1949’s The Queen Of Spades has just undergone a six month restoration process – and we’ve been given a glimpse as to what’s involved.
“I’d rather take it by the throat and force it to give me what I want.”
How far would you go to amass your fortune? Would you swindle your fellow man? Would you bargain your soul with the devil? Would you make someone fall desperately in love with you as a ruse?
Would you even commit…murder?
These questions lie in the heart of Thorold Dickinson’s The Queen Of Spades (1949.) Based on a novel by Alexander Pushkin, it’s a masterful gothic horror romp. Set in 1802 Russia, it tells the story of the ruthlessly ambitious Captain Suvorin, who overhears a rumour that an ailing Countess sold her soul to win at cards. Pursuing this story, and thusly his imagined future fortune, Suvorin will stop at nothing to achieve the secret of the cards.
Director Thorold Dickinson and Austrian actor Anton Walbrook are reunited for the movie, after their tremendous outing Gaslight in 1940. Here, Walbrook plays the enigmatic yet scheming Suvorin who dreams of a life beyond his station as Captain of the Engineers. With his fellows being mostly nobility and even princes, Suvorin keeps himself quiet as he pursues his plans, tortured by his poverty and meagre means.
With the legendary Edith Evans as the ancient Countess, and Yvonne Mitchell and Ronald Howard (son of the brilliant Leslie) in supporting roles, The Queen Of Spades is an astonishing, must-see film.
At the BFI London Film Festival, there were many tremendous new releases that captivated audiences and critics. Yet nestled within the Glass Onions, the Matildas, and all the other new exciting films, was the BFI treasures season – which I spoke about in my column previously. Within that pack, we were gloriously dealt Studiocanal’s striking 4K restoration of The Queen Of Spades.
This triumphant tale of treachery and obsession was presented on the big screen by BFI Archive Curator Claire Smith. Alongside Smith were designer Oliver Messel’s set models for the film. They were built in 1948 and has been preserved in BFI’s Archive in Berkhamsted. Smith spoke about Messel being a star-attraction for the “shoe-string budget” film as he was a celebrated theatrical set designer. Whilst the main set, as with all sets, was destroyed, this beautifully maintained model showed the impeccable work that served as a lavish, gothic backdrop to this story.
The intricate design of the Countess’s palace is integral to the telling of the story, especially when paired with Otto Heller’s cinematography. So soaked in secrets and shadows, it really becomes the perfect place for both the Countess and Suvorin’s unravelling.
Studiocanal, had previously re-released the title in 2009. However, this brand new 4K restoration has been developed from the original nitrate negative. I was lucky enough to speak to the guys at Studiocanal about bringing The Queen Of Spades to life: namely John Rodden, Head of UK Home Entertainment, and Jahanzeb Hayat, Technical Manager: Theatrical & Restorations.
“It’s a real favourite, and it’s great to be able to revisit it,” said Rodden, speaking on how the team at Studiocanal have an admiration of The Queen Of Spades. Though it had reissued the title before Rodden spoke about how technological advances helped bring the film back to the glorious original. “You really can bring out the best in the frames. The film stocks that were used back in the day were absolutely superb. They render just beautiful, beautiful imagery.”
Rodden is correct, of course, Thorold Dickinson’s work is absolutely incredible to see on the big screen thanks in part to the aforementioned Otto Heller.
Heller, famed for his work on movies on The Ladykillers (1955) and Peeping Tom (1960), utilises the candlelight of the era, allowing our anti-hero to slink through his misdeeds.
“It was just this one guy producing absolute amazing black and white photograph, and it’s striking,” Rodden continues. “When you watch this one again, and the detail you see now, it is incredible. I think we are at a stage now where you can show these films in ways probably as good, if not better, than ever possible before. On the big screen – that is the first, and best place to see any of these restorations.”
The Queen Of Spades has been a movie that has attracted audiences consistently over the years since 1949. Its story feels timeless, an ode to how desperation and obsession can drive one mad. “For me, it is how daring it is visually,” Rodden says, speaking on the longevity of the piece, “What struck me is how modern some of the camera movements were, almost Scorsese-like. He kind of zooms in or tracks to bases and objects. I think it just has a coherent sense of style.”
Rodden also wonders on whether the film was influential for other filmmakers, stating that the cinematic language feels as though it is echoed through later works. “The montage sequences and the repeated voices of memory have since become cinematic tropes. I wonder: was this the first time that was done? There are moments here that have become part of the culture. It is certainly very evocative and intense.”
