With the news that the BBC are to adapt Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, I thought this might be a good opportunity to look at the original novel and earlier screen incarnations, especially the 1965 cinema version released as Ten Little Indians that changed the island setting to a remote mountain-top.
The following review is offered for Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme over at Todd Mason’s Sweet Freedom blog; Katie’s 2014 Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for links, click here); Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Kerrie’s Agatha Christie Reading Challenge monthly Blog Carnival.
“‘Ladies and gentlemen! Silence please! … You are charged with the following indictments …”
This may well be Agatha Christie’s best-known and most widely copied story, though it must also be her most atypical – in many ways in fact this feels a lot more like the kind of book that we would have expected from Philip MacDonald with its villain perpetrating a series of elaborate and ingenious murders with victims unconnected to each other (well, with more rhyme than reason). Even Christie’s death-strewn excursion into ancient Egypt, Death Comes at the End, had a more or less conventional sleuth in the figure of Renisenb. Here instead we have no seeming identification figure but ten people who have all been held guilty of a crime in their past. They have been lured to an isolated spot and slowly, but surely, start being knocked off one by one. Conceptually of course this is very ‘high concept’ and since the 60s has been a staple of the mystery/horror genre. One of the reasons that it is so appealing is precisely because, like many of her best-known books, it can be summarised very easily. Even non fans will probably know, for instance, which are the Christie titles in which the narrator turns out to be the murderer; or the one where a madman is following an ABC pattern; or the one in which everybody did it. Well, And Then There Were None (aka Ten Little Indians aka Ten Little Niggers) is the one where the crimes follow a nursery rhyme scheme and in which, apparently, despite a vast number of dead bodies, nobody in fact seems to be the murderer by the end as all the viable suspects get knocked off!
“I’ve no doubt in my own mind that we have been invited here by a madman – probably a dangerous homicidal lunatic”
In the book the action all takes place on ‘Nigger Island’ off the south coast of England, which chimed in with the use of the ‘Ten Little Niggers’ nursery rhyme that gave the original UK edition its title. The rhyme was derived from the US version, ‘Ten Little Indians’ which thankfully was the title used for the book in the US, though And Then There Were None may well be a preferable title all round really. To remove the inevitable offence that would be caused, in new editions of the book, under that title, the ten characters now arrive on ‘Soldier Island’ though for this review I am using an older British edition with the original title intact. Thus the book is deliberately created to toy with reader expectations and surprise with a narrative that seems to go against all standard genre formulas. Once established though any adaptations would not be able to do this very easily – and certainly not, as in this case, a remake – so how to vary the formula for a new audience despite an overly familiar premise, then? Well, for starters, with one notable exception (the Russian adaptation for 1987 that I have yet to see), all use a variant ending, one that Christie in fact used for her own stage adaptation, first produced in 1943, which allows for a semblance of a happy ending and which, I have to say, I actually prefer. In 1945 producer Harry M Popkin made an independent movie version directed with his usual humour and flair by French director René Clair and remains easily the best known and most enjoyable. However, the 1965 remake by writer-producer Hary Allan Towers introduced some new wrinkles …
“The first motion picture with a ‘whodunit break'” –
Yes, this is a movie with one of those gimmicks that for a while were fashionable (usually in William Castle pictures) – here, just as Shirley Eaton is about to shoot the person she thinks is the murderer, we are given a 60-second break to review all the killings with a ticking clock and see who we think is the culprit – Chamber of Horrors (1966) had both a “Fear Flasher” and “Horror Horn” to warn patrons that a scary bit was coming (click here to see these). Later on another film inspired by the Christie novel but given a cheeky lycanthropic twist, The Beast Must Die, introduced a 30-second ‘werewolf break’ that pretty much just copies the one on Ten Little Indians (to see how close they are, click here).
