And Then There Were None – my favourite Agatha Christie novel – is the Dame’s most adapted, being the basis of stage plays, video games, TV films and – with its quintessential plot of people lured to an isolated location to be picked off one-by-one – a slew of parodies and loving homages (Family Guy did one of the most recent). But most notable are the five big-screen adaptations, made between 1945 and 1989. Yes, kind reader, I have sacrificed my social life to view all five this week, and so – over the next few days – I’ll be reviewing each of them, culminating in an ‘Awards’ post, in which I’ll nominate the best actor in each role, as well as the best screenplay, design, etc. Let’s start at the very beginning, shall we?
Film review: “And Then There Were None” (1945)
written by Dudley Nichols
directed by René Clair
The first adaptation comes from 1945, Christie’s heyday really, as she found herself moving to a more mature writing style and straying from Hercule Poirot, who had so dominated the ’30s. And Then There Were None isn’t a great film, partly because it’s playing around with a bleakness which was felt all too much in the world in 1945, but it’s definitely an experimental, enjoyable and beautifully photographed one.
Under René Clair‘s direction, the film applies many ’40s tropes – some delightfully quirky music at the comic relief character, Fred Narracott (Harry Thurston), for example, as he cheerfully chomps on a sandwich whilst the others on the boat to Soldier Island get sick – and I can understand that a lot of people these days don’t really have the time for a ’40s black-and-white picture. But for those like myself, who were clearly born in the wrong era, this is lovely and surprisingly modern stuff. Even though this is a studio-bound film, I’ve no doubt it would be better than any similar all-star version released in 2011, quite frankly!
For the most part, the film is quite faithful to the book. All of the characters are quite similar to their counterparts, with the only notable change being that Anthony Marston becomes a foreign Prince (Mischa Auer) although he’s no less decadent or reckless. Auer is a bit of an over-actor (the only wrong note amongst the cast), but he has a great face and he’s the first to die, so who’s complaining? As the servant couple, Richard Haydn and Queenie Leonard are just divine. Haydn was a brilliant comic or dramatic actor, and he finds a very, very delicate balance between the two forms, as the increasingly drunk Rogers. His slow demise after his wife’s death is particularly heartfelt, even though his acting style clearly belongs to another era. And Sir C. Aubrey Smith – a former cricketer, of course – is perfectly cast as General Mandrake; you couldn’t hire someone to play that sort of stiff upper lip character as well as the real deal. The General’s pain and melancholy, as he sits on a rock accepting that death has come, is haunting, because Smith plays it as he should: it’s the all-pervading element of the General’s soul, but he was raised not to show it too easily, so the character avoids becoming a cliche. (The size of the cutlass he was stabbed with – seen only after the fact – makes me feel very uncomfortable, though.)
A couple of the catalysing murders are changed, however, to get around the Hays Code. This foolish document was a way of censoring all movies, to make sure that Hollywood didn’t ruin anyone’s moral sensibilities, and it’s the reason why clever film directors such as Howard Hawks or Alfred Hitchcock would find ways of giving you plenty of euphemisms and sly sexual references, to slide in under it. As a result, Emily Brent’s pregnant maid becomes her no-good nephew who hung himself in a reformatory she placed him in. But Judith Anderson more than sells the change as the uptight Emily. The key to this film, I think, is that the actors – all theatrically trained, of course – know how to sell the dimensions of their characters. We don’t need to know all the details of why the General did what he did, or why Emily is such a religious freak; the actors clearly know them, and these facts pervade their characters.
I promise I’ll become more challenging in later reviews, but this film gets most everything right. The gradual realisation that the survivors are trapped together with a murder in their midst rings true because of the well-blocked group discussion sequences. By the time characters are forming individual alliances, it’s impossible to tell who’s the killer, but we believe it could be anyone. (There’s an adorable scene where Lombard and Vera discreetly try to figure out the killer’s identity, while Vera distractedly plays an etude on the piano: beautiful stuff.) As Dr. Armstrong, Walter Houston puts his expressive face to such good use, aided by the chiaroscuro of the later scenes once the house is plunged into darkness. Houston reminds me of James Coburn, and he commands every moment he’s on screen, while believably playing “Drunk, but always drunk”. Roland Young gets the least to do, as Blore: a character who rarely stands out, as in the novel. It’s no-one’s fault, really, but Blore is just a dependable English chappy here. He gets some great comedy moments, but is the least defined of all ten “little Indian boys”. Young is crucial to the film’s funniest moment, which riffs on – and goes further than – Love’s Labour’s Lost, with four of the men spying on one another like a Babushka doll, only for the man at the front to walk around a corner and spy on the man at the back, leading to a complete circle!
(Incidentally, I adore the opening credits, which play over a rock as a CGI wave splashes at them to change the name onscreen.)
Of course, there are two areas in which the film can’t entirely live up to its successors. The first is psychologically: really aside from Emily and the General, we don’t get a lot of evidence that anyone feels guilty (and even those two are quite repressed!). Everyone was lured here because they arguably committed murder, after all! The final night on the island is very tense, with the survivors plotting together even as they suspect one another, but there isn’t the sense that anyone fears their past crimes coming to light. And this is bolstered by the fact that – SPOILER ALERT! – the screenplay follows Christie’s stage adaptation, not the book, in which Vera is innocent and Lombard is actually a friend in disguise, meaning that the two of them conspire to escape, and catch the Judge at his dastardly scheme. As an ending, it makes perfect sense: the original ending is too bleak for a lightly dramatic Christie play, and too challenging as a film. I don’t begrudge them, and I’m not surprised that only the Russian adaptation has dared to change it back. But it does weaken the characters of Vera and Lombard, particularly the latter, who is just a dashing ’40s film hero. As played by Louis Hayward (Noel Coward‘s erstwhile lover), he’s very dashing, and trés droll, but I’m not sure I buy him as a former army man.
Still, lest I sound like I’m negative, Dudley Nichols‘ script is still very faithful to the book, and would be the basis for the two ensuing English-language films.
Vera, at least, is served well by June Duprez, who has also clearly read the book. While her character is deprived of any of the psychological disturbance that made her my favourite Christie character as a child, Duprez creates Vera as a slightly manic, unsettled woman, who could feasibly be the killer. It’s a bravura performance, and she ain’t half bad-looking either. The scene on the beach, with Lombard and Vera at cross-purposes, is cleverly directed and scripted, too. Finally, then, we come to the Judge, played by Barry Fitzgerald, who has a remarkably memorable face. This Judge is a witty Irishman, who chuckles a lot and is generally unhinged. He’s quite a showboat – and indeed I warmed to other film Judges quicker because they seemed less nutty – but it’s a winning performance, to be honest. After all, the Judge must be a bit mad, surely, and I’ve certainly met old men who cackle a lot like this dude.
All in all, And Then There Were None is a success. It looks great (the scene where the survivors debate whilst a storm rages outside is smashing), and from time to time the camera moves just a little unusually, giving us scenes framed in shadow, or point-of-view shots that seek to liven every minute of its running time. The vibrant score, taking the eponymous nursery rhyme as its starting point, is catchy and effective too. Is it the best film of the bunch? Admittedly, no. The later films would be able to glory in post-Hays code censorship relaxation and more psychological exploration, leading to movies with more red herrings, more likely suspects, and more haunting atmospheres. But this was my first film version, and it’s a damn classy effort!
Tomorrow, we look at 1965’s “Ten Little Indians” directed by George Pollock.