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DVD SAVANT

DEAD of NIGHT
&
The QUEEN of SPADES

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

What a terrific double bill! Anchor Bay has seen fit to give us two classic British films in a single double-disc package. Dead of Night is a superb tale of deja-vu, possession, and good old-fashioned English ghosts. Queen of Spades is an almost as eerie but less well-known macabre tale adapted from a Russian novella. About the only formal confluence between the two is the uncanny music of Georges Auric, but they make a terrific pair of high-quality chillers.


Dead of Night
Anchor Bay Entertainment
1945 / b&w / 1:37 flat full frame / 102 min. / Street Date May 20, 2003 / $29.98
Starring Mervyn Johns, Roland Culver, Mary Merrall, Googie Withers, Frederick Valk, Anthony Baird, Sally Ann Howes, Robert Wyndham, Judy Kelly, Miles Malleson, Michael Allan, Barbara Leake, Ralph Michael, Esme Percy, Basil Radford, Naunton Wayne, Peggy Bryan, Allan Jeayes, Michael Redgrave, Elisabeth Welch, Hartley Power
Cinematography Jack Parker, Stan Pavey, Douglas Slocombe
Art Director Michael Relph
Editor Charles Hasse
Original Music Georges Auric
Written by John Baines, E.F. Benson, T.E.B. Clarke, Angus MacPhail, H.G. Wells
Produced by Michael Balcon
Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer

Synopsis:

Architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) shows up at the country cottage of Eliot Foley (Roland Culver) and experiences a major case of deja vu: the house, the people in it, and the words they speak are all part of a recurring dream he's had. The other houseguests encourage him with uncanny tales of their own, while visiting psychiatrist Dr. van Straaten (Frederick Valk) insists that paranormal fantasies don't exist.

Expert analyses of Dead of Night can be found in almost any book on classic horror films; my favorite is Carlos Clarens' Horror Movies. A rare case of an ominbus film that works, this multi-director picture's wraparound 'linking narrative' is as good as any of its individual segments, something hard to find in the omnibus revival begun by Dr. Terror's House of Horrors in 1964.

Mervyn Johns' nervous milquetoast is certain that both he and the rest of his companions are puppets enacting a fated, locked sequence of events. His recurring dream is a blurred memory from which details spring up only fitfully. But when they do, they're accurate enough to convince all that there's something to his story.

(almost all a spoiler from here on, so, sorry ...)

The witty script is charming and disarming, with its pleasant tea-guests eager to embrace the fun of a good old-fashioned ghost experience. The dotty lady of the house is given some zinger deadpan lines, like, "Could you repeat that again, and this time in words of one syllable or less?" The verbal humor centers around Craig's dreams, and creates a warm atmosphere as several stories are told, either to convince the skeptical Dr. van Straaten, or to give Craig courage.

The first two are 'uncanny happenings' such as to be found in straightforward paranormal fiction and shows like One Step Beyond. The story about a race car driver (Anthony Baird) is simple but impeccably timed, with a perfect use of music, the ticking of a clock, and silence. There's good suspense when Baird walks to see what's beyond the window curtain, and what he finds is both unexpected and truly disturbing. Sally Ann Howes (from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) is a cute teenager with another unexplainable story, that's a nicely-directed but much less impressive fragment. Her contribution is better felt in the wraparound story.

The second-best episode comes next, a cleverly worked-out possession story involving an antique mirror. Googie Withers (Night and the City) finds her fianceé Ralph Michael falling under the influence of a strange, old room only he can see in the mirror's three panes. The execution of the tale makes all the difference, as the mystery is rather simple. But Auric's crashing chords raise hackles all by themselves, and clever directorial judgment when to show the mystery room, and when not to, keeps us nervous about what will appear in the mirror.  1 Michael's initial ability to 'shake off' the illusion is a very dreamlike detail, and as the room's power grows, we can feel him losing his grip on reality. Our sense of security sinks right along with it.

The episode is a model of economy, and isn't a second too long or too short. The conclusion is great cinema, with shock cuts revealing new information both to us and the terrified Withers.

Everyone dislikes H.G. Wells' Golf tale, because it's a comedy relief segment, and the present-day fans of the film aren't likely to understand Ealing Studios' 1945 desire to make this picture a hit with general audiences. The BBFC says it was granted an "A for adults" certificate, but with cuts, although I've never heard of what may have had to be cut out, and the film doesn't reveal any obvious excision points.

