July 29, 2023

That ‘70s Sci-fi TV Movie #5: The People

Home video cover art - The People (1972)
Now Playing:
The People (1972)

Pros: Gentle, cerebral sci-fi that subverts TV movie expectations
Cons: Some character interactions and motivations seem implausible and forced

This is the final entry in a series inspired by a challenge from Barry at Cinematic Catharsis. See the end of this post for more details and my challenge to a new set of bloggers.

A long, long time ago, somewhere between the late Pleistocene era and the invention of the smartphone, I lived practically a stone’s throw from Amish country.

The city I lived and worked in is no tourist destination, but to the south, the “simple” life of the Amish attracts people from far and wide during the summer months. (Of course, it’s anything but simple to forsake modern amenities, grow your own food, be prepared to build or fix almost anything, and maintain strong bonds with family and neighbors, but I digress.)

A trip to Amish country allows us 21st century netizens a break from our ubiquitous screens to taste real food made from scratch, admire crafts and furniture skillfully fashioned by hand, and marvel at the stately unhurriedness of travel by horse and buggy.

It’s the closest thing to actual time travel we have, made all the more intriguing because, unlike such historic destinations as colonial Williamsburg or Mystic Seaport, the locals are the real deal, not paid reenactors who shed their costumes at the end of the day, pop open a canned cocktail and fire up the smart TV to binge Ted Lasso episodes.

But being the real deal (and stubbornly wanting to remain that way), the Amish seem to have achieved a good balancing act, allowing just enough of a sampling of their way of life to satisfy the tourists without being sucked into the voracious maw of technocapitalism.

The People in the 1972 TV movie of the same name look like the Amish and act (to an extent) like the Amish, but they are decidedly not Amish. They live in a secluded valley in the middle of nowhere (looking very much like rural California), and allow only a select few outsiders into their community. These people don’t do tourism.

Screenshot - group portrait of The People (1972)
"Okay everybody, smile for the camera!"
"We ARE smiling."

One of those outsiders is Melodye Anderson (Kim Darby), a young, emotionally vulnerable school teacher who has dumped her boyfriend and agreed to move to the mysterious community to teach. Melodye herself is something of a voluntary outcast, as she eventually reveals that she decided to make the move to “find herself” amidst the “peace and quiet.”

She finds something alright, but at least initially, it’s not herself. Unsurprisingly, the People are taciturn and the children suppressed. There is a one-room schoolhouse, a former church, that is clean and well cared for, and appears to be the center point of the community.

Melodye’s speech to the assembled townspeople about her philosophy of allowing students the freedom to “explore the world around them in order to discover their full potential” predictably goes over like a lead balloon. She visibly wilts under the withering stares of the parents. The People don’t go in for that New Agey touchy-feely stuff, or music, singing or dancing for that matter. A young town leader, Valency (Diane Varsi) gently tells the naive schoolteacher that she needs to “listen deeply” rather than going off half-cocked, but nonetheless, Melodye dives right in with her modern, liberal approach.

When she has her students introduce themselves by saying what sort of animal they’d like to be, one of them protests that “we’re not supposed to pretend.” Worse still, the youngsters shuffle their feet everywhere they go, as if lifting them for a moment will result in something horrible.

Melodye begins to get it that she’s not in Kansas anymore when one of the girls, Bethie (Johanna Baer), inexplicably starts writhing on the ground, as if her arm is trapped under an invisible weight. Another outsider, Dr. Curtis (William Shatner) is called in, but he is out of his depth, finding no cause for her pain. Valency speaks cryptically of Bethie needing to be “sorted.” She tells the doctor that Bethie’s only chance is to find and treat another local, a boy named Bram, whom they soon discover trapped underneath a tractor that has rolled over. Hmmmmm…

Screenshot - A grumpy elder ruler of The People (1972)
The People are ruled by the oldest and grumpiest members of the community.

This isn’t the only oddity Dr. Curtis has noticed in his time spent among the People. He’s curious that no one in town ever seems to get sick, and jokes that if he didn’t also double as a veterinarian, he’d have nothing to do. When Melodye asks him if he’s not just a little unnerved by the locals, he responds that “I’ve learned to respect these people, even when I didn’t have the foggiest idea what they were doing, or why.”

