18 June 2024

HOOKED BY THE QUEEN

The Queen of Spades (Thorold Dickinson) 1949. ViaVision Imprint. Blu Ray

The Queen of Spades has been described as a horror fantasy, supernatural drama and ghost story. It has elements of all three. My preference, and elaboration, would be an early 19th century ghost story grounded in a much stylised Russian realism. 

As well as genre teasing The Queen of Spades has been generally viewed as resembling a Powell and Pressburger film. Indeed when a very young Martin Scorsese watched the film he muddled it up in his head with his love of P&P. Admittedly The Queen of Spades, and especially in the second half, does have the energetic physical pace of P&P but for me the biggest influences on the film are the grand designs of Sergei Eisenstein and the opulence of Josef Von Sternberg (Was Dickinson an admirer of The Scarlet Empress?)

The film is adapted from an 1834 story by Alexander Pushkin and as far as I know was Pushkin’s only prose venture into the supernatural and like the film only becomes so later on in the narrative. Both the film and the story tackle themes of class, avarice, friendship and romantic love: before something horrid goes bump in the night to alter the fates of all concerned.

Captain Herman Suvorin (Anton Walbrook) is a Russian officer of the engineers in St Petersburg in 1806. Unlike his fellow officers and gamblers, Herman is acutely aware of his class status: compared to the privileged colleagues around him he will struggle for years to get promotion. He frequents gambling rooms where officers play a card game called faro. Herman learns of the ancient Countess Ranevskaya (Edith Evans) who knows the numerical secret for winning at faro.

Herman purchases a book called The Strange Secrets of the Count de Saint German, concerning people who sold their souls for wealth and power, which greatly impresses him. Countess Ranevskaya has a young ward Lizavyeta Ivanovna (Yvonne Mitchell) so Herman begins to write passionate love letters to Lizavyeta as a means to entering her house and persuading Ranevskaya to tell him the playing card secret. Herman threatens the countess with an unloaded pistol and she dies of fright.

Lizavyeta is appalled at being used in order to get at Ranevskaya. Gradually the couple become the catalyst for a visitation by the invisible ghost of the old countess.

Anton Walbrook superbly conveys his perceived humiliations with a twitchy nervousness and his money scheming machinations have a brooding power. His remarkable performance is only equalled by the screen debut of Edith Evans, supposed to be aged 100 and wearing an enormous upright wig to make her look like a grand dame crossed with a mummy/monster, who moans and snaps at everyone. Sandwiched between them we have the delicate low key acting of Yvonne Mitchell as the virginal love-struck Lizavyeta.




There are horror/supernatural films where the ghost is never shown but suggested. The Haunting (1963) has the menacing sounds of an old house, The Uninvited (1944) keeps ghosts in the shadows and The Queen of Spades has some of the most powerful hidden presence moments in cinema: the sound design of a mysterious wind, banging doors and Ranevskaya’s eerie whispering, of the three winning cards and request that Herman must marry Lizavyeta, are minimal, sufficient and highly effective.

Yet the cleverness of Thorold Dickinson’s direction also plays with the haunting idea that the presence of the living Ranevskaya is already a weird ghostly implant that attracts and repels. For me this haunting creature begins to spook her ward and murderer before the act of murder itself.

I love the placement of mirrors in scenes of high anxiety and unease as reflections of the main characters are underlined by the music of Georges Auric. And though more of a ghost than horror tale, the scene where the dead Ranevskya, lying in a coffin in the church, suddenly opens her eyes at Herman is a great horror picture moment that jolted me as much as the awakening of the dead sister in Bergman’s Cries and Whispers.

The atmosphere of Dickinson’s Russia is brilliantly created in a small English film set located next to a railway station! This allows Dickinson’s camera to fluidly journey through an amazing set designed by Oliver Messel that’s strikingly photographed by Otto Heller and recalls the look of German silent cinema. And throughout The Queen of Spades its visuals are truly vivid on this 4K restoration from the film’s original nitrate negative.

Perhaps the pace of the first half of the film is a little too leisurely and occasionally muffled – the wild, would-be orgiastic scenes in the gambling room are spoilt by the actress playing the seductive gypsy singer. She’s more flattened-out Hollywood than earthy European. And Ronald Howard as Andrei, Lizavyeta’s true lover, is a little wooden. But so much of The Queen of Spades remains genuinely thrilling. It’s an incisive melodrama with an irresistible Gothic flavour. How can you resist?

