The Queen of Spades (1949), Director: Thorold Dickinson
Thorold Dickinson’s The Queen of Spades is one of the best British films of the 1940s, and therefore among the best British films ever. Its dazzling aesthetic ravishment equals anything from the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and there’s no higher praise. At twenty paces, it might be mistaken for a Powell & Pressburger film because it stars their frequent collaborator Anton Walbrook and is so rich with flourish and European high-cultural sensibility.
The story begins in 1806 St. Petersburg, as willowy young Russian imperial officers disport themselves drunkenly amid singing and dancing Gypsy women and throw away fortunes on a faddish card game called faro. This sequence opens the film as it means to continue: a lavish display of atmosphere in which the camera glides and darts amid crowded compositions in high-contrast chiaroscuro photography, sometimes disorienting us with cuts to telling details and eye-catching compositions, surrounding us with music and sound effects as carefully orchestrated as the visual symphony.
The odd man out, who watches but doesn’t play because he can’t afford to risk what’s necessary to gain the superfluous, is Capt. Herman Suvorin (Walbrook). His first name is pronounced in the Russian way to sound like “German” with a hard “G”, and he is in fact German. He feels he’s looked down upon and tolerated as a mere engineer, a foreigner, a man of poor family amid aristocrats.
The picture of Napoleon in Suvorin’s room is explained by his speech about the leader as the ultimate class-jumping upstart, and he feels himself to have an equally great potential if only he had the money. He burns with class resentment and desire. As a German in this thoroughly Russian context, Suvorin can’t help capturing an aspect of English postwar class-envy and the dream of surmounting one’s place.
The plot is properly started when a book falls into his hands: the memoirs of the legendary and mysterious Count de Saint-Germain (notice the play on names with Herman/German). One chapter illustrates a wonderfully cinematic flashback about a young Russian countess (Pauline Tennant) who, in adulterous trouble with her lover, effectively sells her soul to the Count for the secret of three winning cards that gain her a fortune.
Suvorin realizes or intuits that this story from 60 years ago refers to the now-ancient Countess Ranevskaya (Edith Evans, tremendously impressive), a querulous old tyrant of society. He sets about abusing the trust of her mousy companion, Lizaveta Ivanovna (Yvonne Mitchell), wooing her with love letters to gain access to the mansion and confront the countess.
The reasonably simple story with supernatural elements is dressed to the nines aesthetically, with one scene after another coming off like a grand setpiece: the lavish ball, the suspenseful confrontation in the boudoir, a massive funeral, a ghostly visitation. A raft of supporting players contribute to the atmosphere, including Ronald Howard, Anthony Dawson, Miles Malleson, Mary Jerrold, Michael Medwin and Valentine Dyall.
Under the impeccable production of hands-on producer Anatole de Grunwald (of Russian origin) and his assistant producer Jack Clayton (who would direct another great British literary-supernatural film, 1961’s The Innocents), all departments are humming at the top of their craft: photographer Otto Heller, editor Hazel Wilkinson, production and costume designer Oliver Messel, art director William Kellner, composer Georges Auric (the link between the films of Jean Cocteau and Ealing Studios), makeup artist Robert Clarke (especially on Evans) and the sound crew.
Anton Walbrook in The Queen of Spades (Photo by THE RONALD GRANT ARCHIVE – © DE GRUNWALD PRODUCTIONS / ABPC / IMDB)
As Martin Scorsese observes in an introduction, one of the film’s amazements is that Dickinson stepped into the project at the last minute, only days before production began. The film was set to be directed by Rodney Ackland, who co-wrote the script with Arthur Boys, but a falling-out with de Grunwald resulted in their leaving the project. Dickinson came in to rework the script and made the decision to abandon a “stiff upper lip” approach by going “all out for flamboyance”. The last-minute pressure inspired Dickinson, along with the constrictions of working in a small studio without many resources. As everyone has since observed, you couldn’t tell it’s not an expensive production with a cast of hundreds.
