Welcome back to the final in my series of reviews of the various adaptations of And Then There Were None. Today it’s the most recent English-language film, 1989’s Ten Little Indians.
Film review: “Ten Little Indians” (1989)
written by Gerry O’Hara & Jackson Hunsicker
directed by Alan Birkinshaw
1989’s contribution to the collection is probably the least memorable, in spite of its unusual setting – an African safari park – because, although still bolstered by Christie’s strong storyline, director Alan Birkinshaw fails to really create any suspense at… well, I was going to say “at the crucial moments”, but really “ever” would be more accurate. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; I’ll go through my thoughts in roughly chronological order, as I did for the other films:
Each of the English-language films has had a different setting, a decision of which I think I approve. Sure, my favourite of the movies was the very faithful, island-bound Russian adaptation, but there’s much to be said for each film’s location, which helps to make them all worthwhile experiences (particularly when, like myself, you’ve watched them all in a week!). And, somewhat unusually, the specific nature of the setting may be the least important thing for a screenwriter to worry about! As long as it’s isolated, who cares? However, choosing the wilds of Africa means that we should be given a pretty damn good reason why these ten people would show up. A holiday to Devon is one thing, an intercontinental travel – in the early 20th century – based on a letter from a stranger is decidedly odd. Unfortunately, with the exception of Mr. and Mrs. Rodgers, the screenwriters don’t really convince us.
The film spends a considerable amount of time on the journey from ‘base camp’ to the isolated camp, which is a unique decision amongst these films, although it does help to unify the disparate characters. On first view I was put off by the unusually violent actions of the native Africans, but it makes sense in retrospect that they were part of the plan.
The character of Anthony Marston (Neil McCarthy) comes full-circle, back to the more traditional fellow of the book: “No-one knows our host? How gauche. Do I hear Martini calling?” McCarthy’s performance of this decadent dilettante is delightful – in a nice touch, he only knows the one song on the piano – truly showcasing the notion of this character as someone who has never had to do anything hard in his life. 35 minutes before the first death must be a new record, particularly as this is one of the shortest films in the set, clocking in at well under 90 minutes. (Intriguingly, the screenwriters decide that “Swan Song” isn’t an ironic enough name for the fateful grammophone record, so it becomes “The Dying Swan’s Song”.)
For the first time, there are no servants, so Mrs. Rodgers becomes Ethel Mae (Moira Lister) an upwardly mobile American (at least, I think that was the accent Lister was going for…) who won the safari with her husband. In spite of her accent issues, Lister dominates the first half of the movie, which is perhaps a mistake as her death leaves a gaping hole that none of the other characters really steps into fill. However, it does allow us to centre on her husband Elmo (that dependable brawn Paul L. Smith) as the first prime suspect, all burly and placid. On the other hand, Dr. Armstrong, or rather Dr. Hans Yokem Werner (Yehuda Efroni) is our identification figure at first, as he begins to figure things out step by step. It seems fairly clear he isn’t the killer, and due to the changes in the film’s ending, there’s really no need to make him as suspicious as previous films.
Unfortunately, the second day dawns with not a single person really suspicious; the deaths are just bizarre occurrences. It’s probably a good argument against the use of so much daylight, as we’re really not given the sense here that anything much is amiss. It’s almost as if the writers and director assumed everyone would know And Then There Were None, so they don’t need to bother being suspenseful. It’s Hitchcock’s “the audience knows there’s a bomb under the table” theory taken to ludicrous extremes!
Herbert Lom, who previously played the doctor in the 1974 film, sadly is given little to do as General Brancko Romensky, mostly just a raving loon. I have to say, I much prefer this character with a semblance of dignity like that benchmark, 1945’s Sir C. Aubrey Smith. Paul L. Smith does well as Elmo Rodgers, in one of the more dramatic reinterpretations of a Christie character, but – while he does make a good possible villain for the film’s first hour – you’d also have to be foolish to believe it!
Unfortunately, Birkinshaw and his team seem to have mistaken what made the novel – and its previous film adaptations – work so well. In Christie’s novel, the deaths begin very early on, and occur not with the frequency of a slasher-flick, but rather are interspersed with the growing realisation of the suspects that they’re all going to die, and their varied, character-appropriate psychological reactions. Here, it is an hour into the film before anyone first discusses their suspicions. Instead, we get some unnecessary business with characters pursuing lions with guns, and looking into traps. Sure, it explains that the killer has substituted everyone’s bullets for blanks, but – I don’t know… someone is stalking these people. TO DEATH. The idea that we might need the added threat of lions and crazed gunmen is a bit much.
The film has a few things in its favour – the strings-heavy score is surprisingly downplayed; Africa by night is, of course, gorgeous – but they’re rather limited. There’s none of the archness of the ’45 film, none of the heartbreaking bleakness of ’87 or the challenging beauty of ’74. The screenwriting is serviceable, certainly, as the character motivations are all explained well and everyone – except the General – gets at least one ‘focus’ scene. But it’s just that: serviceable. It’s a script straight out of a writing school template, and Birkinshaw’s direction is the same. While the film never runs aground, it never hoists the sails either. After four of their party have been killed, everyone plays croquet while Marion Marshall (Brenda Vaccaro) reads in her tent. The golf and billiards games in previous films were tense because of the use of light and dark, and because of the contrast with the other scenes, not to mention the fact that people were using this time to debate the possibilities of their fellow guests as cold-blooded killers. Here, we have no indication that anyone has even noticed. When Miss Marshall retires to her tent, everyone in the audience knows she’s going to be next to be bumped off, and the direction is happy enough with that. The philosophy seems to be: why add more suspense when the audience will just figure it out because it’s so obvious? Miss Marshall is a bit of a wasted character really. Vaccaro has always been a strong actress, and her agent managed to wheedle her second billing here, but you wouldn’t really know it. It’s an odd decision to get rid of both the original idea of Emily Brent as a repressed spinster and 1965’s film star character, and replace her with a fading actress who as a young starlet was involved – perhaps – in the death of her older actress lover. It’s, again, a serviceable characterisation, but that’s it. And again, no-one really seems to be that concerned when another of their party dies.
