Tuesday, June 27, 2017

FILMBAY 2000 Greatest Films of All-Time (1888-2016) by Year - 0140 - QUEEN OF SPADES, THE (Yakov Protazanov, 1916, Russia, 63m, BW)


(Yakov Protazanov, 1916, Russia, 63m, BW)


QUEEN OF SPADES, THE (Yakov Protazanov, 1916, Russia, 63m, BW)

Directed by Yakov Protazanov
Produced by Joseph N. Ermolieff
Written by Aleksandr Pushkin
Yakov Protazanov
Fedor Ozep
Starring Ivan Mosjoukine
Music by Rafal Rozmus
Cinematography Yevgeni Slavinsky
Release date
1 April 1916 (Russian Empire)
18 November 1917 (U.S.)
Running time
84 minutes
Country Russian Empire
Language Silent film
Russian intertitles

The Queen of Spades (Russian: Пиковая дама, translit. Pikovaya dama) is a 1916 film adaptation of the Aleksandr Pushkin short story of the same name, noted for high producer and operator culture, with the psychological depth of actor's game, first of all of Ivan Mosjoukine. It was one of the best pre-revolutionary films. The film was the second production (first was the silent film adaptation of the Pyotr Tchaikovsky opera) of mystical novel of Aleksandr Pushkin, named by critics as "monumental". Director used the receptions, unexpected for those times, like retrospection, visions of heroes (as if the prototypes of the stream of consciousness), the combination shot.


Hermann - Ivan Mosjoukine
Lizaveta - Vera Orlova
The Countess as a young woman - Tamara Duvan
The Countess - Yelizaveta Shebueva
The Count St. Germain - Nikolai Panov
The Count - Pavel Pavlov


As described in a film magazine, Hermann, a Russian military officer with a small fortune, is fascinated when he hears a story of Countess Fedotovna, who won her fortune by playing three certain cards, the identity of which she refuses to reveal. Hermann gains entrance to the house through a flirtation with Lizaveta, ward of the countess. He confronts the countess with a revolver and demands to know the cards she played. The countess falls to the chair, apparently dead. Remorseful, Hermann goes home. The next morning he receives a message from the countess telling him that the three cards are the trey, seven, and ace. The first two nights he plays the trey and seven and is successful. The third night he bets all of his money, feeling sure that the card will be the ace. He finds it is the queen. With the loss of his money he loses his mind.


A poor soldier, obsessed with gambling but unable to do so due to lack of funds, becomes intent on learning the secret of a countess who knows a secret three-card combination that can make him rich. Though I don't think it's as impressive as the British version of the story from the late forties, this Russian silent film is still quite useful, as it emphasizes other story details that are often overlooked in other versions.  In particular, it gives us a much more elaborate backstory for the countess; the first third of the move involves the circumstances surrounding her discovery of the secret.  

It deemphasizes the soldier's relationship with the countess's ward (a ruse designed by the soldier to give him access to the countess), it clarifies some of the plot points, and it stretches out the climax by having the three cards played in succession over three nights.  Somehow, these changes make this version of more interest than it would be otherwise.  I haven't read the original Pushkin story yet (though I do have a copy), so I wonder how closely it follows it.  At any rate, I found this silent version quite watchable, though it lacks the eerie strengths of the British version.

The direction of this by Yakov Protazanov is more stylized and varied in technique than the 1910 version, though in the end the pacing doesn’t work as well for me as the original. We get Ivan Mozzhukine’s tormented performance, which is good, as all his work is, but frankly it doesn’t have enough of an arc to hold my interest: he’s obsessed by cards at the beginning, and he’s still obsessed in the end. It doesn’t help that for some reason he wears heavy eye-liner that makes him look like an early Goth or Bowie fan. The most obvious difference in plot is the lack of a scene where Lizaveta kills herself when she realizes that German never loved her, but just used her to get to the Countess. 

That may be an addition Tchaikovsky threw in – it does seem quite operatic. In any case, that made the 1910 version seem like more of a tragic romance to me – perhaps German does love her but thinks he needs the money in order to “deserve” her. Here, German’s just a jerk, even if he is a driven, intense and at times fascinating jerk. Mozzhukine’s intensity in this film reminds me of Conrad Veidt in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” or of Lon Chaney as the armless man in “The Unknown.” I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that this ends with an identical scene to “Natural Born Gambler” in which a person plays cards with himself in prison.

This movie has a large cast, elaborate sets and even some tricky camera-work. It's also the earliest performance I've seen so far by Ivan Mosjoukine, and it is interesting to compare to his more mature work later in France. At this point, he is clearly learning how to play down to the camera; many scenes are just perfect in tone, mostly the ones that involve Germann (not Herman, as listed in the credits) alone and reflective. Some of the more dramatic moments still carry the traces of stage performance, and come across as a bit over-the-top, but these moments are rare. Mosjoukine is already showing some of the characteristic traits of his later film acting - his hands are particularly beautiful and expressive. 

He also has those light, birdlike movements, especially of the head, that come across so well on film, but would have been invisible on the live stage. He was clearly giving a great deal of thought to how to bring out the best in this new technology. 'The Queen of Spades' has some nice double-exposure effects, particularly at the end, as an unshaven, ragged Germann plays with invisible cards in his cell in the insane asylum. The ghost of the Countess is very effective here, unlike in its first appearance, where it was so clearly solid it cast shadows. I imagine doing a long scene in double exposure with the two performers so close together would have been rather difficult at the time. On the other hand, the trick photography of Germann caught in a spider web as he sinks into insanity is very effective and gripping. This is a very good movie, far more than just a footnote of early Russian film-making.


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