The Best Horror Movie of 1949: The Queen of Spades

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The Best Horror Movie of 1949: The Queen of Spades

This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.

The Year

Another rough year, largely saved only by expanding the “horror” definition a bit, and by the fact that the U.K. was still producing horror-adjacent films at the time. 1949 and 1950 pretty much feel like the nadir of this particular trough, and you can imagine that the horror fans of the early 1940s must have felt a bit distraught, like the genre had simply disappeared on them. Perhaps it felt like all of Hollywood had outgrown “mad doctor” and monster films in this particular moment, but they clearly seem to be quite far from the public eye. Regardless, horror cinema is never less socially relevant than it is in this little stretch.

Nevertheless, there are pockets of significance. This year gave us the animated short film version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow from Disney, arguably the best-known adaptation of the tale until Tim Burton took a whack at it in 1999. Although this depiction of Ichabod Crane is a particularly gangly, comical and cartoonish one, the Horseman himself is drawn in an entirely different, far more macabre style, making the final chase sequence something that no doubt inspired the nightmares of countless children who didn’t suspect The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad would be so intense.

Elsewhere, Abbott and Costello tried to cash in on the success of Meet Frankenstein with the first of their “Meet” sequels, but Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff is just the start in a series of swiftly diminishing returns for the duo, with the possible exception of the fairly funny Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man. Here, however, despite his prominent billing, Boris Karloff is barely even a major player—a textbook case of a title promising more than it can deliver.

Finally, it’s worth noting that although Mighty Joe Young hardly feels like a legitimate “horror” entry, it’s important as a torch-passing moment from stop-motion animation pioneer Willis O’Brien (of King Kong fame) to protege Ray Harryhausen, who are both credited. Harryhausen would go on to ply his trade in some of the first, influential “atomic monster” films of the 1950s, bringing horror into an important new era in the process.

1949 Honorable Mentions: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, Mighty Joe Young, Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff

The Film: The Queen of Spades
Director: Thorold Dickinson

Thorold Dickinson’s The Queen of Spades is a little-known, post-war British masterpiece that has largely only been rediscovered within the span of the last decade, after being thought lost for more than 50 years. An impressive baroque drama with supernatural elements, it’s a gorgeously moody character study of a man who is willing to make any transgression if it will bring him wealth and power. Featuring first-rate cinematography, performances, production and sound design, it’s destined to become regarded as a cinema classic in film circles worldwide—once everyone finally sees it. And with boosters that range from Wes Anderson to Martin Scorsese, that shouldn’t take too much longer.

The story is set in 1800s Russia, revolving around a penniless military captain, Suvorin, who is fascinated by the card gambling game Faro … but never participates himself. The captain is a cold, reserved man who displays intense self-control, banking his small paychecks and dreaming of the day when he’ll be able to embrace his hidden sociopathy to “take life by the throat and force it to give me what I want.” He suffers from a severe inferiority complex, holding himself to highly unrealistic standards of achievement and being greatly pained by his inability to possess the luxuries of life. This in turn leads the captain to his sociopathic behavior, feigning friendship with peers before switching instantly to haughty command over those he sees as inferior, once they’re of no more use to him. He studies the cards, meanwhile, hoping that they could somehow be his salvation—if only he knew how to win.

Enter, the Countess Ranevskaya, an ancient woman who is purported to have sold her soul in her youth for the ability to win at cards, making her fortune in the process. Now aged, alone and bitter, she takes out her resentments on her ward, the doe-eyed Lizavetta, who desperately wishes for love and some form of escape. And unfortunately for her, that’s exactly what Captain Suvorin promises to give her, provided he can use the opportunity to learn the Countess’ secret. Thus, a game of deception and extortion is put into practice.

These may not exactly sound like horror bonafides, and indeed, for long stretches The Queen of Spades plays more like a superior costume drama, with excellent performances (especially from Anton Walbrook as Suvorin) and lavish sets and costumes, but things gradually begin to take a more sinister and supernatural turn. From the beginning, these aspects are all hinted at visually, as gorgeous cinematography on sets such as the gambling den throw huge, impressionistic outlines of shadow onto the wall behind specific characters, and even the tertiary players are lit with dramatic, devilish lighting that makes them seem more important and ominous than they really are. The film’s visuals are highly stylized throughout, making use of objects such as well-placed mirrors to reflect the faces of background characters in unusual ways, allowing the audience to see the expressions of people whose backs are turned. Conversations, likewise, are often shot in deep focus, with one character standing far behind the other, but both facing the camera.

It’s the film’s final 20 minutes, though, where it earns its place among the horror classics of the era, as its narrative devolves in strange and hallucinogenic directions, highlighted by impeccable sound design and the return of various sound motifs that are extremely effective. These haunting sequences, as Suvorin faces up to some of the ramifications of his actions, call to mind the delirious passion of Edgar Allan Poe pieces such as “The Raven,” and are quite frankly all the more terrifying for the lack of overt “scares” beforehand. It’s a masterful build toward an extremely satisfying crescendo.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.