Our conversation drifts to Anton Yalbrook in his acclaimed role – a truly great antihero of the film. “I find him almost Alan Rickman-esque”, exclaims Rodden.
Hayat is the man behind breathing new life into Dickinson’s work, an arduous task with many teams working repeatedly on every frame and making sure it shines anew. “It starts off with a bit of research, which tend to look at the kind of older releases. We see what fans of the film are saying online, engage with the issues that people are flagging – whether it be sound, picture quality, or colour grading. Then we see what we can fix when we make a new master.”
After this research is done Hayat and his teams identify the original negative. In this case, utilising the brilliant BFI archive and getting access through it. “They do a series of intensive checks on the film. They get the actual physical film on a bench with lights on it to make sure it is physically in good shape.”
Following that, it gets a physical cleaning through a machine before it is handed over to Studiocanal’s facility. In this case, the heart of the restoration was based in London. It is then scanned, and images of the negative are taken. “You’re gaining all the information that’s in the picture. You look at these scans to see the final image,” says Hayat, speaking about how making the pictures milky and white helps spot the corrections needed. “As touched upon earlier, our technology gets better and better, so we have a better chance of making the film look as good as it was when it first came out in print.”
The team spent 20,000 hours examining these film strips and frames. “That’s individual people going through every single frame of the film and physically removing bits of dirt and debris. Then they watch panels, looking for white dots that you see in fashion now. We also worked on things such as scratches and stabilization before it goes through the colour grade.”
The colour grade itself is somewhat trickier, especially when it is an old film where either the filmmakers have passed away or are unavailable. Hayat speaks on how the team uses references on previous releases as well as the 35mm to gauge on how it looks. “After we grade it, we perform checks, making sure the sound and picture are good, before we make a new DCP. For this release, we made a brand-new HD Master from which we are going to make our new Blu-ray from, which will also go onto digital platforms.”
The process for restoring The Queen Of Spades took around six months. “The most time-consuming process is naturally the respiration because you’re going through every frame of the film,” Hayat says, and by now he must be sick of the film – as perfect as it is! “It’s part of the job. But I’m watching the film different from how an audience member watches the film. You look for different things. You are not always paying attention to the kind of the plot. I focus more on the technical side.”
Still, all that hard work most definitely paid off. From the small screen to the big screen, The Queen Of Spades is a magnificent of restoration. “It is a real treat on the big screen,” Hayat continues, “but even when it is available to rent, it will look as good as well.”
Studiocanal has been a big studio when it comes to restoring classic films and allowing new audiences to find this old treasures. “It’s important to us because we have one of the biggest collections of films in the world,” Rodden explains, speaking of the vast array of films that the studio has produce both recently and in the past. “There’s a great cultural heritage is very rich in this country though there are films from French cinema, German films, and really big Hollywood franchises as well such as Terminator (1984), Rambo (1982), and Basic Instinct (1992). Then we can also make sequels from beloved films such as The Railway Children (1970) and Paddington (2014). It is all very rich and very diverse. The catalogue is our identity.”
The conversation then turns to audiences that may not have an appreciation for these classic films. And how re-releases such as these can reach out to people who are averse to black and white films. “The best work speaks to our times today. That is definitely true with Spades. Especially in a cinema. Once one gets over the initial hesitance, when you are in front of it, without distraction, with a big screen projection – it’s undeniably beautiful.” Rodden also speaks on how Edith Evan’s Countess could be played by one of the tremendous performers of our time. “It could be Maggie Smith doing that role in that big costume. From a technical point of view, you just got to admire the work, right?”
Hayat also showcases this appreciation for timeless films.
“I think cinema has a language that kind of goes through generations, influencing favourite directors and cinematographers that live and work today. You can track back their inspiration and watch those films. I think people should look past black and white and lean into the story, the plot, and the acting. There’s a lot of things to admire, rather than just colour. If you avoid black and white film, you’re going to miss out on masterpiece such as Psycho (1960) for example. And The Queen Of Spades.”
The Queen Of Spades is a labour of love that has spanned decades, from the original team in 1949 to the Studiocanal and BFI team who have preserved it. This sublime restoration and enticing story should be ideally seen on the big screen. Certainly, it was this writer’s favourite from the recent London Film Festival, and whilst we can appreciate the new, we can still hold reverence for the old – especially a film that has hundreds of people pouring their hard-work to be reseen again, and again, and again.
The 4K restoration of The Queen of Spades will be screening at BFI Southbank from 23rd December. Studiocanal will release the film on 4K, UHD in the new year as part of its classic ranges on Blu-ray.
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