About a year ago, I reviewed a 1910 Russian film of the same name by Pyotr Chardynin. This movie is surprisingly different, although that may result from the sources: this movie is based directly on the novel by Pushkin, while the earlier one is an adaptation of the opera by Tchaikovsky (itself based on the novel). Apart from that, the greater length of this version allows for a more complete telling of the story, which is more lightly sketched in the other version.
Ivan Mosjoukine is German, a young soldier from a good family with little money. Each night, while his comrades stay up and gamble, he watches them play cards, fascinated. When asked why he doesn’t join their games, he replies “I am not in a position to risk the essential in the hope of acquiring the superfluous.” At dinner, his friend tells him about his Aunt, the Countess (played in flashback by Tamara Duvan), who also does not play cards. When she was a young woman, she went to Paris and lost a great deal of money to the Duc d’Orleans. He insisted upon her paying up, although she couldn’t afford it. In desperation, she turned to the Count Saint-Germain (played by Nikolai Panov), the famed occultist and alchemist. He assured her that she didn’t need money, she just needed the secret to winning at cards, which he gave to her. She then asked for a return match and won all she had lost back and more. Her nephew cannot understand why she refuses to use her power still.
German becomes obsessed with the idea of learning the Countess’s secret. He cannot sleep, so he walks the streets of St. Petersburg, eventually coming across the Countess’s house and seeing her going out for the evening with her young ward, Lizaveta (played by Vera Orlova). An idea strikes him: he spends his days hanging around outside the house, apparently mooning over Lizaveta. He passes her love notes whenever she comes outside of the house. She is smitten by the handsome and earnest young man, and eventually lets him know how he can sneak into the house while the two ladies are out at a ball. When they get home, Lizaveta waits eagerly in her room, but German goes to the old woman and demands her secret. She won’t speak, so he pulls out a revolver. On seeing it, the Countess promptly dies. Finally, German goes to Lizaveta and tells her the Countess is dead. That’s the last we see of Lizaveta in this version. Now German goes home and broods, when he is visited by a vision of the Countess. She tells him a sequence of three cards that always wins: three, seven, ace. Now he knows the secret! He arranges for his friend to get him into a gambling night run by “Chekalinskii,” a Moscow high-roller. He arrives and makes his bet on the three, winning a substantial amount from the house. The next night, he come in and bets on the seven, winning again. When he comes in for the third night, he is sure he has won, until Chekalinskii says “my ace beats your queen.” German looks at the Queen of Spades in his hand and sees the face of the Countess. He has lost, and he goes mad, winding up in a lunatic asylum, hallucinating about cards.
The direction of this by Yakov Protazanov is more stylized and varied in technique than the 1910 version, though in the end the pacing doesn’t work as well for me as the original. We get Ivan Mozzhukine’s tormented performance, which is good, as all his work is, but frankly it doesn’t have enough of an arc to hold my interest: he’s obsessed by cards at the beginning, and he’s still obsessed in the end. It doesn’t help that for some reason he wears heavy eye-liner that makes him look like an early Goth or Bowie fan. The most obvious difference in plot is the lack of a scene where Lizaveta kills herself when she realizes that German never loved her, but just used her to get to the Countess. That may be an addition Tchaikovsky threw in – it does seem quite operatic. In any case, that made the 1910 version seem like more of a tragic romance to me – perhaps German does love her but thinks he needs the money in order to “deserve” her. Here, German’s just a jerk, even if he is a driven, intense and at times fascinating jerk. Mozzhukine’s intensity in this film reminds me of Conrad Veidt in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” or of Lon Chaney as the armless man in “The Unknown.” I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that this ends with an identical scene to “Natural Born Gambler” in which a person plays cards with himself in prison.
Protazanov seems to have had a bigger budget for extras, sets, and costumes, but not really enough imagination to keep the story moving forward as easily as the shorter film. What really stood out for me was the clear delineation between the main story in post-Napoleonic Russia and the flashback to pre-Revolutionary France. The accuracy in costumes is vital to this division, as well as some wise elements of set design (lots of mirrors to represent Versailles, for example). Some elements of the production could be said to prefigure Expressionism, as the set design and use of backlighting comments to some degree on the subjective state of the characters. The best camera move comes at the end, a long backward tracking shot as German approaches the gambling table for the final time. That said, Protazanov sticks mostly to square-shaped sets with exits and entrances, and minimal camera movement in very long takes.
Director: Yakov Protazanov
Camera: Evegni Slavinsky
Run Time: 1 hr, 3 Min
You can watch it for free: here.