Melodye’s tenure as the town’s school teacher is hanging by a thread, but her nurturing heart has overridden her sense of self-preservation. She senses an untamed spirit in one of the boys, Francher (Chris Valentine), and tries to get him to open up by gifting him a harmonica and quoting Henry David Thoreau about stepping to the beat of a different drummer (helloooo Melodye, are you trying to get fired?).

Little does she know that her gift and encouraging words will lift up Francher, literally as well as figuratively, and eventually uncover the town’s fantastic secret.

At first glance, The People appears to be a suspense thriller with sci-fi overtones. All the elements are there: a vulnerable stranger in a strange land; enigmatic locals with dark secrets to hide, perhaps at all costs; and the gradual unraveling of those secrets.

But despite her stubborn forays into New Age schooling in a decidedly old school community, Melodye is never in any danger from the town elders or anything else. Instead, The People is a flawed, yet affecting study of clashing cultures and the age-old tension between community obligations and the urge to be yourself.

Melodye starts out hesitant and unsure of herself, but as she gets to know the children better, her determination grows to upend the seemingly senseless rules that keep the children from being all that they can be (and this being sci-fi, what they can be is eye-opening).

In contrast, the other outsider, Dr. Curtis is genial and bright, but also ineffectual in the face of an extraordinary situation his science can’t account for. This is not the hard-charging Captain Kirk we’re used to -- it’s Melodye who has all the agency, and she is the one wantonly violating the Prime Directive as the Doc mostly stands around passively observing (although he does get a chance toward the end to exercise his surgical chops).

Screenshot - Kim Darby and William Shatner in The People (1972)
Captain Kirk advises Melodye on the hazards of violating the Prime Directive.


If there’s a singular flaw in The People, it’s the reactions of the elders to this petite bull in their china shop. Melodye’s actions not only awaken something that can potentially put them all in grave danger, but eventually she is indirectly responsible for a serious injury to one of the children. The locals’ hesitancy in doing anything about her meddling, and a too-abrupt resolution featuring a kumbaya moment of reconciliation seems forced and implausible.

But the film also has its inspired moments, not the least of which is the way in which Melodye finally discovers the People’s secret past. Another concern of the elders is that the children stay grounded in the present, and not try to remember the time before the founding of their little community. Melodye, wanting to throw a monkey wrench into that suppressive business, stimulates the children’s memories by having them draw. The reveal of the People’s backstory through the kids’ art is clever and poignant.

Screenshot - The children's art projects in The People (1972)
"That's a beautiful picture Bethie, but the assignment was to draw a horse."

Towards the end of the film, the idealistic teacher, having inadvertently (?) exposed the People’s secrets to a potentially hostile outer world, glumly admits to Doc Curtis that she feels more of an outsider than ever. When he points out that she can help them share their wisdom and knowledge with humanity, she counters, “And what do you think the outside world will do with that? Probably turn them into a tourist attraction… or maybe they’ll massacre them all this time out of fear and jealousy.”

I can picture a fitting epilogue: The People fire Melodye and bring in Amish consultants to help them figure out how to distract the outsiders with tourism while keeping their real lives private.

Kim Darby, who made a career out of vulnerable, girl-next-door roles, guest starred on a number of hit ‘60s TV shows until vaulting to fame as the preternaturally stubborn Mattie opposite John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn in the original True Grit (1969).

She made a string of less successful feature films after True Grit, and by 1972 she was back to guesting on TV. In 1973 she played the paranoid lead to perfection in what some consider the preeminent ‘70s made-for-TV horror film, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.

In 1972, William Shatner was still relatively fresh from command of the starship Enterprise, but unfortunately the obvious toupee for which he has been ribbed unmercifully was on full display. By the mid-70s he had made several TV movies which are still remembered fondly, including Go Ask Alice (1973), The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973; see my review here), and Pray for the Wildcats (1974; with Andy Griffith, Robert Reed and Marjoe Gortner). Star Trek fans will fondly remember the first time Shatner and Darby teamed up, in the original series episode “Miri” (1966).

