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


  1. I really love this film, even, as you note, the 2nd act is embellished a little too much with the secondary love affair. But its creepy atmosphere and shadowy cinematography are perfect, as is Edith Evans' performance. I think the film is not as well known as it should be (maybe because it was once believed lost?), so I'm glad you covered it for the blogathon!

    1. Just when you think you've seen it all, something like The Queen of Spades comes along to pleasantly surprise you. I think it being lost for so long is definitely a factor in its continuing low profile.

  2. Thanks for including the info on the 4 suits in a deck of cards. It's something I've never wondered about, but now I feel like a real Smarty Pants.

    I've never heard of this film, which is a shame because it looks gorgeous. I'll see if I can find it streaming somewhere. Too bad it didn't get more recognition when first released, but I can understand critics being taken with Italian Neo-Realism et al.

    1. Yes, gorgeous is the right word to use. The Queen of Spades was something of an anachronism in 1949, but fortunately it survived to be appreciated decades later. I saw it on Kanopy, which thankfully I have access to through my local library system.

  3. Wow, what a great post, Brian. First off, I learned some history about card playing, the definition of cartomancy, and that Leslie Howard had a son who was an actor! More importantly, you've introduced me to a film I've never heard of, but will be seeking out posthaste! Great stuff, here.

    1. Thanks so much Karen! The Queen of Spades is a beautiful (and very dark) film, made all the more special by spending so many years lost in some forgotten vault before being rescued. I'm sure you'll enjoy it!

  4. Wow, how interesting! I'm going to have to look for both the book and the movie in this case--they both look gripping.

    1. I'm amazed that I only recently discovered the story and its film adaptation - both are true classics.