Thorold Dickinson has a decent reputation as a director of the 1940s, especially for the original version 1940 of Gaslight (which author Patrick Hamilton considered superior to George Cukor’s Hollywood remake). He made few films, but at his best he could show an expressive range that puts many of his contemporaries, and all of today’s British filmmakers, to shame.
Queen of Spades (1949) can be admired on all kinds of levels and for all kinds of reasons, but the principle ingredient and the thing most worthy of extravagant praise is the performance of Anton Walbrook at its centre.
Walbrook is always good. But sometimes he achieves a kind of greatness BEYOND EVEN HIMSELF. The slow, melancholy reminiscence in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) as he describes why he has fled Nazi Germany for England is one such moment.
His halting, agonized delivery of his final speech in The Red Shoes (1948) is another. His entire performance in Queen of Spades can be compared to these moments. The film perhaps isn’t as superb, and so the performance can’t have the same impact, but it’s an amazingly sustained piece of bravura acting. Walbrook seems to take more advantage of his foreignness than ever before – he slurs some words almost into unintelligibility, while extending others far beyond their normal duration, especially if they fall at the end of a sentence: the way he drags out the word “leffffft” has to be heard to be believed. It has the effect of making his narration (his character reads a book which provides vital back-story to the film’s action) seem curiously dreamlike and incantatory – Walbrook reads aloud a book that his character is reading silently. It’s strange and wondrous and hypnotic.
With an actor like Walbrook – one may as well say, “With Walbrook”, since nobody ever could be like him – you get a combination of total self-belief and authenticity, of the kind associated with but not exclusive to the method school of acting – and also a heightened, theatrical quality which is not of this world, gloriously artificial and DESIGNED. In some impossible way these opposing qualities are superimposed one on top of the other, and co-exist in his persona onscreen at all times.
The rest of the players are very good, but only Dame Edith Evans, in her first film role, can actually compete with Walbrook on his home turf, the field of the bizarre. Swathed, almost mummified, in heavy crinoline, her strangulated voice, regal manner and unique appearance – a sort of embalmed ostrich – make for an unforgettable performance.
The only time the film puts a foot wrong is in the insertion of a moral into the story. Pushkin’s original has a straightforward cautionary tale structure: the character does some things which we are meant to understand are bad, and he gets a horrific punishment at the end. We don’t need a pat homily on how he should have lived his life, and we especially don’t need to be reminded of it on the soundtrack during the magnificently orchestrated climax. But screenwriters Rodney Ackland and Arthur Boys’ other additions to the story are generally very effective. Drawing a little from Dostoevsky, they flesh out the age of the gambling mania. Inserting a love story for the girl Walbrook tries to seduce, they allow themselves a rather moving happy ending for the supporting cast (Walbrook is beyond such redemption) which was probably a box office necessity but is deftly done. The result is that the short story is fleshed out without feeling padded.
Jack Clayton, a young associate producer on the film, enthused to a friend, “one reel of it is as good as anything you could ever see,” and he’s probably right, although there are several reels which could be contenders for this position. Director Thorold Dickinson had worked as both writer and editor, and had a masterful ability to unify the separate elements of photography, sound, music, performance and design. This unified effect turns the work of various skilled departments and talents into a harmonious whole, where everything is working towards a single objective. It’s all the more impressive when you realise he took over the faltering project from its original director, scenarist Rodney Ackland, only three days before the start of filming. Ackland must be given some credit for setting things in motion and putting together such great talents before and behind the camera, but Dickinson pulled off an incredible feat by taking over and steering the project to such a successful conclusion. Having already worked, very successfully, with Anton Walbrook on the British version of Gaslight (1940), Dickinson no doubt knew how to encourage the mercurial actor into giving such a memorable and strange performance. It’s distressing that he made so few films, despite living a long and active life – in later years, he continued to contribute to the film and art world
as an influential teacher.
William Kellner’s sets (the movie’s Russia is wholly a stage-bound creation) and Oliver Messel’s costumes deserve special mention, for creating a foreign and fabulous world on the sound stage, beautifully captured and enhanced by Otto Heller’s shadowy and atmospheric cinematography. Heller, a Czech, was one of the many refugees from Europe whose influx boosted and inspired the British film industry in the 1940s and beyond – a lesson to those who fear and despise the asylum seekers of today. Just mentioning Heller’s work on The Ladykillers (1955), Victim (1961), and The Ipcress File (1965) should give some idea of his creativity, versatility, and incomparable contribution to British cinema.
Deplorably, Queen of Spades is unavailable in British stores, but it can be ordered on a Region-free DVD from Kino in America. It is recommended to all fans of the fantastical strain that runs, often unacknowledged, through the greatest British cinema.
David Cairns Shadowplay film blog