The People was adapted from a popular series of stories by Zenna Henderson. The TV movie, which came out the same year as The Godfather, was executive produced by Francis Ford Coppola under the auspices of Coppola’s American Zoetrope studios. Zoetrope was founded in 1969 and was involved with, among other things, George Lucas’ first feature film THX 1138 and films by international superstars Jean-Luc Godard and Akira Kurosawa. Between The Godfather and The People, it’s hard to imagine two more different films.

Screenshot - Kim Darby's look of amazement in The People (1972)
Kim wonders how she ended up in a low-budget TV movie so soon after
her breakout role in True Grit.

Where to find it: Streaming 1 | Streaming 2

Passing the baton in the movie blogger challenge

As I mentioned in the first entry in this series back in January, this was the result of a challenge from Barry at Cinematic Catharsis to review my Top Five underrated/overlooked ‘70s sci-fi TV movies. After all this time, I need to pass on the baton to the next group of bloggers. (Note to my fellow bloggers: although I turned Barry’s challenge into a 5 part series, if you choose to take up the new challenge, please DO NOT feel obligated to follow that lead -- one post will suffice very nicely!)

Dustin from Horror and Sons: Favorite underrated ‘80s horror movies; or Favorite episodes from horror anthologies or TV shows

Mike from Mike’s Movie Room: Favorite Universal horror movies not featuring Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf man or the Mummy; or Favorite moments from Universal horror movies

Marianne from Make Mine Film Noir: Favorite noirs set somewhere other than the United States; or Favorite moments from classic noir

July 13, 2023

Russian Rued Bet: The Queen of Spades

Poster - The Queen of Spades (1949)
Now Playing:
The Queen of Spades (1949)

Pros: Atmospheric sets, costumes, cinematography and direction; Edith Evans is perfect as the dour, fussy old Countess
Cons: The second act lags as a love triangle plays out; some performances approach theatrical hamminess

I'm very happy to be participating for the fourth straight year in The Classic Literature on Film Blogathon hosted by Paul at Silver Screen Classics. Please visit Paul's site for many more intriguing posts on film adaptations of classic works.

Card playing is one of those mundane activities we take for granted, but its origins, obscured by the mists of time, are full of intrigue and mystery. According to a very interesting article in The Atlantic, scholars variously pin down the beginnings to a game of “paper tiles” invented during China’s Tang dynasty, the import of “Saracen’s Game” from the Middle East to medieval Europe, or the emergence of card-based fortune telling in India. [Adrienne Bernhard, “The Lost Origins of Playing-card Symbols,” The Atlantic, Aug. 27, 2017]

Like chess, the card deck reflects the social hierarchy of the society in which it was developed. Some historians suggest that the suits represent the four classes of medieval society: cups and chalices (modern hearts) correspond to the clergy, swords (spades) to the military, coins (diamonds) the merchant class, and batons (clubs) represent the rest of us peasants.

But unlike chess, where the queen has long been the most powerful piece on the board, playing card queens have had an up and down history. At one point the Spanish replaced them with mounted knights (caballeros), and the Germans saw fit to exclude the women in favor of such macho representations as upper man (obermann) and lower man (untermann). On the other hand, in Britain, playing card queens trumped kings during those periods when an actual queen was sitting on the throne. [Ibid.]

Among her regal cohorts, the queen of spades has distinguished herself as the most powerful, and at times, the most ominous female in the deck. In cartomancy (for the uninitiated, fortune telling using playing cards), the queen of spades represents intelligence, logic, pragmatism, and planning for the future. But she has a dark side too -- she can quickly ruin a hand of Hearts or Crazy Eights for unlucky players.

In The Queen of Spades, she is true to her reputation and makes a brief but key appearance that has monumental consequences for the protagonist.

The 1949 film is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the story written by the esteemed Russian poet, playwright and novelist Alexander Pushkin in 1833. Pushkin’s tale, with its classic themes of greed and obsession tinged with the supernatural, resonated with Russian and European readers and became the inspiration for a number of operas, and eventually, films and radio plays (the 1949 version is the only British adaptation).

Wall art - Pushkin on his horse; inspired by the story (V. Visu)
Pushkin and his horse - wall art inspired by the story

Herman Suvorin (Anton Walbrook) is a Captain in the army engineers stationed in St. Petersburg in the early 1800s. Something of a sullen odd duck, he spends his nights watching his fellow officers drunkenly wager large sums at cards. When challenged about never playing himself, Suvorin demurs that he doesn’t have the money to gamble (although we learn a little later that he’s been regularly saving a substantial portion of his pay and has a significant nest egg).