Although he directed only nine features, Dickinson had a distinguished career in many aspects of cinema, from writing and editing to programming and teaching. His most famous film was his previous project with Walbrook, the 1940 version of Gaslight that nearly had all copies destroyed by MGM to promote their 1944 remake with Ingrid Bergman. Dickinson’s version is the more credible because its star, Diana Wynyard, conveys the kind of wilting violet born to be hoodwinked by her husband, whereas Bergman projects such intelligence and strength that the viewer must suspend considerable disbelief at her dimness until she finally bursts into satisfying rage at the end.
Dickinson, who’s heard in two audio interviews, can’t always have his remarks taken at face value. For example, he states that this was the film debut of both Mitchell and Evans; as Nick Pinkerton’s commentary clarifies, that’s not quite true. Dickinson also says the film got a mixed reception at Cannes because neorealism was all the rage while his film was a throwback to silent expressionism. Pinkerton points out that the Cannes winner that year was Carol Reed’s The Third Man, a fellow-traveler in British expressionism and Wellesian flair that’s got nothing to do with neorealism. Also, Dickinson’s very well-reviewed film got nominated for a BAFTA, again losing to Reed’s film.
Still, Dickinson’s masterpiece habitually falls out of British film consciousness because it doesn’t seem very English. Actually, it brilliantly translates England’s class-conscious fears and phobias into the terms of Imperial Russia. This glittering presentation gives the image and sound the richness and depth they deserve and should convert many an ignorant heathen to the gospel of Dickinson.
Seven Days to Noon (1950), Directors: Roy and John Boulting
What Dickinson meant by “the stiff upper lip” and neorealism can be indexed by Seven Days to Noon, produced, directed and edited by the Boulting Brothers, twins who were responsible for a long series of excellent English thrillers and comedies. Here we see the same trend occurring simultaneously in Hollywood noir, a transition to evenly and flatly lit semi-documentary style touched by neorealism. And yet, whenever key scenes take place at night or in shadowy settings, the latent expressionist impulse of chiaroscuro lighting smoothly emerges to hijack the aesthetic, like Mr. Hyde taking over Dr. Jekyll.
The film opens on a bright, flat morning at Number 10 Downing Street, the office of the Prime Minister, as we watch the quotidian postman make his rounds and drop an ordinary-looking letter through the slot. (Is that really how the mail is delivered there? Never mind.) Booming chords from John Addison, composing his first film, announce that something portentous comes out of quiet ordinary English life, and then the credits engage in a curious right-to-left pan as the camera flows left-to-right across railroad tracks, building momentum and suspense to roiling music. It’s a stylistic cameo of how the film works.
The first reel consists of slowly escalating activity among stiff upper lips who calmly go about their jobs investigating the strange letter, in which a nuclear scientist promises that unless the Prime Minister announces the cessation of building nuclear weapons, he’ll set one off in the middle of London on the following Sunday and create “dark, dark, dark amid the blaze of noon”, quoting Milton. Appropriately, he carries the explosive in his Gladstone bag, named for a former prime minister.
The rest of the film will cross-cut between the authorities acting in understated and eminently efficient communion and the solitary activities of the rogue Prof. Willingdon (Barry Jones), a balding middle-aged man depicted as having a religiously-shaded breakdown from the tension of his job. The dialogue implies that this condition is a potential by-product of such work, although even his breakdown is carried on with a stiff upper lip. He demonstrates a very English schizoid fugue.
Barry Jones and Olive Stone in Seven Days to Noon (IMDB)
“What would you do if you were convinced the results of your life’s work were being put to an evil purpose?” asks his vicar before asserting that each man must ultimately answer to his own conscience. This is very much a world of men, with women as helpless bystanders or, depending on their class, semi-comic dupes. Whenever Seven Days to Noon injects a comic note among the many citizens, it always comes from a working-class or Cockney accent, while the men running the show are grim and unflappable and never drop their aitches.
