A film about the perils of gambling and on the advisability of relying on the advice of magical old women who may or may not owe you a favour, The Queen of Spades has something of the grim desperation of The Student of Prague and feels very much like Edgar Allen Poe. It also has a top notch performance from a young Ivan Mozzhukhin, years before he fled to achieve great things in France and at the height of his fame in Tsarist Russia mere months before the first revolution of 1917…
There’s some advanced technique from director Yakov Protazanov not just with his Bauer-esque dolly shot as Mozzhukhin’s character enters a casino but also in his threading of the narrative between the here and then. This is cleverly done as it brings with it the shock of when both or shockingly brought together as one.
|The camera tracks Hermann's steps|
Based on the 1834 Alexander Pushkin short story which had already been turned into an opera by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, the film is a sustained exercise in unsettling the viewer: from Mozzhukhin’s constant state of agitation to repeated and well-timed encounters with creatures of the night…
It starts off with Russian officers playing cards at Captain Narumov’s house amongst the revelry one man looks on but never plays - Hermann (Mozzhukhin) who is “…not in a position to waste the essential in the hope of acquiring the superfluous…” his interest betrays him somewhat…
|Hermann listens intently to Narumov's tale|
Narumov toasts their Countess – his Grandmother - and admits he cannot understand why she doesn’t play like she used to…. He begins to talk of 60 years’ before when she had Paris at her feet and the scene shifts to the young woman (Tamara Duvan) as she wows all around her.
But gambles can be lost as well as won and one night she loses heavily to the Duc d’Orleans. Returning home she orders her husband (Pavel Pavlov) to pay her debt but he angrily refuses. The Countess turns to the altogether taller, more dashing and far more shifty - Count St. Germain (Nikolai Panov) who then “…revealed to her a secret for which each of us would pay dearly…”
|The Countess at play|
So it is that at Versailles, the Countess chooses three cards which all came up trumps and she cleared her debts… with endless gratitude to her mystical advisor.
Protazanov parallel runs his narrative - rather than the more conventional “dip in and return”, so we see the original story unfold and how it impacts Hermann in particular.
The story then shifts to reveal Hermann’s subsequent encounter with the Countess in St Petersburg. He feels drawn to her house (by her three card trick?) and there he meets and falls in love with her ward Lizaveta (Vera Orlova) who was soon the happy recipient of his daily correspondence (ah, the days before Snap Chat…) awaiting by her window for his daily appearance. Is this genuine or just a way in?
|Lizaveta waiting for the man...|
The Countess thinks back to her Paris days locked alone in her insomnia… and now we have a flashback from one character which suddenly links to a story told by a second: this is clever narrative and a genuinely surprise… St Germain and Hermann clearly have something in common.
|Same door, same woman, 60 years apart...|
At first he pleads then he threatens unfortunately the shock is too much and he returns to Lizaveta saying he has killed her mistress… Yet, as he variously mourns his lost opportunity, his callous disregard for human life and possibly the loss of his love, the ghost of the old lady returns – against her will… to reveal her secret…
|The ghost of a chance...|
Protazanov uses a restricted narrative in which almost nothing happens or is retold without Hermann being present. The story is clearly a subjective one from the young officer’s point of view and even the flashbacks are arguably his interpretation of events. This is the most personal type of horror story.
|Hermann makes his play|
This is a richly textured film and one which rewards a re-watch (possibly as some bits are missing!). There’s an unusual focus on the psychological as much as the supernatural and Ivan Mozzhukhin is the man for this occasion. As Bryony Dixon recounts in her 100 Silent Movies, the Russian even resembled Pushkin’s description of his character whilst his expressiveness – which would stand out amongst the rest even without the eye-liner – means that the watcher is drawn into what is ultimately his character’s own, lonely story.
|The shadow of a doubt|
The cinematography from Yevgeni Slavinsky is also worthy of mention, with some striking well-lit shots that pre-figure expressionism: there is one sequence in which Hermann is literally overwhelmed by the shadow of a doubt…
The Queen of Spades is available on DVD as part of Milestone Films Early Russian Cinema Volume 8 - you can get it direct from their shop (I'm collecting the set). Surely this is overdue a screening in the UK?