Previous Top Ten By Year: 1949 Posts:
Top Ten By Year: 1949 – Poll Results
100 Images from the Films of 1949
What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1949: A Love Letter
For those unaware of my Top Ten By Year project:
The majority of my viewing habits have been dictated by this project since September of 2013. Jumping to a different decade each time, I choose comparatively weaker years for me re: quantity of films seen/quantity of films loved. I use list-making as a way to see more films and revisit others in a structured and project-drive way. I was sick of spending too much time trying to decide what to watch, or watching films just to cross them off another dumb canon list. I wanted to engage. I wanted films to be enhanced by others, by looking at a specific moment in time. I wanted something that led me to seeing or revisiting things I might not have gotten to otherwise. Lastly, my lists are based on personal favorites, not any weird notion of an objective best.
This is the first year I’ll be doing separate posts for each film. #9 will go up Monday. After that, one will go up each day until the end. Then I’ll post them all together so they are gathered in one place. There are a lot of films I loved that did not make the cut. In particular, Flamingo Road, Such a Pretty Little Beach, On the Town, Inspirace, The Reckless Moment, Reign of Terror, The Rocking Horse Winner, and Samson and Delilah are all films I thought at one point would be on here. Of all of these, Flamingo Road was a sure thing until it wasn’t at the very last minute. Please go watch it.
#10. The Queen of Spades (UK/Dickinson) (Rewatch)
We open on a close-up of a queen of spades. A Russian officer is heard, warning “for heaven’s sake, don’t play the queen of spades. It’s unlucky!”. This kind of schoolyard superstition is the atmosphere off which The Queen of Spades thrives. Everything is an omen of fate, or of doom. Spot the skulls that adorn the decor in places both obvious and hidden! A mysterious book of lore falls at Suvorin’s (Anton Walbrook) feet, as if meant for him. The malevolent Count of St. Germain is seen molding wax figures representing his intended victims. Flat shadows plaster every wall like silhouette portraits, and mirrors force characters to face themselves. The unabated extra presence of the self is foreboding. Archways, corridors, and doorways bore down on the characters, as if these spaces lay in wait for some unknown signal. And we haven’t even talked about the ghost.
The film was received with middling enthusiasm at Cannes, and didn’t fare much better upon general release. That its main claim to fame is Martin Scorsese’s love for it shows how overdue its proper appraisal is. It is defiantly out-of-step with the European cinema of the late 1940s, a spiritual holdover from the escapist Gainsborough melodramas that were en vogue during WWII. Audiences were craving more realism, on-location shooting, and Ealing comedies; wry, stately, or innovative fare. You’d never mistake this for any of that; it isn’t even a British story!
Based on a Pushkin short story, this Faustian ghost fable set in early 19th century St. Petersburg is the stuff of High Romanticism. Its style resides at the opposite end of realism, taking a page (just one page; enough to remind you, not call back to) out of German Expressionism for its Gothic-infused grandiosity and knowing artificiality. This approach suits the circumstances of the production, one beset by challenges such as director Thorold Dickinson signing on after the original dropped out over disputes (he had less than a week until shooting started, and was doing daily script rewrites during production). Cinematographer Otto Heller and production designer William Kellner, limited by a pair of tiny studios (with poor soundproofing and right next to a train station no less), create snow-strewn city streets and a lurid web of intricate shadows. But the real conductor of the film’s very un-British flamboyance is its Austrian star: Anton Walbrook.
His Purovkin seethes at everyone around him. He resents the rich for being rich and the poor for being poor. But one day he’ll show them all, or so he thinks. When I think of Anton Walbrook, God of all Gods, in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and The Red Shoes (playing characters in opposition to each other), I think about performances of great deliberation and an intensity concentrated in stillness. There’s some of that here too. But what sticks with you is his mannered mania; he is a stranded madman from the silent era. He speaks as if he has hypnotized himself, until that gives way to absolute frenzy. His voice is velvet doom, its own sorcery. There are times where he, and the film, feel like Young Frankenstein played straight. Indeed, Gene Wilder and Walbrook possess similar energies, especially when they shift into shriek-speak mode, complete with eyes of wildfire. The performance was considered too theatrical and over-the-top at the time, but what better home for that than a film made of ersatz embellishment? You can’t watch him with anything but total eyes-locked glee.
Hauntings in the 40s (Scarlet Street, Dead of Night, Flesh and Fantasy, etc) are akin to madness in the 20s (hell, madness in the 40s are akin to madness in the 20s; my write-up on The Set-Up will briefly touch on why this is). The frame is filled with tampered images. Whether superimposed or made kaleidoscopic, it’s the inescapability of the dead that claims emphasis. There is unnerving vigilance in the Countess’s cow-like eye, in death her knowing glower locks onto Anton Walbrook for life. The Countess’s unchanged decadence, frozen and isolated by her night with the Count, made her a kind of ghost in life.
But the ghost and film wield sound as their weapon of choice. The sound mixing on The Queen of Spades took as much time as anything else. We never actually see a ghost; it’s all what we hear through the power of suggestion. Instead of being able to point at her, she’s just everywhere. In the bitter whistle of the wind, the metronome-like plunk of her cane and heavy shuffle of her crinoline as it inches across the floor. These sounds are established while she is alive, and become her calling card in death. The Captain’s terror over this soon turns to ecstasy as The Countess releases her secret to him. He is too blinded by greed to process that a ghost passing off its fiercely guarded secret is a giant red flag of doom in a film filled with red flags of doom. He hasn’t been paying attention. But we have, and we know what lies ahead.