This week, we continue to explore the various film adaptations of Dame Agatha’s And Then There Were None. This time, we’re stepping back to 1974…
Film review: “Ten Little Indians” (1974)
written by Peter Welbeck, from the 1965 script (based on Dudley Nichols’ 1945 script)
directed by Paul Collinson
Yes, you read that right. The 1974 adaptation takes its script from the ’65 film, which itself took its script from the ’45 film, based on Christie’s initial play. It’s probably the best praise one can offer Dame Agatha’s original novel, as the mechanics of its plotting haven’t changed significantly in any of the adaptations.
This time, however, we’re in the Middle-East, in a sprawling, modernist house in the middle of the desert. This citadel is simply beautiful, with all sorts of unusual architectural touches – endless staircases, cavernous foyers – that make it seem somewhat otherworldly, particularly here, 200 miles from anything. Unfortunately, there is a downside, which I’ll talk about later. As I did last time, I’ll wander through the movie basically chronologically.
The Anthony Marston character has been altered in each of the films thus far, which is intriguing since – of all the character types – ‘reckless rich kid’ never goes out of style. But I’ve enjoyed seeing how each version is a performer, fitting in with the appropriate age, and here the character of ‘Michel Raven’ is played by song-and-dance man Charles Aznavour, who gives a marvelously avant-garde, spoken-word performance of the title song. The opening exposition sequences take on an ‘airport lounge’ realism due to the exhilarating size of the foyer, which is a nice touch for a more modern film, where the guests are less like to stand on ceremony with that social awkwardness that pervaded the ’40s film. Here, instead, we get a sense of just how strange everyone is, and it ties in with the fact that this film has a remarkably international cast.
Paul Collinson‘s direction is very ’70s – somewhat placid, fond of long shots, refusing to hold the audience’s hand throughout – and, while I’m a huge fan of ’70s films and their accompanying styles, it seems just wrong here. For the first half of the film, there’s almost no tension, as the direction is always at a remove from the guests, and never allows us to feel like any terror is approaching. Indeed, while the film’s structure stays quite close to its predecessors, the main changes in the script seem to be the removal of almost anything “melodramatic”. While it’s an admirable aim for a filmmaker, it’s somewhat at odds with a film in which nine closet murderers are hunted down and executed by a tenth. This laissez-faire attitude is best exhibited by the butler, Otto (Alberto de Mendoza) who spends their second day in the villa rather placidly making drinks and asserting his innocence, not showing a single bit of pain or remorse that HIS WIFE WAS MURDERED DURING THE NIGHT. And he’s not the only one: the General (Adolfo Celi) and Dr. Armstrong (Herbert Lom) just seem woefully under-characterised, with neither the former’s bitter melancholy or the latter’s functioning alcoholism playing deeply into their portrayals. Everyone here is under-acting, and it’s just not right for the genre.
Beyond this, there is one unforgivably silly death, which seems to be stuck in ‘second draft’ mode. Elsa Martino (Maria Rohm), the cook, goes missing – as she did in the ’65 film. Only, unlike the ’65 film (where she had tried to flee), the drama appears to be that she has just gone outside for a walk, where she is strangled with a whip. Unfortunately, this comes across as ludicrous: not only does it make the killer seem basically omniscient – since at times he figures out where people will be just when it happens to fit into the nursery rhyme – but also makes him seem amazingly ballsy. Three people, after all, are chasing after Elsa in the fairly open desert landscape, and somehow they don’t see the killer… questionable, to say the least.
That’s not to say things don’t look great. That haunting desert landscape is truly alien, and makes for a truly isolating feel. If Collinson’s overall direction is lacking, his affection for the house’s atmosphere is not. Accompanied by a wonderfully modernist, Prisoner-like score, the exploration of the arched basements below the villa is stunning, and one of few truly atmospheric moments in the film. (The Indian figurines in this film are my favourite, being wonderfully decadent.) Collinson’s funky camera angles intensify as the film goes on, at least giving the second half a bit of individuality. But at the same time, it must be said, this cavernous house – while very believable as a place where discreet murders could be carried out – is one of the culprits. It’s so cavernous, that this is the least claustrophobic of the five films.
On to the remainder of the movie then: the film star version of Emily Brent remains here, played by Stephane Audran, and she’s quite good really, as she explains her past crimes. As with the ’65 film, this movie throws in a mysterious connection between Ilona and the General, just as a red herring, but nothing ever comes of it (as they both die shortly after we find out about it). As Wilhelm Blore, Gert Fröbe overacts something chronic. Well, in fact, he’s probably being reasonable under the terrifying circumstances, but everyone else is so subdued that Fröbe looks like a screaming nutjob, and hardly the cunning ex-detective that each other film has made him out to be. (Incidentally, that’s Orson Welles as their accuser on tape, in a lovely voice cameo.)
Our ‘central trio’, however, are all very good, if perhaps too subdued. As Vera, Elke Sommer is naturalistic and slightly more haunted than the ’65 portrayal, and she’s partnered with Oliver Reed as Lombard, who furthers my theory that this role is the key marker of each film’s year of release. Lombard here reminds me of Jack Nicholson in his ’70s heyday, with a slightly gruff and misanthropic streak tempered by sincere morals (suppressed, of course, due to his masculinity). Unlike the ’45 film, Vera and Lombard aren’t shy about expressing their affection from quite early on, which is another interesting social touch. However… (and I don’t mean to sound like a naysayer, because this film was lovely enough as a ’70s curio)… the script removes any last traces of distrust between the couple, which was a key element of the ’45 film and remained somewhat prominent in the ’65 one. Instead, when the pair are left alone together, Vera says “I’m not Mr. Owen”, and that’s that. (More to the point, does anyone else find it unlike that the Judge never saw the real Lombard before, even in newspaper photos? How did he find out about the crime if he didn’t realise Oliver Reed was a fake?)
The final scene is pretty redemptive though, as Vera returns to the house and we get a truly startling image: the noose hanging in one of the house’s majestic rooms, with all the furniture covered by white sheeting. As the Judge, Richard Attenborough gives his trademark solid performance, although he’s the least showy of all the actors who have interpreted this role. That’s not a bad thing – Barry Fitzgerald was perhaps a bit too nutty in ’45 – but, truth be told, I paid so little attention to the Judge throughout that I hadn’t even thought about the actor playing him until his final scene!
Ten Little Indians is the last of the three films based on the original script, and it’s probably the least of them. Whether deliberately or not, the direction robs the film of much of its tension and – more importantly – prevents us from really appreciating the psychological collapse of any of the characters. It’s not badly acted, but in truth only Aznavour stands out, and not only is he playing himself, but he’s the first to fall! I did enjoy the closing credits, which list the cast “in order of their disappearance”, but Ten Little Indians is perhaps a regretfully placid affair, which would have been better served by dumping the original script entirely, and retaining some of the more psychological nuances of Christie’s book.
And tomorrow, we’ll watch a film that does just that: Desyat Negrityat, Russia’s answer to Christie’s novel.