The Queen of Spades (Thorold Dickinson / United Kingdom, 1949):

Thorold Dickinson has the Tchaikovsky opera in mind, I think, rather than the Pushkin novel, hence Anton Walbrook's icy-hot turmoil out of The Red Shoes in black and white. Largely stripped of his Gaslight luxury, the director confronts the challenge of recreating 1815 St. Petersburg at Ealing Studios, and triumphs with a high-angled shot of a court covered with fake snow and the shivers of obsession underneath Russian uniforms. If Dostoyevsky's gambler deep down yearns to lose at the roulette, Pushkin's won't touch the faro deck until he's sure he'll win -- sneering at the privileged officers winning and losing fortunes, Walbrook broods in the writhing gypsy den, coldly bedeviled. "Take life as it comes," he's advised. "I'd rather take it by the throat!" When a tome about soul-selling points him toward the solution to his gambling woes, vodka and smoke give way to horror-movie mist circa '30s Universal, a skull-adorned gate opens to reveal a mystical laboratory where spirits are clay figurines kept under glass bells. The ruined Countess, he reads, acquired the secret for winning through devilish pacts and is now an aged bat (Edith Evans), a tempest under heavy gowns and tottering wigs. Getting to the old noblewoman's treasure means using the feelings of her sensitive young ward (Yvonne Mitchell); the heel pens a love letter, a web is readily superimposed onto the ingénue's seduced visage. The scheme is exposed in a remarkable long-take charting the overlapping breakdowns of Walbrook's leonine cad and Mitchell's manipulated lass, Evans's staring eyes figure in the aftermath, setting the stage for the mocking madness of the climax. Otto Heller's chiaroscuro cinematography and Oliver Messel's Gothic designs play vital roles in Dickinson's thorough demolition of period genteelness for the horror in it, played like a fervid balalaika or perhaps like one of Cocteau's theorems about the fatal dimension of time. What Dickinson takes from Letter From an Unknown Woman, Ophüls returns in Earrings of Madame de... With Ronald Howard. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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