The year was 1806 and the popular craze among Russian officers was to play a game of cards called Faro, not unlike snap, only with far higher stakes. But they could afford such extravagance, being rich and from wealthy families; that was not something a Captain of the Engineers like Herman Suvorin (Anton Walbrook) could manage, leaving him relegated to watching the games and the money exchanged from the sidelines. He has been saving his cash, however, for an opportunity: how about a special skill for winning at cards? A skill not of this world?
Until Martin Scorsese started championing The Queen of Spades it was a pretty obscure footnote in British forties costume cinema, able to be caught on its occasional appearances on television but in the main a well-kept secret for those who had seen it and been impressed with the oppressive atmosphere and genuinely spooky twists to the plot. It was drawn from an Alexander Pushkin story, one of his best for those who know about such things, so director Thorold Dickinson went all out to recreate the world the writer had evoked, with a small army of well-deployed technicians and artists at his disposal.
Dickinson had been brought in at the last minute at the request of star Walbrook, who had been directed to great effect and many plaudits by him in their earlier movie Gaslight (not to be confused with the Hollywood version). The results were magical, as while for some it took a little too much time in getting to the point, by the stage all was revealed your patience would have been well and truly paid off. Well, sort of revealed, as we never quite find out whether Suvorin is actually seeing the supernatural effects of the curse, or whether he has been driven quite mad by the injustice he has suffered by his status in society.
Part of what makes this so absorbing is that while Suvorin is not a particularly sympathetic character in light of what he gets up to to secure his fortune, we can sense that palpable guilt he labours under, such is the strength of style and Walbrook's performance, which starts subdued but threatening then goes all out crazy, with the star staying the right side of hammy to be appreciated. Suvorin's plan is to insinuate his way into the life of the elderly Countess Ranevskaya (Edith Evans), who lives with her paid companion Lizaveta (Yvonne Mitchell) and supposedly harbours the secret of winning at cards thanks to a meeting with the Count St Germain in her past, the historical figure of the dark arts.
What he proceeds to do is seduce Lizaveta through some hearfelt love letters designed to appeal to her softer nature, being a spinster who fears being left on the shelf if the Countess continues to rule over her life with an iron grip, when she needs the money. This moves gradually towards some truly creepy, old time movie disquiet as Suvorin's schemes work only too well, and he has blood on his hands of a kind that will only be avenged not by legal means, but by the pursuit from beyond the grave. Filled with beautifuly realised sets, photography and costuming, The Queen of Spades was a feast for the eyes, and precisely the type of ghost story that went perfectly with those long winter nights. The scenes where the uncanny intrudes onto the chilly Russian lifestyle of the early nineteenth century were wonderfuly created, and no better match could have been made; reminiscent of David Lean's Dickens adaptations in their excellence and aptness, this deserved its cult classic prestige. Music by Georges Auric.