Still, the women are the ones who keep derailing Willingdon’s plans. His first nosy landlady (Joan Hickson) is distracted by his pacing footsteps overhead in a device that harks back to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1927). She refuses to have anything to do with theatrical people, and it’s an aging actress (Olive Sloane) who next puts up Willingdon for a night. Both women are comically attached to cats or dogs. Finally his daughter (Sheila Manahan) will act as the secret weapon for the authorities.
Many references are made to the war, the Blitz and Dunkirk, and the Professor seeks succor in a still bombed-out church, where doves (of peace?) flutter and coo through the hole in the roof. The implication is that moral conviction, or at least traditional values, are a shell of their former selves. The film’s realist imagery of London’s crowded thoroughfares becomes eerie as the city is evacuated with remarkable Dunkirk-esque efficiency.
One year earlier, in Henry Cornelius’ Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico, the residents of that neighborhood felt excited to return to the terrible certainties of wartime England, while the residents in this film face their sudden transport with phlegm and homey punctuations of pettiness. Behind all this seeming efficiency is the mounting sense, also tapped by Ealing comedies, of events spinning out of control due to the world’s larger forces.
Paul Dehn and James Bernard received an Oscar for Best Story on this movie, although the actual script is credited to Frank Harvey and Roy Boulting. Seven Days to Noon is probably the earliest serious example of nuclear paranoia in cinema, a topic previously broached more lightly in Joseph Losey’s child-oriented fable The Boy with Green Hair (1948). The topic would begin to flourish in science fiction like Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and Seven Days to Noon has been regarded in some quarters as a kind of science fiction for this reason.
The Boulting film makes an intriguing comparison with a similarly neorealist Hollywood feature of the same year, Elia Kazan’s plague-themed Panic in the Streets, precisely because there is no panic but rather a mounting dread in the viewer as the Professor’s narrow escapes and near-discoveries turn the virtual thumbscrews of the clock-oriented plot. Big Ben’s chimes, used in the opening logo for London Films, become a crucial part of the drama by the final moments. While the film ultimately validates the efficiency of politicians, police and army, its final unease derives from not having really resolved the moral paradox embodied by Willingdon.
Another revealing cross-index would be Henry Koster’s No Highway in the Sky (1951), an American-British film in which another absent-minded scientific boffin is regarded as having a hysterical breakdown but whose disastrous suspicions are vindicated. The two films together indicate the public’s bipolar or schizoid perception of scientific chappies in the atomic era, who on the one hand are to be admired and on the other to be treated with suspicion.
Once again, we have a print so sharp in high-definition that we can even spot the ghost of the crew reflected on a shiny car at the 17-minute point. This Blu-ray carries no extras, but perhaps the film’s effectiveness will speak for itself to a generation that probably hasn’t heard of it.
The Man Between (1953) Director: Carol Reed
Like Seven Days to Noon, producer-director Carol Reed’s The Man Between, another London Films production, is fraught with Cold War paranoia, this time the topical situation in still heavily bombed-out Berlin, where much of the film was shot on location. It was still possible to pass freely from the Russian-controlled Eastern sector to the Western sector, and plenty of refugees were crossing over from East Berlin.
This is the world into which a sheltered young English woman, Susanne (Claire Bloom), arrives by plane to visit her brother Martin (Geoffrey Toone) and his German wife Bettina (Hildegard Neff, very glamorous), who live close by the ruinous border zone. Martin’s in the military and works every day with refugees.
As soon as Susanne arrives, she notices odd details. A boy on a bicycle seems to be following her. Bettina is nervous and gets mysterious phone calls. Two cars in a chase presage some drama of escape. At a nightclub where a ragged clown playing two clarinets at once (the two halves of Berlin) provides symbolism reaching back through the clowns in Jacques Tourneur’s similar Berlin Express (1948) all the way to Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse films, Susanne observes a morose Bettina in a huge mirror that acts like a kind of movie screen within the screen.