Suvorin is very cognizant of his fellow junior officers’ wealth and aristocratic backgrounds, and embarrassed by his own humble roots. One night as the card game is breaking up, he overhears his cohorts talking about the legend of the elderly Countess Ranevskaya (Edith Evans), who as a young woman was rumored to have sold her soul for the secret of winning at cards, and had amassed a fortune.

A short while later Suvorin is browsing at a bookshop, and stumbles upon a rare book, “The Strange Secrets of the Count de Saint Germain,” with an intriguing subtitle, “People who sold their souls for wealth, power or influence.” Thumbing through it, he happens upon Chapter 4, “The Secret of the Cards,” which seems to confirm the rumor, telling of a Countess R***, who, as a young married woman had lost a significant amount of money in an illicit affair, and in desperation had turned to the mysterious Saint Germain to learn the occult secret and win the money back.

Now obsessed with winning his own fortune and the respect he's been denied, Suvorin cooks up a plan to worm his way into the elderly Countess’ residence and get her to divulge the secret. Stationing himself outside the Countess’ mansion, he catches sight of the Countess’ young, single lady-in-waiting, Lizaveta (Yvonne Mitchell), who spends a lot of time staring forlornly out the window, longing to be free of her dour, unappreciative mistress.

Hoping that she can smuggle him in to see the Countess, Suvorin composes love letters to Lizaveta with the unwitting aid of his friend Andrei (Ronald Howard), who himself is falling in love with the beautiful, lonely girl.

Screenshot - Anton Walbrook and Ronald Howard in The Queen of Spades (1949)
The two rivals for Lizaveta's affections square off in Suvorin's apartment.

Suvorin’s stream of letters, and his ultimatum that he will die if he can’t see Lizaveta, finally break down her resistance. When Andrei discovers that the letters Suvorin has been composing are to Lizaveta, he figures out what the scheming Captain is up to and tries to warn the vulnerable girl about him, to no avail.

Suvorin finally gains access to the Countess, but the interview goes badly -- very badly -- and Lizaveta rejects him in disgust. He seems to be a dead odd duck, until a ghostly visitation gives him renewed hope. He decides to wager his savings on a high stakes game of Faro after all. What could possibly go wrong?

I’ve been an avid fan of classic ghost stories for as long as I can remember. And yet, I only just encountered Pushkin’s wonderful Gothic story a year or so ago in an anthology. The character of the old Countess was inspired by a real-life Russian noblewoman, Natalya Petrovna, who was a lady-in-waiting to emperors and a socialite of the highest order. And like Pushkin’s Countess, in her youth she was an enormously successful gambler, supposedly due to the mentorship of -- wait for it -- the Count of Saint Germain.

Readers of Pushkin’s time would have been very familiar with Saint Germain. Hobnobbing with 18th century European high society under a number of different aliases and titles, Saint Germain was a philosopher, mystic and patron of the arts who claimed to be the 500 year old son of Transylvanian royalty (Holy shades of Dracula Batman!). Saint Germain’s unseen presence adds to the story’s and film’s atmosphere of mounting dread.

The 1949 film pulls out all the stops in capturing the darkness and decadence of early 19th century St. Petersburg. Art director William Kellner oversaw the meticulous (and expensive) recreation of the former Russian capital on the sound stages of Welwyn Studio in the UK.

Screenshot - Gypsy dance sequence in The Queen of Spades (1949)
An extended gypsy dance number adds to the atmosphere.

Cinematographer Otto Heller’s camera prowls around the dimly lit environs of the tavern where gypsies perform and the gambling takes place, Suvorin’s apartment, and the equally dark chambers of the Countess’ mansion, teasing out shadows that seem to embody the characters’ secret lives.

Supernatural forces emerge in the film’s final act as the consequences of the Captain’s obsessive greed play out (or is it all happening in the murky depths of Suvorin’s fevered mind?). Contributing to the blood-chilling denouement is a corpse that seems to stare accusingly with lifeless eyes, a sudden gust of wind that announces the arrival of a spectral presence, and the sounds of a heavy garment, its wearer unseen, dragging along a shadowy corridor.

