BluRay/DVD Reviews

DEAD OF NIGHT and THE QUEEN OF SPADES

By • May 20th, 2003 •

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Here’s a great double bill. Who could have thought of it? DEAD OF NIGHT (DON) is an acknowledged, perennial classic, the granddaddy of all anthology horror films, the equivalent of curling up around a campfire and reading a collection of scary tales from the world’s best writers in the genre, plus a terrific surround story – a fatal rumination on deja vue – to tie the disparate segments together.

Double-billed with DON is one of my favorite actors in one of his best vehicles, a film so long out of the public eye that I have never found anyone who had seen it – Anton Walbrook (THE RED SHOES, THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP) in THE QUEEN OF SPADES. A juicy novella in itself, QOS is a nightmare, set in shadow and high decibels, of a man who sells his soul to the devil and immediately pays the price. It’s great to see it accessible again, proof, not that I needed further evidence of it, that absolutely everything is making its way into the worldwide repository of DVD.

Chris Acklin’s liner notes on QOS do a rousing job of backgrounding us on the production, its troubled genesis, and its laudable qualities. Michael Felsher’s notes on DON, on the other hand, though well researched, are insufficient for a film with such longterm impact, not even identifying who directed one of the better stories (the haunted birthday party). It also (possibly due to space constraints) fails to identify that the stars of the comedy episode, Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, made such a hit as bumbling but ultimately helpful Brit caricatures in Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES that they went on to a successful career appearing together as the same characters, and that this was one of these cameos…which is partly why it is the least successful piece of the puzzle: enjoying this story requires a knowledge of the duos history, and its dialogue references are also more rooted in the time, and therefore less accessible to today’s audiences.

QOS has a stunning transfer, one of those immaculate jobs which suggests that – unless extensive cleaning was done, which I doubt – the negative simply never saw much use and was therefore still in pristine condition, which is rather sad. The sound, also, is well recreated for a 1950 British film.

But although DON is also visually satisfying, the sound is a few notches short of dreadful, and while British films of the period are prone to suffer from weak optical transfers, I’ve seen better on this title, even on the laser disc I still own. The double bill is so dreamy, however, that you’ll just have to live with this one major defect.

QOS has seen many incarnations since Alexander Pushkin wrote it in 1834, as play, opera, and several times, celluloid. Director Thorald Dickinson labored on the minutia of production and we’re the better for it. One could never tire of watching William Kellner’s lush art direction, Otto Heller’s expressionistic lighting, nor lose interest in Georges Auric’s music or the energized singing and choreography. Anton Walbrook, who I’ve heard (on one of the Archers’ films’ commentary tracks) was withdrawn off camera, was a high-powered actor’s actor once ‘action’ was called, and he delivers a characteristically charismatic performance that has its Raskolnikovian moments. Edith Evans makes her screen debut rather late in life, and makes up for lost time.


DEAD OF NIGHT
1945 / B&W / 103 mins

Credits:
Directed by Charles Crichton, Alberto Cavalcanti, Basil Dearden & Robert Hamer.
Music Composed by Georges Auric.
Screenplay by John Banes and Angus MacPhail.
Photographed by Jack Parker, Stanley Pavey and Douglas Slocombe.
Produced by Michael Balcon. Still and poster gallery.

Cast:
Michael Redgrave, Mervyn Johns, Googie Withers, Basil Radford, Maunton Wayne, Sally Ann Howes, Ralph Michael.

THE QUEEN OF SPADES
1950 / B&W / 95 mins.

Credits:
Directed by Thorold Dickinson.
Music by Georges Auric.
Cinematography by Otto Heller.
Art Director William Kellner.

Cast:
Anton Walbrook, Edith Evans, Yvonne Mitchell, Ronald Howard, Miles Malleson, Mary Jerrold, Hay Petrie, Athene Seyler, Ivor Barnard.

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