The black-and-white cinematography is excellent; everything shadowed might hold madness or a threat.
Making everything work are the two mesmerizing performances by Walbrook and Evans. With these two actors it's a pleasure just to observe Suvorin's growing obsession and to hear the tap of the Countess' cane and the slow, steady swish of her silk gown.
Anton Walbrook was one of the great actors of his time. Sometimes he'd almost teeter on the brink of mannerism, but he'd invariably deliver performances of startling quality. With his intensity, his Austrian accent and his ability to draw out a vowel for effect, it was difficult not to keep your eyes on him. At 53 he is playing 20 years younger and does so with ease. Edith Evans was 57 when she made this, her first film after years of stardom in the theater. She plays a selfish, irritable 90-year-old woman, querulous and suspicious. When Suvorin and the Countess finally meet in the Countess' bedroom, an acting student could learn much just by watching the two. Walbrook has all the lines; Evans watches and reacts. It's a toss-up as to which betters the other.
I think both Pushkin and Lewton would have enjoyed this movie.