Sunday, January 7, 2024

Three, Seven, Ace

Film: The Queen of Spades
Format: Streaming video from Amazon Prime on Fire!

There are times when I will get kind of locked onto a particular movie that I can’t find because of the name. That’s definitely been the case for some reason with The Queen of Spades, a late-1940s film that has a number of horror elements. This is very much a period piece, and it has the sort of connection to horror that many films of the time did. This isn’t genuinely scary in any real sense, but it touches on the supernatural and at least tells the audience that there are demonic forces involved. For post-war society, that was probably enough to get people squeamish.

The film takes place in 1806 Russia, in both military and societal circles. The military men spend their time playing a game they call faro, and it seems to be based on a real game. While it’s never fully explained, the game seems to work like this. One player picks a card from his own deck of cards and places it face down. The dealer then goes through his own deck of cards, separating it one by one into two piles. If the player’s card comes up in the dealer’s half of the deck, the dealer wins. If it comes up in the player’s half, the player wins. While the men play, engineer Captain Herman Suvorin (Anton Walbrook) watches, intrigued, but never betting. We learn soon enough that he is far from wealthy, a fact that he attributes to his lack of upward mobility through the ranks.

Suvorin overhears the men talking about the Countess Ranevskaya (Edith Evans), who is reputed to have won a fortune at cards by selling her soul. He purchases a book that that describes a case where a “Countess R” obtained the secret of winning that fortune but has promised to never disclose the secret. Deciding that “Countess R” is Ranevskaya, he sets out to learn her secret.

To do so, Herman decides to court Ranevskaya’s young ward, Lizavyeta Ivanovna (Yvonne Mitchell), who is completely under the Countess’s thumb and constant watch. He does this despite the fact that his friend Andrei (Ronald Howard), another officer and one who is noble (and therefore very wealthy) has expressed a great deal of interest in her. Herman attempts to get into Lizavyeta’s good graces with love letters, and when Andrei finds out, he tries to warn her away from him, but to no avail.

Things get dark when Herman decides to try to scare the information about the cards out of the countess. He breaks into her rooms and threatens her, but does so too strongly, since she dies of fright. However, the book that he purchased earlier has a chapter that tells him the dead will give up their secrets, which sets up a meeting between Herman and the disembodied voice of the dead countess.

There’s a really good story somewhere inside The Queen of Spades, and a great deal of it is in this movie. In fact, the biggest disappointment is the last 15 minutes or so, when everything has built up to a potentially exciting climax, and we end up with something that isn’t much of anything. With a couple of changes, this could have been a really good episode of The Twilight Zone; it definitely has that feel to it.

It’s also a rare movie that puts me in mind of wanting a remake. There’s a good enough story at the base of this that it could stand a revamp, provided that the revamp did something a lot more interesting with the third act. In fact, all that is really needed in the third act is something more to happen—another 5-10 minutes that gave us some real consequences for the characters is all this needs. Since The Queen of Spades runs just a bit over 90 minutes, tacking on an additional, meaningful half a dozen minutes would not be a huge imposition for the audience.

I’d have liked to see more of Yvonne Mitchell in this. She’s a good presence in the film and one of the driving forces behind it, but she doesn’t spend enough time on camera. The opposite is true of Ronald Howard, who isn’t that interesting. Anton Walbrook is the class of the film, though. I genuinely like him pretty much in everything I’ve seen him in. I suppose that’s also true of Edith Evans. She’s an infuriating character in this film, which is obviously a part of the plan. She has to be terrible not just because of her past, but to make Lizavyeta that much more difficult for Andrei and Herman to approach.

The Queen of Spades probably didn’t quite live up to my expectations, but I did like it, if only because it seems very different from most of what’s out there.

Why to watch The Queen of Spades: It plays like a good Twilight Zone episode.
Why not to watch: The ending isn’t as interesting or as scary as it should be.


  1. OK, that looks interesting. I might check it out eventually. Plus, I love Anton Walbrook.

  2. This one is completely new to me. Never heard of it!

    1. It's an interesting watch, although not anywhere close to scary.

  3. It's been a little while since I've seen this so I don't remember all the particulars but I did like it and thought it was a cut above other films of the period in this genre. Part of that is down to having two such quality performers as Anton Walbrook and Edith Evans in the main roles but I thought the story was solid and intriguing as well.

    Faro is most definitely a real game. It was extremely popular in Old West saloons, most of whom (at least the more successful ones) maintained a table or tables devoted to the game and employed Faro dealers. It eventually fell out of fashion in favor of poker.

    1. I'm vaguely aware of faro as a baccarat-like game, but not in the way it appears to be played in this film.

      Anton Walbrook really chews the scenery in this, and it's why I enjoyed it as much as I did.