On a jaunt to the Eastern sector, the women are greeted by Ivo Kern (James Mason), as ambiguous a charmer and wheeler-dealer as Harry Lime of The Third Man. Susanne believes he’s been carrying on an affair with Bettina, and now he transfers his attentions to Susanne. Once the plot finally clarifies what’s going on amid Ivo’s schemes and alliances, the last half of the film is a fairly straightforward thriller about running, hiding and dodging as Susanne learns first-hand about refugee life.
This part of the movie is where Reed and cinematographer Desmond Dickinson go wild, or we might say “all out for flamboyance”, layering on the expressionist chiaroscuro and tilted angles, especially in the shadowy night sequences that now define the picture. This is also the section where John Addison’s suspenseful score introduces its most aching romanticism. The style dominates and determines the story, scripted by the versatile and prolific Harry Kurnitz from a story by Walter Ebert. Another prolific and versatile writer, the Scottish Eric Linklater, is listed as an uncredited contributor at IMDB.
James Mason in The Man Between (IMDB)
This movie belongs to a recurring strain of films shot on location in the ruins of Berlin, from Berlin Express and Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair (1948) through Douglas Sirk’s A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958), Wilder’s One, Two, Three (1961) and Robert Siodmak’s Escape from East Berlin (1962). That last title could be seen as a historical sequel to Reed’s film. While the other directors brought an insider’s anthropological eye to the material, Reed is an outsider, an Englishman, and sensibly introduces a sympathetic outsider from England to experience the tumult as a tourist who gets drawn in over her head.
In a pleasant stylistic echo, both The Queen of Spades and The Man Between pause for brief opera breaks. In Dickinson’s film, the characters witness a production of Gluck’s Orpheus and Euridice, a highly appropriate trip to the underworld. In Reed’s film, it’s a production of Richard Strauss’ Salome, in which a young woman’s desire for a prophet leads to his death.
The Man Between is much less famous than Reed’s The Third Man, which snatched the Cannes prize and the BAFTA from The Queen of Spades. The justified success of The Third Man has unfortunately overshadowed most of Reed’s career, which doesn’t deserve overshadowing, and The Man Between in particular was widely dismissed by critics as a warmed-over rehash of The Third Man.
In his commentary, Simon Abrams discusses the critical reception and reads from several memoirs on the film’s making. The general rap is that the story wasn’t up to the direction, while Abrams makes a reasonable case that we should see the film less as a thriller (despite its thrilling parts) and more as a star-crossed romance in which the young Bloom excellently holds her own with Mason.
Two other extras, a Mason audio interview from 1967 and a career profile of Reed, never mention the movie, and a brief interview with Bloom has bad sound. Fortunately, this HD scan is pristine and emphasizes everything from Dickinson’s superb photography to the costume textures and excellent sets, especially the restaurant and Bettina’s grand house.
Reed has made many films we’d love to see on Blu-ray. Kino Lorber has already released Trapeze (1956), and Outcast of the Islands (1951) is forthcoming. Let’s hope more of his films follow, but for now The Man Between should whet our appetite for a superbly visual stylist who remains paradoxically celebrated and underrated. The same holds true for Thorold Dickinson and the Boultings. British cinema in general often suffers a rap for being staid and boring, and that idea won’t be overturned until more of its talents are exhumed from the vaults for our delectation.
Kino Lorber has been doing Region 1 a favor by licensing Blu-rays of classic British films from France’s StudioCanal, which apparently owns everything in Europe. That’s why we’ve been blessed with a bunch of Ealing Films and a set of early Hitchcocks. Now available are three stray postwar classics made in the four-year period from 1949 to 1953, two of them from London Films and one from Associated British Pictures. All are moody delights indulging noir-ish black and white, keying into the uncertainties and paranoias of postwar England, and none are well-known in the US Let’s try to correct that.