The Queen of Spades/Pikovaya Dama (1916) **Ĺ
This one was a case of double serendipity for me. I first learned of The Queen of Spades when a fragmentary print consisting of the complete third act, plus the end of the second, turned up as an extra on the Russian Cinema Councilís Viy DVD. I actually got as far as finishing the first draft of a review of that truncated print, but when I went digging for further information on the missing 40-odd minutes, I discovered a complete version online. Naturally, that sent me right back to the beginning, and now here we are. On the Ruscico discís ďMuseumĒ menu, The Queen of Spades is described as a ďsilent Russian horror movie,Ē but that isnít quite accurate. Based on an oft-adapted story by Aleksandr Pushkin, The Queen of Spades is rather a supernatural morality tale of the sort that was so popular in the 19th century. Itís the kind of movie where witchcraft may be bad and all, but itís not half as dangerous to mind or soul as Baccarat or Texas Hold ĎEm.
We begin with a card party at the home of a military officer named Narumov (uncredited). One of the guests is his close friend, German (Ivan Mozzhukhin, from Satan Exultant and Sin), who despite an obvious fascination with card games and gambling never directly participates. He just hangs out all night long, watching the others play. When questioned, German explains that he is ďnot in a position to risk the necessary to gain the superfluous.Ē Smart man, if you ask me. Anyway, this particular night is the birthday of Narumovís grandmother, Countess Anna Fedotovna (Yelizaveta Shebueva), and he proposes a toast to her health after the last hand is played. Everyone in attendance knows the old lady, who at the age of 80-something is still a consummate party animal, and a fixture at all the most fashionable gatherings in St. Petersburg. That being the case, one guest asks Narumov why she never comes to his game nights, which leads the host to relate a curious anecdote.
60 years or so ago, when Countess Anna was young and gorgeous enough to be played by Tamara Duvan instead, she and her husband (Polikarp Pavlov) spent some time in Paris, where she first acquired her lifelong taste for high living. One night, when she was out on her own, she got into a card game with the Duc díOrleans at Versailles. Anna gambled extravagantly, and lost a frightful amount of money. (The movie doesnít specify how much, but Pushkin makes it half a million rubles!) That was far more than Count Fedotov was willing to tolerate; since all the money was in his name, and all the property from which it accrued was back in Russia, beyond the reach of Parisian debt collectors, the count determined to teach his profligate wife a lesson by letting her live with a reputation as a welcher. In desperation, Anna turned to Count St. Germain, of all people (Nikolai Panov), for assistance. (A brief historical digression, for clarityís sake: You might think of Count St. Germain as the Aleister Crowley of the 18th century. A mystic con-man, he hung around London and Paris mooching off the high nobility, entertaining them with bullshit stories about his alchemical experiments, and claiming to be centuries old. His tall tales about himself grew taller still after his death, until among other things, people were going around saying that he was an immortal Ascended Master or even the Wandering Jew.) St. Germain instructed Anna in a secret clairvoyant technique that would enable her to predict winning card hands, after which she returned to Versailles and won back from the duke every penny that she had previously lost. Nevertheless, that close call scared Anna out of the gambling business, and she hasnít played a hand since, even though she should theoretically be nigh invincible at the gaming table. Most of Narumovís guests seem to think his story no more than a family legend, but German is intrigued. If he had the kind of power the old countess supposedly possesses, you for damn sure wouldnít see him sitting on the sidelines at game night anymore. Lost in thought over his friendís tale, German wanders into an unfamiliar neighborhood on his way home, and unexpectedly finds himself stopping for directions right out in front of Countess Fedotovnaís house. Itís enough to make a man start believing in fate.
Mind you, just knowing where the countess lives isnít much help in and of itself. I mean, itís not generally considered cool for men to walk up to the front doors of strange noblewomenís houses, and ask to be let in to discuss the magical secrets of cheating at cards. There is, however, one possible avenue clearly open to German. Countess Fedotovna inevitably has a whole staff of servants and hangers-on, and one of the latter is a girl named Lizaveta (Vera Orlova, from Aelita, Queen of Mars), whose relationship with her is sort of halfway between lady-in-waiting and surrogate daughteró which basically means that she gets shat on constantly, and blamed for everything that causes the countess even passing annoyance. Lizaveta is justly unhappy with her lot, and longs for the attention of someone whoíll be decent to her, but she lacks the caliber of both title and bank account necessary to impress any of the young men in the circles where Anna Fedotovna moves. German, though, inhabits very much the correct social stratum to be believable courting Lizaveta, and by doing so, he could eventually gain access to the Fedotov household, and with it access to the countess herself. And so the officer begins making a point of being seen in the vicinity of the house, and sending daily insincere love notes to Lizaveta.
Inevitably, things donít go quite as the girl expects on the night when she finally works up the nerve to sneak German into the house. Rather than tiptoeing up to his supposed belovedís room, he detours to the countessís instead, and finds the old lady dreaming of an adulterous romance she had back in Paris. The soldierís presence in the suite is less than welcome when he rouses Anna by closing the door to her bedchamber. Wasting no time, German tells her that he knows all about her special talent for card games, and begs to be let in on the secret. When that fails, he produces a pistol from within his uniform jacket and threatens her with it. In fact, the gun is not loaded, but the countess has no way of knowing that. German, however, ought to know that threats of violence mix poorly with aged hearts; Anna Fedotovna immediately expires of a massive heart attack, leaving him none the wiser with regard to supernatural gambling tricks.
