The Queen of Spades (1916)

aka Pikovaya dama
Article 3253 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 5-16-2010
Posting Date: 7-11-2010
Directed by Yakov Protazanov
Featuring Tamara Duvan, Ivan Mozzhukhin, Vera Orlova
Country: Russia
What it is: Ghost revenge story

A poor soldier, obsessed with gambling but unable to do so due to lack of funds, becomes intent on learning the secret of a countess who knows a secret three-card combination that can make him rich.

Though I don’t think it’s as impressive as the British version of the story from the late forties, this Russian silent film is still quite useful, as it emphasizes other story details that are often overlooked in other versions. In particular, it gives us a much more elaborate backstory for the countess; the first third of the move involves the circumstances surrounding her discovery of the secret. It deemphasizes the soldier’s relationship with the countess’s ward (a ruse designed by the soldier to give him access to the countess), it clarifies some of the plot points, and it stretches out the climax by having the three cards played in succession over three nights. Somehow, these changes make this version of more interest than it would be otherwise. I haven’t read the original Pushkin story yet (though I do have a copy), so I wonder how closely it follows it. At any rate, I found this silent version quite watchable, though it lacks the eerie strengths of the British version.


Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

aka Five Million Years to Earth
Article 3214 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 4-6-2010
Posting Date: 6-2-2010
Directed by Roy Ward Baker
Featuring James Donald, Andrew Keir, Barbara Shelley
Country: UK
What it is: Ambitions science fiction epic

A subway tunnel dig unearths the skeletons of prehistoric men, followed by a strange object that is initially thought to be a bomb. However, upon examination, it turns out to be much more ominous…

This was Hammer’s adaptation of the third of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass teleplays, possibly one of the most ambitious stories ever in terms of its scope, as it deals with life and culture on other planets, the rise of life on this one, and the root of our cultural nightmares of demons and devils. If there’s any problem with trying to adapt this into a movie, it may be that the story is a bit too complex to be encompassed in its running time; though you can follow the story, you do sense that much has been left unexplained that was given more time in the TV version of the story. Still, it’s a fascinating watch, and the performances from all are excellent, with Andrew Keir taking top honors as Professor Bernard Quatermass. I’ve not seen the fourth Quatermass story, but it’s highly doubtful that it could be any more ambitious than this one is. Despite a few minor flaws, this is certainly one of Hammer’s finest moments.

Quintet (1979)

QUINTET (1979)
Article 2804 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-10-2009
Posting Date: 4-17-2009
Directed by Robert Altman
Featuring Paul Newman, Vittorio Gassman, Fernando Rey
Country: USA

During an ice age after the apocalypse, a drifter arrives at a city to find the residents obsessed with a game called Quintet. When his pregnant female travelling companion is killed in a bombing, he tries to track down the killer, only to find a list of people involved in a Quintet tournament who are being killed off one by one.

I’ve not heard good things about this Robert Altman movie, but I found it to have its uses. Granted, most of the things I like best are on the periphery; I like the detail of what happens to dead bodies in the city, the recurrence of the number five in various details, the use of a multi-national cast (on the cast list on IMDB, I had to go down all the way to the tenth name to find someone who came from the same country as one of the other actors, and I couldn’t help but notice that the character played by that actor is impersonated by another character in the movie who happens to be from the same country. I also have a great admiration for director Robert Altman; he doesn’t pander, and he takes risks. Unfortunately, taking risks sometimes backfires, and when one of his movies fails to connect, it’s a big problem. This one is far too long, and it has a fair amount of dead space (particularly in the first half). Conversation is often so sparse that Altman’s actors don’t get much of an opportunity to engage in the energetic improvisation of some of his other movies. The mystery isn’t very mysterious, and the movie is totally dull whenever it tries to be vaguely “meaningful”. Nevertheless, I don’t feel I came away from this one empty-handed, and I would be curious to know what the rules are for the game Quintet; though it’s clearly a fictional game, I wouldn’t put it past Altman to have actually constructed a clear set of rules for it.

The Queen’s Swordsman (1961)

aka Los Espadachines de la reina
Article 2779 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-16-2008
Posting Date: 3-23-2009
Directed by Roberto Rodriguez
Featuring Ofelio Guilmain, Xavier Loya, Miguel Manzano
Country: Mexico

A wolf and a skunk find a human child lost in the woods, and raise her as their own. They soon decide that the woods are too dangerous for her, so they decide to take her to human civilization, and so they leave their cave and become swordsmen. They become involved with a princess who has become the target of an evil queen.

