Ambition, sin and horror are the keynotes of Thorold Dickinson’s brilliant 1949 melodrama based on the story by Pushkin. The density of visual detail and incident on screen is superb and the swirling, delirious onrush of storytelling is addictive. This is surely one of the great gambling movies, and one that makes the theological connection explicit: Pascal recommended that you have nothing to lose by betting on God’s existence, but the worldly sinner gambles that the last judgement does not exist and that pleasure and gratification in this life are everything. Dickinson’s control of the screen is a joy, something to be compared to Max Ophüls: I wonder how he might have directed The Earrings of Madame De… or how he might have adapted Dostoevsky’s The Gambler or Tolstoy’s How Much Land Does a Man Need?
Anton Walbrook gives a glorious, gamey performance as Suvorin, a Russian military officer in St Petersburg. A humble captain intensely aware of his lack of money, Suvorin is obsessed, like much of fashionable Russia of the time, with France’s low-born leader Bonaparte, who rose to the top with pure audacity and courage. Walbrook appears without the raffish moustache that he had for his famous performances in Powell/Pressburger movies such as The Red Shoes and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and his face is somehow naked without it, exposed and desperate. But his Austrian accent makes a certain sort of sense: in Pushkin’s original story, his character was an ethnic German.
Suvorin regularly attends a dissolute military club at the invitation of his friend, the kindly, well-born brother officer Prince Andrei (Ronald Howard), who sympathises with Suvorin as a lonely, sensitive, prickly soul. What fills Suvorin with greedy, envious fascination are the fortunes won and lost there every night at cards: an addictively simple game called faro, in which everyone is superstitiously obsessed with the bad luck involved in playing the queen of spades.
Suvorin becomes electrified by the rumour (though a flashback implies it is considerably more than a rumour) that ancient, haughty Countess Ranevskaya, thrillingly played by Edith Evans, once sold her soul to the devil to learn the secret of winning at faro; this was to recover her husband’s money, which she had lost to a secret lover. Interestingly, the nobleman who is supposed to have brokered the encounter with the Prince of Darkness is a real-life figure: the Count of St Germain, a philosopher and adventurer who appeared as if he might be French, with the same dark glamour of Napoleon, although in fact it appears he was from central Europe.
Cunning Suvorin plans to gain access to Countess Ranevskaya’s house by seducing the old lady’s gentle, impressionable companion, Lizaveta Ivanova (a sympathetic performance from Yvonne Mitchell), and they have a murmuringly passionate encounter in the opera foyer. She is also being courted by Andrei, whose decent and diffident good nature is no match for Suvorin’s brash desperation and fanaticism, which poor innocent Lizaveta mistakes for ardent passion. This is in fact the one way in which the lowborn Suvorin has the advantage over the aristocrat – and the film allows us to see his self-destructive madness in not appreciating an opportunity for happiness.
When the crazed Suvorin finally comes face to face with the cantankerous old lady, it is a scene of pure fear: as Nietzsche might have said, Suvorin is staring into the abyss and the abyss stares back. An exhilarating classic.
• Queen of Spades is released on 23 December in cinemas, and on 23 January on digital platforms, Blu-Ray and DVD