Agatha Christie’s Endless Night is one of her most intriguing works – whether you like the novel or not, there’s something undeniably haunting and adult about her tale of the tragic young couple, and in the growing sense of unease that surrounds their new home, Gypsy’s Acre. With its youthful protagonists and non-formulaic structure, it’s no surprise that the novel was filmed just four years after its release, and in the early 1970s at that.
Film review: “Endless Night” (1972)
with Hywel Bennett (Michael Rogers), Hayley Mills (Fenella ‘Ellie’ Thomsen), Britt Ekland (Greta), George Sanders (Andrew Lippincott), Patience Collier (Miss Townsend), Lois Maxwell (Cora walker Brown) and Per Oscarsson (Santonix)
written and directed by Sidney Gilliat
Like the novel that preceded it, Endless Night is an aformulaic film which doesn’t reach any kind of climax until the final half-hour. Instead, we follow the life of moody drifter Michael Rogers (Hywel Bennett): a working-class chauffeur who enjoys nothing more than to put on airs above his ‘station’, visiting art galleries and acting dismissively toward his superiors, to the concern of his mother (Madge Ryan). From the outset, Michael is an intriguing protagonist, since he’s hardly warm. Admittedly, he may have been more of an anti-hero in the ’70s – at a time when scenes such as Jack Nicholson’s infamous diner rant from Five Easy Pieces were all the rage – but still, the opening scenes display only his misanthropy; his iciness only melts when he has a chance run-in with beautiful young Ellie (Hayley Mills) on the empty land known as Gypsy’s Acre. Michael holds nothing back, confessing straight away that he is only a chauffeur, and that his dreams of building a grand home on the Acre are just that: dreams. So when he learns that Ellie is in fact heiress Fenella Thomsen – a fact that she kept from him as they courted – there is the inevitable class divide although, again, the script steers away from that. Ellie refuses to accept any differences, and forces her family to accept Michael against their reservations. Any time we think Endless Night is going to go in one direction, it rather emphatically veers the other way.
The film – made, after all, in the early ’70s – is a blissful amalgamation of the film styles prevalent in the decade just passed and the one to come. The moody opening sequence sold me, with its angry waves crashing against the rocks, set to music by the inimitable Bernard Herrmann, and recalls Herrmann’s lush work on Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Most of the film, however, is directed in a far more ’70s vein, with the slightly bleached palette of the era, and dialogue scenes that feel natural rather than blocked. As Ellie’s family – who, ultimately, prove rather inconsequential to the plot (besides their money) – Lois Maxwell, Peter Bowles and George Sanders are wonderfully uncomfortable. Bowles is pleasant but restricted by his class; Maxwell is cold as ice; Sanders radiates that creepy avuncular nature. The scenes with Ellie and Michael with her family suggest we’re going to enter a standard Christie murder mystery, only… that’s not what happens. With the help of an architect friend, Santonix (the captivating Per Oscarsson), Michael and Ellie build and move into a grand/grotesque modern home on Gypsy’s Acre. The house is amazing with its one-way windows, irregularly cornered walls, and modernist touches such as indoor pools with remote-controlled covers. I understand why to some it’s a nightmare of ’70s modernism, but I kind of envy Michael and Ellie. It’s fab!
The movie’s greatest trick – and one used in other Christie novels such as At Bertram’s Hotel – is that it appears, on first viewing, a triumph of style over substance. Sure, we’re aware that Michael is more screwed up than he presents, and we know that various characters have ulterior motives: Ellie’s family dislike Michael, Ellie’s uncle seems most unusual, and Ellie’s friend and assistant is feared by all. There’s also the creepy, reassured Miss Townsend (Patience Collier) – a strange townswoman who claims to be the last survivor of a family curse that will claim our young lovers if they settle on Gypsy’s Acre. But it all feels like set-up (we know, after all, that Endless Night is an Agatha Christie film, thus we expect a death), and what’s more, we’re fairly certain it will be Ellie who dies. So when she finally does, with less than 30 minutes to go in the film, it feels like a long overdue climax.
Before we discuss the film’s ending, though, some stray observations. The cast are all pretty damn good, particularly the smaller roles. (Ann Way and Aubrey Richards are lovely as a neighbouring couple, and Nicholas Courtney – Doctor Who‘s Brigadier – is a glorified extra as the second auctioneer, which would have been filmed just as his role got started but before it became iconic.) As Ellie, Hayley Mills is quite effective. I haven’t seen much of her adult work and I confess her line readings are very similar to those she gave in the sublime film Pollyanna but – taken on its own – her performance is the most effective of the core trio. (Unfortunately her singing of the eponymous song was dubbed by Shirley Knight who – while lovely – has an operatic soprano voice that in no way sounds realistic timed to Mills’ miming.)