The story in this iteration (Towers would film the book twice more in each successive decade, varying the setting each time) remains essentially unchanged, with the same beginning, middle and end. The action is relocated to a castle in the Austrian Alps that can only be reached by cable car (that is spectacularly taken out of action with the second murder). We are introduced to the cast of ten as they arrive courtesy of some spectacular snow-bound second unit footage. The film was in fact shot in its entirety at Kenure House (since demolished), an ancient manor in Rush, near Dublin in Ireland which Towers also used for his sensational thriller, The Face of Fu Manchu, which starred Christopher Lee, who makes an uncredited appearance in this film too as the voice of the mysterious host, UN Owen.
Shirley Eaton and Hugh O’Brian take the lead roles in this version. She was the original golden girl from Goldfinger and also the object of much lust in Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up!, which took its title from the British comedy of the same name in which she starred (and a review of which is coming to Fedora soon-ish). Here she gets to look fabulous a lot (easy) but otherwise seems to spend most of the film either screaming, throwing herself into Hugh O’Brian’s hairy chest or appearing in her underwear on several completely gratuitous occasions (not exactly disagreeable but it’s pretty unsubtle frankly) – on the other hand she does get to take charge of proceedings at the finish and handles the equivocal elements very nicely indeed.
O’Brian (the star of Wyatt Earp on TV) mainly has to act butch and manly and does a fine job and even gets to have an extended bout of fisticuffs with Mario Adorf, who plays the butler. This is also the film that introduced sex into the Christie world on screen, thus consolidating early on the partnership between Eaton and O’Brian, which does pay off nicely in the finale. Flavour of the month teen-sensation Fabian plays (what else?) a pop star and is the first to die, which is a good thing as he’s pretty obnoxious. On the other hand Leo Genn leaves soon after, which is too early as he is great as the cowardly major.
This leaves Stanley Holloway, as a dodgy private eye, Dennis Price as the alcoholic surgeon and Wilfred Hyde-White as the guilt-ridden judge to pretty much steal the scenes – which they do over and over again. The scene during the power cut over the billiards table is closely modelled on the equivalent one in the Clair version but is none the less very well put together. Daliah Lavi as a German actress responsible for the death of her husband gets to look sensational in several great outfits but is given too little to do, though her death scene by hypodermic is certainly shot with imagination by George Pollock (director of the Margaret Rutherford Marple films) and his cameraman Ernie Steward, one of the busiest and ablest men in British cinema at the time.
The film feels more like an Edgar Wallace German krimi in its oppressive atmosphere, use of dark shadows, occasional suggestions of violent death, intimations of decadence and the never-never atmosphere. Sadly it mostly lack the irony and black humour of the 1945 version and is saddled with an appropriately cheerful score by Malcolm Lockyer that tries but fails to emulate Ron Goodwin’s jaunty score for the Marple films. It is however much, much better that Towers’ subsequent remakes, And Then There Were None (1974) set in a hotel in Iran and starring Oliver Reed, Elke Sommer and Richard Attenborough (with Orson Welles as ‘Owen’) while the 1989 Ten Little Indians stars Frank Stallone and is set on an African safari, which does however return the story to its 1930s origins.
For an astonishingly detailed look at the cast of characters, look no further than the exciting collaboration between Patrick and Curt published over at the fine, At the Scene of the Crime –
DVD Availability: Easily available internationally on DVD, the best region 2 edition is probably the DVD release from Italy in widescreen unlike the pan and scanned version released in the UK though for some scenes the subtitles are not removable sadly. In the US it is now available in widescreen as a Warner Made on Demand release having previously released by the company as a more preferable pressed disc that is now out of print. This is probably the best edition overall.
Ten Little Indians (1965)
Director: George Pollock
Producer: Harry Allan Towers
Screenplay: Peter Yeldham and Harry Allan Towers (as ‘Peter Welbeck’)
Cinematography: Ernest Steward
Art Direction: Frank White
Music: Malcolm Lockyer
Cast: Hugh O’Brian, Shirley Eaton, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Daliah Lavi, Dennis Price, Mario Adorf, Fabian, Stanley Holloway, Leo Genn, Marianne Hoppe and (uncredited) Christopher Lee
I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge in the ‘Number in the Title’ category: