This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series
Movie Review – The Queen of Spades (1916)
The Queen of Spades (1916) is a Russian horror film made upon the eve of the revolution, which would erupt the following year. It is often referred to as one of director Yakov Protazanov’s masterpieces, and he would go on to make films well into the Soviet era. The film’s star, Ivan Mazzhukin, would flee to Crimea and then to France. His career would thrive until the advent of talkies which exposed his thick accent, effectively making his marketability obsolete.
The plot is based upon Alexander Pushkin’s 1834 short story of the same name and is filled with beautiful sets and lavish costume designs. The story follows a young nobleman who learns that an old wealthy countess was once told of a progression of cards that, when played, were unbeatable. He is determined to get the secret and accidentally scares the old woman to death, only to be visited by her ghost and given the secret. He goes to gamble and at first wins before things begin to unravel for him.
There is artistry here, certainly, but pacing is an issue. The camera lingers too long too often and left me staring at the screen wondering if I was missing something when, in fact, the character was just slowly finishing a meal and putting on his coat. This has a lot to do with feature length film still being in its infancy, especially in Russia, but the plot is fairly thin and moves quite slowly through its 84-minute running time. I have considerable patience for silent films, and I sometimes even enjoy those long candid shots. Nevertheless, I found my attention being tried here, especially as the plot doesn’t really kick in until the last twenty minutes, and from there it ironically feels too rushed.
That being said, The Queen of Spades employs novel techniques for the time, such as split screen and retrospection. Additionally, it’s easy to see how this film would have resonated deeply with Russians at the time with its depiction of a slothful upper class having little to do but drink and gamble away their fortunes. One scene even shows the countess returning home while beggars are pushed away from the door, ignored by her as she passes. Her privileged class would be overthrown within a year’s time, and one can’t help but see what the poor and underclass must have been thinking and feeling as that day quickly approached.