Although I've never seen a short version, all the British critics report that Sally Ann Howes' segment and the Golf tale were dropped from many theatrical prints, and might not have been in the version initially shown in America. The Golf segment, starring the comedy team of Basil Radford and Naughton Wayne (of The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich), are silly characters in an okay skit. I think it does serve its intended purpose: the interruption of the film's mood puts us off-guard, ready to be jolted again.

The final story about Hugo the ventriloquist's dummy is the most celebrated, with Michael Redgrave giving one of the 3 or 4 best horror film performances ever. This is an extremely sophisticated concept, that stays riveting no matter how many times one sees the picture - Redgrave's reactions and detailed facial movements just become more fascinating. Saving the best for last, it's also the most complicated and lavish segment. It has many clever sets (my favorite is a simple hallway, seen only for a few seconds, with a skylight through which we see the club's animated sign) and its own involved time-structure flashbacks.

Here's where things become critically strange, as many people have pointed out the resemblance of this riveting tale to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, made fifteen years later. Both are about possession, where a living person is dominated by a non-living one - murdered mother, inanimate dummy. In each case, the possessed thinks he's in control, but by dividing his personality, he's allowed his dark, Other half to overcome his rational side. There's a confusion in Dead of Night whether the dummy is really a dummy, just as some of Psycho's characters debate the existence of Mrs. Bates in the old house.

But some details in Psycho are too close to be anything but plagiarism, right down to the 'psychiatrist' ending with coddling guards taking things (the dummy Hugo, a blanket) into asylum cells. Both Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates and Redgrave's Maxwell Frere are reduced to mute catatonic states, grinning smugly at their interior deceptions. If that's not enough, there's identical dialogue: "I didn't get the story from Norman, I got it from his Mother." Hitchcock's keen interest in his perceived competition (Val Lewton, Henri-Georges Clouzot, even William Castle) can be seen in selected borrowings from their films. Adapting a shower scene from The Seventh Victim only compliments the source, but this takes the cake. Robert Bloch's book Psycho was based on a real case, but somewhere between Bloch, Joseph Stefano and the screen, Dead of Night got involved. The psychological possession concept in Psycho is a clear transposition of this tale.

Before Dead of Night, ventriloquists' dummies were considered cute, but Hugo is no Charlie McCarthy. Redgrave's facial tics could be his vocal tricks, or the facial tics of a madman, and with fellow ventriloquist Sylvester Kee (Hartley Power) on hand to endorse Frere's genius, we don't know what to think. All I do know is that the disturbing situations and images are brilliantly organized. It's perfect narrative filmmaking.

Dead of Night has four directors, which isn't a bad thing for an omnibus film if the producers maintain a firm hand. Dead of Night works because it has a range of styles - Basil Dearden handles the framing story and the race-car driver story with just the right level of effusive goodwill. Robert Hamer's mirror story is more rigid and controlled. Charles Crichton's golf tale is the only part of the film without a visual inspiration. Finally, Brazilian Alberto Cavalcanti's Sally Ann Howes segment is reasonable, and his Hugo episode is a masterpiece. Ealing's calm control is so evident, that it might be more illuminating to find out which episodes were shot by the three cameramen - is later bigtime lenser Douglas Slocombe responsible for the restrained segments, or the wilder visual moments?

(Even bigger spoiler)

After the Hugo story, the framing story mutates, with all of the characters besides Craig and van Stratten practically dissolving into the darkening woodwork. Then the lighting becomes more frightening than in any of the other stories, and, at a certain point, all logic dissolves into a fever-dream of surreal distortions and expressionist derangement, a whirlpool of nightmare images. The German classics rarely combined wild cutting with their weird visuals, so the impact here is incredible - Caligari gone the next 3 steps. People who are disturbed by Dorothy Gale meeting dream friends in real life in Oz will be floored by the parade of characters from the earlier 'unrelated' tales, encountering and tormenting Craig. If the movie hasn't totally gotten you up to this point, this ending should do the trick. If you're already spooked, even a bit, you'll flip.

(ultimate spoiler)

But even then the thrills aren't over, for Dead of Night concludes with perhaps the only really successful utilization of the cyclical, recurring dream structure that infuriates most people. The ending has Craig awakening from his dream, just like a dozen other pictures. A telephone call immediately sends him off on a new assignment - to visit Eliot Foley's farm, restarting the action of the movie. The creepy title music starts again, this time over a broad daylight repeat of Craig's arrival at Foley's, successfully turning the benign into the menacing. Is it all happening again? Or was the movie we just saw the dream, and now it's happening for real, for the first time? Or is Craig in a repeating circle of Hell?

