Thorold Dickinson is not a name that is often on cineaste’s tongues, but the Bristolian has a secure place in British film history. He directed the first (and some say superior) version of Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight. The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, his 1939 thriller, invariably gets a mention when discussion turns to football on film. But his greatest work must surely be this endlessly spooky, impressively dank take on a Faustian story by Alexander Pushkin. Dickinson was brought on to the project with a few days’ notice and fashioned into it a singular exercise in macabre. This 1949 film has few obvious successors or predecessors.
The great Anton Walbrook, so memorable from the works of Michael Powell, plays Captain Herman Suvorin, a Russian officer in St Petersburg who happens upon an elderly lady (Dame Edith Evans, making her film debut in her early 60s) with a diabolical method for winning at cards. The impressively amoral protagonist plots to get at the countess by seducing her young ward (Yvonne Mitchell). As such stories will, the film creaks its way inevitably towards moral calamity.
Otto Heller, who shot such attractive British films as The Ladykillers and Victim, excels himself with a glistening aesthetic that is forever finding doubles in mirrors and ghosts in shadowed windows. A score by the great Georges Auric nags and needles, but Dickinson is also at home to eerie silences. Walbrook does something bleaker and frostier with his chiselled good looks than he later managed for Powell in The Red Shoes.
The film went on to have a troubled history. It was considered lost for many years before being rediscovered, rehabilitated and endorsed by no less a connoisseur than Martin Scorsese. “This stunning film is one of the few true classics of supernatural cinema,” the director said on its re-release before Christmas of 2009. It returns at a time of the year when ghost stories are particularly cherished. It deserves to become a regular seasonal indulgence.
The Queen of Spades is on limited release from Friday, December 23rd