“Play interests me very much. But I cannot afford to risk the necessary in the hope of winning the superfluous.”

That’s Herman, at the opening of the film, when asked why he comes every night yet doesn’t play at cards. This is his arrogance with a need to hit back; obtain a playing card system and hence a great fortune (the necessary) that instantly grabbed me. Once more I was drawn in and hooked by the haunting power of The Queen of Spades.
  • Alan Price

7 June 2024

BLOOD, SOIL AND MORRIS DANCING

Matthew Cheeseman and Carina Hart (Editors). Folklore and Nation in Britain and Ireland. Routledge, 2023.

The manner in which the collecting, study and publishing of folklore has influenced the understanding of national origins and identities has become a matter of concern to many in the field, who fear that the subject has been exploited for nationalist and political ends. 
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26 May 2024

VERY HIGH STRANGENESS

Rev. Alyson Dunlop Shanes. Mystic Visions: Spontaneous Supernatural Visions, Flying Disk Press, 2024.

There is no denying that Rev. Shanes has had a very active life filled with experiences and encounters with angels, demons, aliens and the paranormal. She grew up in a family that had supernatural experiences; at age four she started doing yoga exercises and at fourteen she communicated with a guardian spirit she called Norman using a Ouija board. At about the same time she was given a copy of The Exorcist by her grandfather who probably did not realise it was not age appropriate.
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18 May 2024

LINING UP IN RENNES

Simon M. Miles, The Map and the Manuscript: Journeys in the Mysteries of the Two Rennes, Ignotum Press, 2022.

This is really a book for aficionados of the Rennes-le-Château mystery and the multitude of others that spin out of it. Fortunately I am one, but I’ll try to rein myself in. That’s despite my excitement, as The Map and the Manuscript is a genuine gamechanger. 
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11 May 2024

WONDERS IN WINNIPEG

Serena Keshavjee (Editor). The Art of Ectoplasm; Encounters with Winnipeg's Ghost Photographs. University of Manitoba Press, 2023.

Of all the phenomena of Spiritualism and mediumship, ectoplasm seems to me to be the most implausible, even ridiculous. The photographs recording the phenomenon are surely faked, and any supposed physical evidence is never really evidence of anything. And what has it got to do with the University of Manitoba?
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23 April 2024

THE NEVER-ENDING STORY

Lochlainn Seabrook, Mysterious Invaders: Twelve Famous 20th-Century Scientists Confront the UFO Phenomenon, Sea Raven Press, 2024.

On 29 July 1968, the US House of Representatives Committee on Science and Astronautics, held a symposium on UFOs. It was instigated by Congressman and NICAP member J. Edward Roush, and he introduced the session by saying this was to be an assessment of the UFO problem by six experts, to enable better judgements about future avenues of research.
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18 April 2024

PASSING ON

Judith Flanders, Rites of Passage: Death and Mourning in Victorian Britain, Picador, 2024.


‘Don’t be so morbid!’ is usually the reaction to any spontaneous discussion of death and dying in the 21st century. For example, bringing up the subject of funerals arrangements while in good health is thought of as the province of those guilt-inducing TV advertisements for funeral plans, themselves usually shown on channels dedicated to old stuff for wrinklies. 
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10 April 2024

THE KEY TO KEYHOE

Linda Powell.  Against the Odds. Major Donald E. Keyhoe and his Battle to End UFO Secrecy, Anomalist Books, 2023.


To those of us who just think of Donald Keyhoe as the author of some of the earliest and most important UFO books, and as a director of NICAP, this biography gives us an excellent insight into his early career and how he came to be involved with this subject.
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17 March 2024

DOUBTFUL ORIGINS

Simon Webb. The Origins of Wizards, Witches and Fairies. Pen and Sword Books, 2023

This book contains a mass of information and conjecture; all of it diverting, some of it convincing, much of it discredited. The author takes time (55 pages to be precise) to set the context, and to introduce his wide-ranging selection of traditions, concepts and images common across Northern Europe. 
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9 March 2024

SEX, SATANISM AND EATING ONIONS

Perttu Häkkinen and Vesa Iitti. Lightbringers of the North: Secrets of the Occult Tradition of Finland. Inner Traditions, 2022.

This enjoyable read has in my view been given the wrong title. I would suggest 'Riotous Assembly' for what follows is just that: a smorgasbord of short biographies mostly from the twentieth century of some of Finland's most notorious characters involved in one form or another in the occult. 
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