The main title's line drawing of a distorted reclining form perhaps clues us that the 'first time through' is indeed a dream, but that doesn't prove much. I think most audiences even now will be thrown by the ending revelations, because few people expect Borges-like time-space enigmas to intercede in mundane filmic reality. The viewer's experience watching Dead of Night is identical to Craig's - he also is a passive audience for some ghost stories. We're pulled in as he's pulled in, and many viewers perceive this ploy.

But not too many pick up on the little super-clue on which all the film hinges - Craig's coin toss. That bit at home, before his trip to the haunted farm, may be the only piece of reality we see. If so, if the coin would only come up tails once instead of heads ... maybe the spell would be broken. Dead of Night gives us a nightmare, that might have an exit.


Anchor Bay's Dead of Night comes on its own separate disc within the keep case. The transfer is good, but has a slightly worse section that starts with the Sally Ann Howes story and goes on for awhile, with the picture more pale and the right side a little softer. This movie was so popular, perhaps Canal+ didn't find the usual set of perfect elements. Add that to a hairline scratch here and there, and a slightlier crunchy sound than we're used to hearing from AB's older English films, and this transfer isn't the absolute blessing it could have been. It is Very Good, and definitely miles beyond what we've previously been able to see here - the EMI videotape version with its dark picture and clogged audio track.

There are some stills and artwork in a gallery, but unfortunately no trailer. This was reportedly a phenomenally popular film, coming as it did right after the war when Britons were again ready for a full diet of entertainment. Interestingly, many modern English critics call it overrated, when Savant thinks it's underappreciated. Horror isn't just modern shock and transgression, and Dead of Night is where the English ghost tradition meets psychological horror.


The Queen of Spades
Anchor Bay Entertainment
1949 / b&w / 1:37 flat full frame / 95 min. / Street Date May 20, 2003 / $29.98
Starring Anton Walbrook, Edith Evans, Yvonne Mitchell, Ronald Howard, Mary Jerrold, Anthony Dawson, Miles Malleson, Pauline Tennant, George Woodbridge
Cinematography Otto Heller
Art Director William Kellner
Editor Hazel Wilkinson
Original Music Georges Auric
Written by Rodney Ackland, Arthur Boys from the novella by Alexander Pushkin
Produced by Anatole de Grunwald
Directed by Thorold Dickinson

Synopsis:

Captain Herman Suvorin (Anton Walbrook of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) is a German by birth serving as an engineer in the Russian army. It's 1806, and he's tired of being the poor boy among the aristocratic princes who frequent Faro games with paid gypsy entertainment, like Fyodor (Anthony Dawson of Dial M for Murder and Dr. No). A bookstore sells him an occult tome with an account of an accursed Countess R***, who sold her soul to a necromancer in exchange for a charm to win at cards. Now, 40 years later, Herman thinks she and the aged harridan Countess Ranevskaya (Edith Evans of The Importance of Being Earnest) are one and the same. There's no way he can get close to the Countess, unless he uses the affections of Lizaveta Ivanova (Yvonne Mitchell of Demons of the Mind) as an excuse to enter the old woman's guarded house.

To prove just what kind of Savant you're dealing with, I'd never heard of the macabre classic Queen of Spades until I read of its double-billing here with Dead of Night. Then, I no sooner than wondered about it, when my son returned a bunch of pocketbooks he'd borrowed. One of them was an old Famous Monsters compendium. I opened it up, and discovered an article Robert Bloch had written on his favorite fright films. Right there in b&w, was the title of one of his favorites, Queen of Spades. Go figure.

(This one's a spoiler too)

This is a costume picture from a popular Pushkin story, with a chilling dimension of Faust-like diabolism. One woman's impetuous choice for evil is followed 40 years later by man who will give up his soul for her secret. It is set within the workings of St. Petersburg's tightly-classed Russian society, between Napoleonic wars. The upstart Herman, played by Anton Walbrook like a tightly-wound spring, gets his inspiration from books. When his plans require him to court a woman, he uses phrases lifted from a cheap publication printed for that purpose. But his main guide is a demonic text, with a chapter on those who've made successful deals with the devil, and another on how to get a secret from a dead person.

