Tuesday, 16 February 2010

The Queen of Spades (1949)

Adapted from a short story by Alexander Pushkin, "The Queen of Spades" tells a story of obsession with a magic sequence of cards that is unbeatable. On one side, there is a poor army engineer that wants it, on the other an elderly countess that he suspects knows the secret. The engineer is played by Anton Walbrook, who I hardly recognised without a moustache and with a wig, while Edith Evans is the countess, aged beyond the actress' years.

A slightly forgotten film, I had heard much praised about it. After watching it I wasn't entirely convinced it deserved as much as it is showered with. Like the short story that it adapts, the film doesn't come fully to live until the leads face each other. There is a good "flashback" (there is no guarantee they are the actual events as Walbrook reads them from a book) that tells of how the countess may have come in possession of the secret of the cards, but nothing ever sparkles until the confrontation between the two characters in a fantastic scene, incredibly well written, directed and acted - note how Edith Evans never utters a word, how you can't be entirely sure of what she's thing but how you still side with her. Before that she indulges a bit in grand dame-isms but nothing too serious. Anton Walbrook didn't always convinced me, but I can't entirely put my finger in it. Still, his performance is good, and improves as the film progresses.

After the confrontation, three sequences in succession take you into a much darker film, which is really what is all about. So far it was filler. In the first, we are revealed the secret. This is the proof, should you need one, that cinema is also experienced through sound. We never see anything, but we hear plenty. After this, obsession becomes the dominant chord and the ending is inevitable, but oh so good.

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