I went into this one blind, knowing only that it was a foreign movie. Just from the title, I suspected it was going to be an Italian swashbuckler with slight fantastic elements (and if I had known that the movie features a scene of a beautiful woman being tortured, my suspicion that it was an Italian movie would have only been stronger). But instead, I found out it was Mexican; furthermore, it came to us via K. Gordon Murray and features two characters I remember from LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD; namely, the Wolf and the Skunk (the closest I can come to a Mexican equivalent to Franco and Ciccio). I knew there was a series of sequels to LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD, but I didn’t know these two characters went on to anything else. So, given that it’s a Mexican children’s fantasy, I fully expected high weirdness, and the beginning of the movie (in which we discover that little girl has a pet alligator she likes to sleep with and has a fondness for amphibians and reptiles of all kinds) certainly delivers. Oddly enough, it settles down after that; it actually seems like a fairly straightforward swashbuckler, with the only the gimmick that the heroic swordsmen are animals to give it that weirdness. Oh, yes, the Wolf and the Skunk sing (and they’re no better at it than they were in LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD), and there’s plenty of slapstick silliness, but I have to admit to being slightly disappointed at this one; after all, most Mexican children’s fantasies I’ve seen go way off the deep end. The oddest touch is that the ending is even a little downbeat.

The Queen of Spades (1910)

aka Pikovaya dama
Article 2731 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 10-28-2008
Posting Date: 2-3-2009
Directed by Pyotr Chardynin
Featuring Paval Biryukov, Aleksandra Goncharova, Antonina Pozharskaya
Country: Russia

A soldier romances the daughter of a countess. However, he has an ulterior motive; he is hoping to wrest from the countess a winning three-card combination that he hopes will make his fortune. When he threatens her with a gun, she dies unexpectedly. However, her ghost appears and…

This is the third version I’ve seen of the Pushkin story, and, for a bare-bones 15 minute treatment of the story, it’s not bad. It manages to distill the story to its essence, though if you’re not familiar with the story, you may be a little confused by what actually happens in the last few minutes. However, having enjoyed the classic 1948 British treatment of the story, I didn’t have a problem. Apparently, quite a few silent treatments were made of the Pushkin story, though very few of them are extant.

The Queen of Spades (1960)

aka Pikovaya dama
Article 2503 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 2-10-2008
Posting Date: 6-19-2008
Directed by Roman Tikhomirov
Featuring Oleg Strizhenov, Zurab Andjaparidze, Laris Avdeyeva
Country: Soviet Union

An officer wishes to run off with the woman he loves, but in order to do that, he needs money. He hears that the elderly countess who takes care of his love knows the secret of three cards that will guarantee a win at gambling. He decides to force the secret out of her.

This isn’t a direct adaptation of the Pushkin short story, but rather an adaptation of the Tchaikovsky opera based on the story. So once again this non-opera-fan finds himself watching an opera for this series. You know, there are times here where I get a sense of the power of opera; hearing these singers belt out their music can be somewhat stirring. However, these are only momentary feelings, and pretty soon I find myself wishing they’d hurry the plot on a little instead of stretching everything out for the sake of the music, and I don’t really feel I have a legitimate complaint about it because it is, after all, an opera, and what did I expect? It all comes down to this; when I want to see this story, I’ll always opt for the 1949 non-opera cinematic version of the story, a fine movie in its own right. Still, I like the way this adaptation doesn’t feel stagebound, and I find it interesting that each character is played by two people – one whose physical presence appears in the movie, while another does the singing. The story itself is also quite good, but I knew that from the other version I saw. Certain eerie happenings give the movie some horror touches.


Quatermass and the Pit (1958)

Article 2181 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 3-6-2007
Posting Date: 8-2-2007
Directed by Rudolph Cartier
Featuring Andre Morell, Cec Linder, Anthony Bushell

Professor Quatermass becomes involved in an investigation of the remains of ancient mammals discovered in a digging in London. When further digging yields a large container, authorities believe it is a bomb, but Quatermass comes to believe it was a spacecraft from another planet that played a role in the evolution of humanity. However, there are more increasingly sinister discoveries to be made…

My version of this British TV serial was edited together into a single whole with only an intermission to mark a breaking point; nevertheless, I chose to watch it in thirty minute increments, partially because that was the way it was originally planned and partially because it spared me from watching the whole three hours in one sitting.

At least part of the reason I feel pretty lukewarm about serials that were made for the movies is that they lacked the ambition of TV serials like this. Granted, most cinematic serials were made with the full knowledge that they were only a secondary attraction. The TV serials of Nigel Kneale were not throwaways; this one takes advantage of its running time by coming up with an elaborate and sophisticated plot which covers a vast range of subjects, including the origin and psychology of man, the conflicts between science and superstition (and the similarities as well), and the uneasy partnership between science and the military. The acting is excellent throughout, with the three leads particularly memorable. I think the show “Doctor Who” shows a great deal of influence from these Quatermass serials, and I suspect that this is one of those stories that simply grows deeper on repeated viewings. Quite frankly, it may be one of the finest science fiction presentations ever.