Pushkin’s Queen of Spades

Books on film

Adapting literature to cinema usually does not make for a pretty story. There are any number of reasons. Some novels are inherently unfilmable. Others are dumbed down and commercialized to the point that traces of the original become nearly impossible to detect. Sometimes a talented, even brilliant director, say Orson Welles, takes on a book that is so remote from his sensibility (like The Trial) that the final product is unlikely to satisfy fans of either the author or the director.

A December 2 story on Slate brought up the recent deal David Milch signed with HBO to adapt a number of novels by William Faulkner, going on to ask writers such as Salman Rushdie, Francine Prose and film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum which books they would like to see filmed.

Of course there have been exceptions to the bad adaptation rule, many of which remain unfairly obscure. This column will be an attempt to look at some of the lesser known examples, starting with:

Pushkin’s Queen of Spades

Alexander Pushkin’s short story “The Queen of Spades” has a long and distinguished history on the big screen. Yet until recently I had never seen or even heard of what might be the story’s classic cinematic version, by British director Thorold Dickinson in 1949.

In a far reaching interview about Dickinson with the British Film Institute Martin Scorsese ranks The Queen of Spades as “a masterpiece that ranks right up there with the finest films of the period.” He cites the countess’s death scene, where instead of playing it for superficial horror effects Dickinson achieves a genuine and terrifying ambiguity.

Dickinson draws out the story to feature length without adding any filler, and is aided by some outstanding performances. Hearing characters named Vladimir and Ivan (not to mention characters named Hector and Achilles) speak in accentless English can sound ridiculous and shatter any suspension of disbelief, but this film is helped by having its main character, the German engineer, Herman Suvorin, played by a German-speaking actor, Anton Walbrook.

The soundtrack by French composer and member of Les Six Georges Auric is another of the film’s strongpoints. Auric did the music for Cocteau’s films (Blood of a Poet, Beauty and the Beast, Orpheus) as well as other classics like Rififi and The Innocents.

The film’s most striking feature though is its camerawork by Prague-born cinematographer Otto Heller. Having begun his career behind the camera as a World War I film reporter and shooting the funeral of Hapsburg Emperor Franz Joseph, Heller went on to an amazingly varied and distinguished career. He shot a considerable number of Czech and European silents and 1930s classics before emigrating to the UK at the beginning of the war. Far from living off his early film era glory Heller went on to shoot films such as Laurence Olivier’s Richard III, Peeping Tom, The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin.

There are other film versions of Pushkin’s story. The first was a 1916 Russian silent starring the great Ivan Mozzhukhin. For an early silent it is an excellent adaptation of the story. It was written by Fedor Ozep, who went on to direct a 1937 version of the story though I have never seen it. There is an extensive article on Ozep on a silent film forum that documents his early promise, difficulties in exile and tragically early death (like Mozzhukhin).

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Categories: Books on Film

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