This week, I’ve watched and reviewed all five major film adaptations of Dame Agatha’s And Then There Were None. Today, I’m awarding the winner in each category. So please join us…
It was actually a great experience to view all of these films in quick succession, to see how no one dared stray far from Christie’s immaculately conceived formula yet proved how versatile the novel is. With four different settings and a variety of cultural inter-relationships, each film applied the views and cinematic tastes of its own era. On top of this, some characters were varied considerably throughout, making for a fascinating viewing experience. (And of course, only the Russians dared script an ending as bleak as the novel’s.) It’s so intriguing how one character can be so well-drawn in one film and then be merely a functionary in the next.
The films – with links to their respective reviews – are:
And Then There Were None (1945): a wry, black-and-white confection, superbly acted and playing with chiaroscuro even as it occasionally succumbed to the wholesome morals of the day;
Ten Little Indians (1965): a slightly silly but solidly enjoyable little thriller;
Ten Little Indians (1974): the exquisitely beautiful – and very ’70s – addition to the collection, although at times painfully illogical;
Desyat Negrityat (1987): the bleak and polished, although languorous Russian adaptation;
Ten Little Indians (1989): set in an African safari park and (for the most part) well-acted, but lacking in a few key areas such as suspense, characterisation and craftsmanship…
It should be stated that most of the films did well in each of these categories. Consider this like the Oscars, in which we’re picking the best from the best. There certainly have been failures at least once in most categories, but I’ve only mentioned a few truly woeful examples. You can read about the rest in the reviews linked above.
Silver: The ’65 film, which takes the stylised tension of the ’45 movie but gives it some breadth by taking things out of the studio.
Gold: ’87. The house jutting out of the rocky island is terrifying in its loneliness, and the gradual awareness of their plight is handled well by all involved. The claustrophobia of the house is also amplified.
Wooden Spoon: Oh, 1989, why? Aside from a very few night scenes, no one – including the director – seems remotely concerned even as the party’s number dwindles…
Best Anthony Marston
Marston is a fascinating character in terms of adaptation, because he is usually redrawn as a similarly arrogant, but era-appropriate, playboy. He’s the opposite but equal of Lombard, where the actor cast in each film resembles the typical ‘action hero’ lead of his particular decade.
Silver: Charles Aznavour (’74) who – of the non-Marston characters – is the least “special guest star”-like, and thus the least painful.
Gold: Neil McCarthy (’89), who has a lot of fun taking on the book’s portrayal and giving it great strength.
Best Ethel Rogers
As a character with little to do in the book, each subsequent director seemed to want to change the character more, which – in my opinion – is a mistake. (And her death just gets sillier and sillier with each passing film too!)
Silver: Irina Tereshchenko (’87) who has a very small part but gives us a lot in the understatement.
Gold: Queenie Leonard (’45) who manages to convey the cook’s guilt, her downtrodden nature and her ‘place’ in society.
Silver: ’45’s light, evocative, and ultimately classic score, credited to Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco.
Gold: the modernist plinkety-plonks of ’74, which is credited to Carlo Rustichelli but was apparently redone by Bruno Nicolai for the international version.
Best General Mandrake
Despite the tragic power of this broken, rueful man whose upbringing prevents him from dealing with his actions, no film has really given much to the General… at least beyond the characterisation of “stark raving loon”.
Gold: Sir C. Aubrey Smith (’45), who imbues his role with such pain and gravitas, while being reliably stiff upper lip (Smith was an old-school English cricketer after all!)
Best Thomas Rogers
The role of Rogers has often been neglected by screenwriters, who use him as a simple red herring killer. Indeed, in the ’65 and ’74 films, you’d be hard-pressed to tell he even noticed his wife’s death, as there’s no difference in the performance or writing before and after!
Silver: Aleksei Zolotnitsky (’87) who imbues his lines with fear and, later, the pain of such a recent loss.
Gold: Richard Haydn (’45) whose performance is, true, from an earlier era, but pretty damn awesome. Every thought and feeling is written in Haydn’s face, and we truly believe both his pain as the movie progresses, and the realisation that he’s been suffering much guilt and regret for a long time now.
This is one of the toughest decisions. ’45 is a beautiful film and ’87 has its moments, but the power of that film ultimately comes from the atmosphere created by the director, not from the design.
Silver: has to go to ’74, with its amazing Escher-like villa. However, as I stated at length in that review, the cavernous manse actually plays against the story’s claustrophobic mission statement.
Gold: ’65 is the true winner, simply because it’s very pretty.
Best Emily Brent
Three of the five are rather loose portrayals, and while all of them are satisfying, none are amazing.
Silver: Dame Judith Anderson (’45). It seems like a default given that she’s one of only two classic Emily Brents, but the Dame is definitive, and it’s actually hard for me to believe Anderson wasn’t the rigid spinster she played.
Gold: Lyudmila Maksakova (’87) breathes life into the Christie character yet somehow makes her more vibrant. She’s not the strict harridan who just walks around town sermonising, she’s one of those repressed Sarah Palin-type mothers who has clearly lived quite a bit, but also actively lobbies against Little Red Riding Hood being in the preschool library.
Best Dr. Armstrong
Silver: It’s hard to award a silver, since many of this character’s key moments take place off screen. Ultimately, I’m going to go with the work of Dennis Price (’65)
Gold: Walter Houston (’45) is the clear winner. He’s simply astounding, with a powerful face and a commanding presence.
Silver: the voice of Orson Welles as the gramophone recording in ’74. Could anything be more perfect?
Gold: Harry Thurston as Fred Narracott in ’45, because his opening scene is simply adorable.