As noted previously, the film is a faithful adaptation of Pushkin’s Gothic story with some embellishments that, among other things, play up the romantic angle of two dashing officers, one duplicitous and one genuine, vying for the attention of lonely, lovely Lizaveta. (If anything, the intrigue and machinations around Lizaveta are too drawn out, slowing down the second act and leaving Mitchell with not much more to do than look worried and harried.)

Screenshot - Yvonne Mitchell and Anton Walbrook in The Queen of Spades (1949)
Lizaveta is too trusting for her own good.

Another embellishment is a flashback scene of the Countess as a young married woman, desperate to replace the money belonging to her husband that a secret lover has stolen. She visits the palace of Saint Germain, which is the epitome of high Gothic strangeness with a carved winged skull leering out from the main door, cowled manservants showing her the way down darkened, torch-lit corridors, and the Count’s chambers themselves, decorated with woebegone dolls trapped in bell jars, representing those unfortunates who have sold their souls.

Also nicely done is an early scene in which Suvorin is browsing in a bookshop. As he reaches for a book on military tactics, The Campaigns of Napoleon, the Saint Germain book drops to the floor with a thud, attracting his attention. As he leafs through the chapters, they seem to spell out his coming obsession, and his fate.

Austrian actor Anton Walbrook’s performance as the brooding Suvorin is a little overdone at the edges, but fits right in with the stylized melodrama. At this point Walbrook was at the height of his film career, having just come off a leading role in the critically acclaimed adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes (1948).

By contrast, Yvonne Mitchell (Lizaveta) and Ronald Howard (Andrei) are stuck with far less glamorous roles as, respectively, a bothered and bewildered object of debased obsession and a standard-issue earnest suitor. Horror fans may remember Mitchell for her roles in Crucible of Horror (1971) and Hammer’s surrealistic psycho-thriller Demons of the Mind (1972). Ronald Howard, son of Leslie, would appear nearly a decade later in another film with Anton Walbrook, I Accuse (1958; based on the Dreyfus affair); horror and fantasy credits include guest stints on the TV shows One Step Beyond and Boris Karloff’s Thriller, and a plum role in Hammer’s glorious and underrated Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964).

But the real show-stealer is Dame Edith Evans in her feature film debut. In the role of the Countess, the legendary stage actress and eventual 3-time Oscar nominee is imperious, prickly and unreasonably demanding of poor Lizaveta, but at the same time possesses a vulnerability borne of sad regret and fear for her own bartered soul. The scene in which she sits enigmatically silent as Suvorin desperately pleads with her to reveal the secret of the cards, her face fixed like a mask and her eyes heavy-lidded and unreadable, is hard to forget.

Screenshot - Anton Walbrook and Edith Evans in The Queen of Spades (1949)
"Listen to me Countess, you can't be turned down for coverage,
and your premiums will never go up!"

Like the Countess, The Queen of Spades has sumptuous trappings, but also a troubled history. After the film’s budget-busting sets were completed and just before shooting was to begin, the original director had to pull out due to ill-health. Producer Anatole de Grunwald wasted no time in finding a replacement, the brilliant Thorold Dickinson, who “was offered the job on Tuesday, read the Pushkin story and the screenplay by Friday, met the cast and crew over the weekend and began filming on Monday, re-writing what he considered a solid but not quite good enough script on a daily basis.” [“Tale of luckless director dealt a bad hand,” The Herald, Glasgow, Scotland, Dec. 24, 2009]

The film earned a BAFTA nomination for best film in the UK, but elsewhere in Europe its Baroque theatricality met with a chilly reception from critics who were enamored of post-war Italian neo-realism and the French New Wave movement. [Ibid.]

For a time, prints of The Queen of Spades were thought to be lost, but thankfully in the late 2000s it was rediscovered and released theatrically and on DVD. It’s also currently playing on a number of streaming and VOD services.

Screenshot - Anton Walbrook plays a fateful hand of cards in The Queen of Spades (1949)
"Is this your card?"
"Er, no."

Where to find it: DVD/Blu-ray | Streaming