The Queen of Spades review – thrillingly addictive tale of gambling and sin

The Queen of Spades review – thrillingly addictive tale of gambling and sin

 

Thorold Dickinson’s 1949 Pushkin adaptation is a glorious melodrama about an ambitious Russian military officer and a countess who sold her soul to the devil in exchange for the secrets of a card game

Staring into the abyss … Anton Walbrook as Captain Suvorin in The Queen of Spades.
Staring into the abyss … Anton Walbrook as Captain Suvorin in The Queen of Spades. Photograph: Abpc/Studiocanal/Allstar

Ambition, sin and horror are the keynotes of Thorold Dickinson’s brilliant 1949 melodrama based on the story by Pushkin. The density of visual detail and incident on screen is superb and the swirling, delirious onrush of storytelling is addictive. This is surely one of the great gambling movies, and one that makes the theological connection explicit: Pascal recommended that you have nothing to lose by betting on God’s existence, but the worldly sinner gambles that the last judgement does not exist and that pleasure and gratification in this life are everything. Dickinson’s control of the screen is a joy, something to be compared to Max Ophüls: I wonder how he might have directed The Earrings of Madame De… or how he might have adapted Dostoevsky’s The Gambler or Tolstoy’s How Much Land Does a Man Need?

Anton Walbrook gives a glorious, gamey performance as Suvorin, a Russian military officer in St Petersburg. A humble captain intensely aware of his lack of money, Suvorin is obsessed, like much of fashionable Russia of the time, with France’s low-born leader Bonaparte, who rose to the top with pure audacity and courage. Walbrook appears without the raffish moustache that he had for his famous performances in Powell/Pressburger movies such as The Red Shoes and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and his face is somehow naked without it, exposed and desperate. But his Austrian accent makes a certain sort of sense: in Pushkin’s original story, his character was an ethnic German.

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