’60s sexpot Britt Ekland – famous at the time for her stormy, and recently dissolved, relationship with Peter Sellers – is quite passable as Greta, Ellie’s assistant and friend. Greta is a character whom we don’t meet until halfway through the film, instead she is discussed by all the other characters – all of whom, except Ellie, absoutely distrust her, while Ellie trusts her ultimately. The contemporary audience, of course, would have known that Ekland was in the film, and would have been waiting for her appearance. Mills had to shed her goody-two-shoes “Disney” image as she grew older, but Ekland had no such problem to deal with, and her run of casting in this era was greatly helped by her stunning beauty. Here, she serves her role as the suspicious friend satisfactorily, but to be honest, she doesn’t stand out. The role – one of those murder-mystery classics where we’re set up to be suspicious from early on – means that Ekland has to play things ambiguously, and it mostly comes across as coldhearted. Only in the final reels, when we learn whether Greta is guilty or innocent, is she allowed to find a true personality, and a spark shows through. A scene midway through the film, where the core trio fight and then the crying turns to laughter is not particularly well-done. Unfortunately, on the cusp of studio acting and the ‘modern’ film acting era, a few scenes do show the seams where the actors – young and experienced, but all products of the film world – can’t quite live up to the script’s naturalistic desires.
Still, Hywel Bennett is ultimately quite good as Michael. He’s an incredibly challenging character, someone who has pretensions and ambitions that make him an unpleasant lead, yet is a straight-talker, an unlikely sex symbol, and the man with whom we empathise when confronted with the host of unpleasant people in Ellie’s life. Bennett has a fascinating face, expressive and concerning. Although I don’t think he’s the greatest actor in the world, he suitably carries the role. Michael’s slow collapse as Miss Townsend’s prophecies, the encroachment of the family and Greta, and finally Ellie’s accident, all encompass him is very well portrayed. Gilliat’s direction is quite effective in portraying this: the scene where Michael comes across a stock-still, unblinking ghost of Ellie (who doesn’t even move to face him as he walks around her) is damn terrifying. However, in my opinion, not enough is made of the supernatural elements: it’s only late in the film that these come into play, even though Miss Townsend’s initial prophecy was made so early on.
So, the ending. Without spoiling anything, the film is quite faithful to the novel, and the grand twist occurs with about fifteen minutes remaining. These days, the twist would be accompanied by shocking music and rapid flashbacks: instead, in a very ’70s way, the twist is underplayed, leaving us to think about the fascinating, disturbing connotations, and how so many of our assumptions have been incorrect. Everything makes sense – although, as often with these adaptations, it’s hard for me to truly gauge whether the twist is shocking or not to a newcomer – and casts each of the characters in a very different light in retrospect. The climax is well-acted by both people involved, leading to some very ’70s – but very effective – imagery and camera techniques in the closing reels. (One moment of brutality is a little bit ruined by the fact that “shut up, you silly cow” doesn’t sound nearly harsh enough for the feel of the moment.) Looking back, the mystery is very well-constructed: to my mind there are no flaws in the plot. It’s risky, sure, but a believable plan on the part of the murderer(s).
So, how does it rate? Reading reviews of Endless Night is a very enjoyable experience: there are many who think that the film redeems a subpar book that Christie – in her old age – could never pull off. Others seem to think the movie is lacking in substance and not even much style, and that the novel is deservedly one of Christie’s own favourites. For me, I think both work on their own merits. The film may at times be dated, and it almost feels somewhat nonchalant about its own twists, as if adapting a Christie mystery in the naturalistic ’70s meant ignoring such tiresome conventions as shock endings. However, I’m not sure that ‘shock’ inherently matters: the video cover of the film, which pictured each of the secondary characters with “victim…or killer?” makes one realise how easily we can forget about character and atmosphere in favour of simply having clue after clue after twist; it’s nice to see a film that relishes in the opposite. The decision to limit the pseudo-supernatural elements to the final reels doesn’t help the film strike a tone, but in retrospect, it is at least consistent with the characters. Christie herself apparently believed the film to be “lack-lustre”, and it was not successful enough to warrant a cinematic release in the US. And yet, I think it works: as an unsettling character-based film, faithfully adapted from an unsettling, character-based novel, Endless Night is a success.