Queen of Spades gets off to a creepy start, after more Georges Auric music behind some very-well crafted titles. The Queen of Spades playing card is identified as the most unlucky in the deck, and the rest of the film shows us why. When Herman Suvorin reads the chapter on the Countess, the screen becomes a delirious flashback, to her deal with the devil made to cover a marital indiscretion. Along with the Countess, we enter a haunted mansion, one of the best on film, with a skull-emblazoned door beckoning us into darkness. Inside, a necromancer fashions waxen figurines of those he wishes to curse ... the screen caresses a table set with glasswear and misshapen waxen dolls, to hold the souls of those foolish enough to sell them. It's a vision that tops most of German expressionism. There's a chilling moment when the young Countess (Pauline Tennant), having sold her soul, begs help from an icon painting of Mary and Jesus - the heads of which become black holes, denying her.

Most of the rest of the film plays out as a particularly well-plotted, suspenseful thriller about a paid companion who yearns for romance. Lizaveta gets her fancy ballroom dance, like Natasha of War and Peace, but finds herself with two suitors. Herman plans to callously use her, but another, Andrei, truly loves Lizaveta. He's played by Ronald Howard, the lookalike son of Leslie Howard.

This was Edith Evans' first talkie, and at about 60 she's made up to look 80 (even though the chronology of the film should make her 65 or so). She's a selfish, suspicious old monster, terrified of anything sneaking up on her, probably because she's afraid of what will happen after she dies. The movie is curiously effective precisely because it doesn't directly judge its characters - Herman is oddly sympathetic, the old Countess has few redeeming qualities, and young Lizaveta's dishonesty with her mistress makes us uncomfortable.

The taint of the openly supernatural imagery up front colors the main story, where the workings of magic are less definite. Herman sees strange shadows and hears the Countess'es spectral voice, making a bargain he's foolish not to listen to carefully. Herman crashes a huge funeral, and makes an unholy demand of the corpse, which opens its eyes. Nobody else sees this - can it be only Herman's hallucination? Although the plotting is clean, it isn't exactly predictable; I imagine this one had them hanging on the edge of their seats.

I was shocked to read that this was a thinly budgeted film, with sometimes flimsy sets. The movie looks amazing, from the gypsy dancers in the gambling hall, to the formal ball, to the opera house. The costumes and makeup are impressive, as are the details of the scores of seamstresses maintaining the Countess'es dresses, and the squads of servants who handle the physical running of a house. The movie appears to side with commoner Herman for a while, scoring points off the obnoxious aristocrat played by genre favorite Anthony Dawson. Another young noble remembers his grandad only as a man who used to beat the servants with his stick, while laughing.

Like Rebecca, Queen of Spades has horror overtones while remaining a romance. But the creation of a world possibly dominated by fantastic forces is compelling, and we almost forget that what we see really occurring could mostly have rational explanations - the old Countess never admits to any pact of her own, after all, and her fears could just be old age. But the overly-rational Herman certainly believes that he's embroiled in a supernatural world, and that's where the picture works. It's a unique thriller, and like Dead of Night, an unusually intelligent one.


Anchor Bay's DVD of Queen of Spades looks immaculate, perhaps because of its relative obscurity compared to the famous omnibus feature. The blacks are rich, especially in the complex visuals leading into the haunted house, and the vibrant tones make the gypsy dancing come to life. There's a lot of music in the show, all beautifully free of distortion. It's a pleasure, when watching genre movies becomes a matter of diminishing returns, to be allowed to discover such a treasure.

Queen of Spades is accompanied by the expected still and poster gallery, that has some interesting Behind the Scenes photos, notably one with the sinister Anthony Dawson charmingly attending Ms. Mitchell. The trailer sells the film as a class product, ballyhooing the name of producer Anatole de Grunwald with a cavalcade of his earlier English pictures not well known in the states - which gives the false impression that they're all phony titles. In actuality, de Grunwald was a talented writer and a creative producer - later 'class' director Jack Clayton was one of his associates. Chris Acklin's liner notes for this title provide helpful background on the film and its literary source.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Dead of Night rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Stills & posters galleries
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 26, 2003

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Good
Supplements: Stills & posters galleries, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 26, 2003

Footnote:

1. Clarens very accurately noted the unease we get in watching the brief cuts of the room, each time trying to get a better look at it. Is there someone in the bed? It's hard to tell.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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