The dinner of the remaining five suspects is a highlight of every film… except this one. No character becomes overpowering enough to direct the investigation (even the one who, logically, should). Instead, they’re all just pawns in the director’s game, never seeming like people who’ve had conversations off-screen. We’re led to believe they’ve spent the last 48-72 hours just reading and sunbathing, only having crucial conversations in the moments we see them. However, as I say, the proof of a good story lies in how solid the plot remains, and how it still has a lot of connections to the now-discarded 1945 script. (Some of the red herrings, though, are just ridiculous, as when Vera nervously cries out “don’t go into Marion’s tent!” when all she means is “let’s give Marion some time alone.”)
It’s only really after the Judge’s death that things slowly become atmospheric, although his death is very melodramatic, what with appearing to be tossed off the roof of a tent. It seems silly given the ‘twist’ ending, and the fact that Dr. Werner doesn’t close the Judge’s eyes for such a long period of time while they stand there is just silly, since he’s supposedly in on the plot!
Interestingly, I didn’t really think of Ten Little Indians as a TV film until about 20 minutes from the end. At this point, we’ve basically eliminated the Doctor and Vera, as the former has been our identification character, and the latter clearly didn’t kill the Judge. The suspects left are solely Lombard and Blore, and that number is, of course, reduced with Blore’s death. (As Blore, Warren Berlinger is also not given much to do, but he does a good job of being gruff and forthright, and has a solid confession sequence shortly before his death.) This reduces the number of suspects to one, and Frank Stallone is the bad apple amongst the cast: he at least looks like just like Lombard should, but he’s far from charismatic. Either way, while he remains the most likely suspect, something inside tells us that the guy with top billing and the action hero looks probably isn’t the psychotic killer. And from here on out, things take a rather different turn…
Another overwhelming problem with this film’s pacing is that the death-after-death-after-death design becomes silly. We get eight deaths in the space of 35 minutes, without any of the strategising and melodrama in between that deepened the previous films. While some reviews of the book have claimed that things become mechanical, I disagree: those changes are enough to force us to constantly reevaluate our thoughts. Here, the film centres its suspicions on Mr. Rodgers for nigh on an hour, and then basically just sets us loose amongst a group of characters who – aside from Marion – have little-to-no psychological depth and even less immediate concern. (When he hears Vera scream upon finding the Doctor’s body, Lombard stops to wipe his hands before investigating. Poorly played, Mr. Director: red herrings only work if there’s also a legitimate reason for the action also. After seven deaths, I ain’t stopping for anything when I hear a bloodcurdling scream!)
So, it turns out the Doctor was just killed and stuffed inside… something. Vera isn’t guilty (here, in fact, she didn’t even gain anything from the death), which is never fun, and she’s just a nice lady. Thankfully, Sarah Maur Thorp is quite good as the unprepossessing young woman. She doesn’t get to stand out until the end, when she begins to come apart, but it’s very nicely done. Unfortunately, the workmanlike scripting and direction – which at least muddled their way through the rest of the film – aren’t able to salvage the climactic exposition sequence. While Donald Pleasance is perfectly cast as Lawrence Wargrave, putting his Blofeld gloating skills to good use, and his ghostly visage is creepy, everything about the scene is poorly blocked and not even worthy of a TV film. Why doesn’t Vera run as the noose is put around her neck? Sure, the only alternative might be to get shot, but she never even puts up a fight. Why does Lombard – who was, after all, just outside the tent when Vera screamed at the start of the scene – wait several minutes, until Vera’s life is on the line, to burst in? And why oh why does it have to end with a “cute” little TV movie bit of banter? The quirky decision of playing the light “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” over the credits also feels at odd with the proceedings. It’s as if the director finally got around to watching the 1945 film after they’d wrapped production, wished he could’ve been more wry, and decided to make up for it in the closing credits.
Sadly, aside from a couple of good performances, Ten Little Indians offers nothing of merit to the canon. It’s written and directed without any flair for individuality, but somehow chooses to eschew all of the great points of the previous four films. And while I said at the start that the choice of location doesn’t matter much, in a way it does: the unpredictable environment of the safari park means that the deaths become even more ballsy, with a large amount of coincidence in the fact that they adhere to the nursery rhyme. It’s all just a bit silly, lacking any suspense and any psychological depth. Having watched literally hundreds of hours of Christie in the last few months, I’ve learned to take the good with the bad when it comes to adapting her works. You can’t have everything, true, but in the case of this film, we really got nothing.
Tomorrow, I’ll be handing out my And Then There Were None awards, citing the best actors in each category, as well the best writer, director, and best use of atmosphere, and so on. See you there!