It happens, however, that thatís not the last German sees of Countess Anna. A few days later, her ghost appears to him, claiming to have manifested against her will. Evidently sheís under orders (Satanís?) to give German what he wanted, or at least the next best thing. The ghost still wonít reveal how she knows such things, but she passes along to her de facto killer the details of three winning hands in card games in which he is destined to take part. Narumov has lately begun hanging out with a crazy-rich gambler called Chekalinskiy, to whom German has his friend introduce him as soon as possible after receiving his visit from the afterworld. At two successive card parties hosted by Chekalinskiy, German plays a single hand of some game Iíve never seen before, and pockets an astonishing amount of money. The third night, thoughÖ Well, letís just say that the late Anna Fedotovna never said anything about the three winning hands all being Germanís. German loses every kopek he had, and ends his days in an insane asylum, hallucinating about playing cards and ghostly old ladies.
The kinship between The Queen of Spades and the Western European tradition of didactic ghost stories is immediately obvious, but so is the way the movie goes about that genreís usual business sort of backwards. The filmmakers draw an explicit link between vice and the protagonistís encounter with the supernatural, which technique is familiar from the likes of The Phantom Carriage or the innumerable takes on A Christmas Carol. However, the cause-and-effect vector is reversed here. The ghostís role in The Queen of Spades is not to scare German away from sin, but to lead him into it (even if only under duress from more powerful forces of supernatural evil). After all, German starts off quite content as a spectator to his friendsí games. Only the discovery of witchcraft that will enable him to cheat his way to victory at the card table gives German any desire to gamble in the first place. That accords nicely with the old ďthe Devil made me do itĒ model of wrongdoing, but it forces The Queen of Spades into a position that doesnít really work. At best, the notion of black magic as a gateway drug for gambling implies a deeply peculiar set of moral priorities. At worst, it puts this movie (and Pushkinís original short story, for that matter) in company with some of the silliest examples of anti-vice alarmism.
But although the subtext in The Queen of Spades is consistently mishandled, the text is another matter. Apart from some pacing problems in the first act (where the story of Anna Fedotovnaís Paris adventure drags on a little too long, with a few too many distracting returns to Narumov holding court in his parlor), this is a nicely streamlined and well-structured film. Itís especially adept at characterization, which is often a weak point in movies of this vintage. The twin performances of Tamara Duvan and Yelizaveta Shebueva combine with director Yakov Protazanovís skillful juxtaposition of their respective scenes to convey all the sorrow and regret of old age, giving an unexpected sympathetic dimension to a character who is fairly easy to dislike on the surface. Ivan Mozzhukhin brings considerable subtlety and nuance to a role that basically consists of revealing himself to be an ever more distasteful jerk with each passing scene. Thereís a refreshing lack of condemnation attached to Lizavetaís ready acceptance of Germanís false wooing, and Vera Orlova is commendably grounded and grown-up in her portrayal of the girlís romantic longing. Even the uncredited actor who plays Chekalinskiy makes the most of his small role, deftly sketching out a very realistic reaction to this friend of a friend who comes waltzing in out of nowhere, takes him for a fair-sized fortune in the most arrestingly unlikely way, and then disappears from his life after losing even bigger than he had previously won.
The Queen of Spades is an extremely nice-looking movie, too. Yevgeniy Slavinskiyís cinematography is as static and rudimentary as one usually sees in early silent features, but the production design by Vladimir Balliuzek, S. Lilienberg, and W. Przybytniewski imparts more than enough visual interest to make up for it. The sets depicting the environment of upper-crust Paris and St. Petersburg are uniformly gorgeous, and the costumes show an impressive attention to detail. Lighting technique is not so well developed as it would become in German hands during the next decade, but still adequate to invest all those superb sets and costumes with distinct and appropriate moods. And Slavinskiy shows that heís better than he seems at first glance by invariably framing each shot from the most pleasing and engaging angle, no matter how stock-still his camera sits once itís rolling.
Unfortunately, the supernatural manifestations themselves are the one area in which The Queen of Spades seriously disappoints from a visual perspective. Anna Fedotovna is entirely too corporeal-looking as a ghost, and the double-exposure playing cards that we see floating through the air of Germanís cell at the asylum are sorely lacking in both scare value and visual punch. The moment when the countessís face appears on Germanís losing queen of spades during the final party at Chekalinskiyís is a bit better, but is handled without much imagination. There is, however, a clever visual metaphor in the scene depicting the onset of Germanís insanity. Shortly after seeing the phantom cards for the first time, German has a vision of himself caught in an enormous spider webó not one of the tidy, conventionalized orb webs one usually sees in media, either, but a nasty, dense, tangled tent web like youíd find under a junk heap, in a pile of cordwood, or binding a mound of leaf litter together. Itís an extremely smart choice, strongly evocative of the madness the effect is meant to represent, even if the accompanying spider puppet is only slightly less risibly crappy than the one in Bloody Pit of Horror.