Best William Blore
Silver: a tie between the lovely, genuine comedy of Roland Young (’45) and the emphatic face of Stanley Holloway (’65), although both are stuck playing a rather solid-but-uninspiring character.
Gold: Aleksei Zharkov (’87), who is all the more believable as a truly gritty film noir detective.
Silver: a bit of a default, since many of the films take their screenplay directly from the original adaptation of Christie’s play. Still, it has to go to Stanislav Govorukhin (’87) who finds ways to insert his own intrigues – with the increasingly haunting flashbacks – that never derail or alter the proceedings.
Gold: Dudley Nichols (’45) who may have been working within censorship laws, but really did the set the tone for so much to come, changing only minor elements to create a clever and quirky film.
Best Philip Lombard
This is a very, very hard question. Where Marston is a role that is changed deliberately to suit the era (vaguely-foreign prince, ’60s crooner, lovable family bandman, etc.), Lombard is a role that changes unintentionally. Each portrayal fits so beautifully with its respective era. Hugh O’Brian (’65) is generic but convincing, Oliver Reed (’74) is gruff and naturalistic, Frank Stallone (’89) can’t act but he looks and functions like your ’80s TV action hunk should.
Silver: Louis Hayward (’45) is so very classy and charms the pants off both us and Vera (or would have, if it weren’t for that pesky Hays code). But – and I know things were different in the old days – he certainly isn’t army material, if you know what I mean.
Gold: has to be Aleksandr Kaidanovsky (’87). He doesn’t have movie-star looks, deliberately so. However, he’s utterly convincing as an ex-army man, and his complex relationship with Vera is all the more convincing as its based largely in their respective psychological states, not in the mere fact that they’re the attractive leads.
Aside from one woeful example, it’s hard to choose between the directors. Peter Collinson (’74) makes very good use of his space and characters, but ultimately his use of ’70s techniques such as long shots and deliberate understatement are somewhat at odds with his desire to adapt a melodramatic thriller novel from the ’30s. Stanislav Govorukhin (’87), meanwhile, is obviously the main reason for the success of his stunning film, but again his technique – unsurprisingly, given his era and country of origin – again can be quite distancing at times.
Silver: René Clair (’45). His approach is understandably a mixture of film and theatre. While it is experimental at times, and so comes across as a bit too playful and peripatetic to our jaded, 21st century eyes, Clair makes good use of classic film technique, playing with light and shade in the way that only black-and-white films really could.
Gold: George Pollock (’65). While the ’65 film has won very few awards today, Pollock created a lot of tension by taking the original script and removing it from the studio.
Best Vera Claythorne
Silver: Props to Elke Sommer (’74) for her naturalism in the role, but silver has to go to the stunning June Duprez (’45). With her exotic looks and deceptive frailty, Duprez was able to make us believe that Vera might just be guilty after all. Like many of her fellow cast members, Duprez’s performance almost defies the censorship of the era: her Vera may be innocent, but Duprez has clearly read the book, and she a portrayal of a woman far more damaged than you might at first suspect.
Gold: It’s somewhat unfair on the others, but the award has to go to Tatyana Drubrich (’87). Drubrich is of course the only actress given the full weight of the character by both screenwriter and director (in this case, the same person) but in truth she’s more than up to the task. Vera is a challenging role, as she becomes both increasingly frail and increasingly certain about the direction she must take. An exquisite, heartbreaking performance.
Silver: Another tough question, but we’ll go with 1987, since any attempt to effectively present the book’s ending was going to be tough, and I think they do it admirably.
Gold: Probably the rather chilling final scene in ’74, with Richard Attenborough sitting in that stark, white-sheeted room, with that lonely noose hanging from the ceiling.
Best Justice Lawrence Wargrave
Judge Wargrave is conceived quite similarly in all films, yet played oh so differently. Richard Attenborough (’74) takes a rather bleak portrayal which is well-done but surprisingly low-key, to the point where I didn’t notice it was him. (And, indeed, didn’t really notice it was anyone.) Donald Pleasence (’89) basically gives us Blofeld while Wilfrid Hyde-White (’65) brings his considerable talents to a malicious but never insane portrayal.
Silver: Barry Fitzgerald (’45). I changed my mind on this a dozen times, as Fitzgerald is showboating all over the place and is quite a loon. However, he’s simply glorious in the role and you never quite know whether he’s insane or just that kind of odd older man.
Gold: Vladimir Zeldin (’74) takes the gold in a very tight race, subtle and yet believable in every little manipulation.
Bad luck to 1974, which has a lot of great stuff but unfortunately isn’t all it should be, with some style-over-substance plotting, a cast who at times can lose their individuality as part of the deliberately underplayed direction style, and an overwhelmingly large house that can remove some of the claustrophobia (even if it makes each individual killing seem more believable).
Bronze: 1965. While it’s perhaps objectively a better film than ’45, it ultimately takes much of its glory from that one.
Silver: 1945, what with such iconic imagery and the stylish-yet-faithful characterisations, for the most part.
Gold: 1987. Okay, it’s certainly less fun than its competitors, but Desyat Negrityat is truly haunting, taking the tale of ten psychologically damaged folks in their own kind of hell and somehow making it even more bleak. Again, only the Russians could’ve done it so well, and man is it glorious.
Wooden Spoon: 1989. No. Just… no.
The Final Tally
5th place: Ten Little Indians (1989) – 1 x gold, 0 x silver (1 total).
4th place: Ten Little Indians (1965) – 2 x gold, 3 x silver, 1 honorary bronze (6 total).
3rd place: Ten Little Indians (1974) – 3 x gold, 3 x silver (6 total).
2nd place: Desyat Negrityat (1987) – 6 x gold, 4 x silver (10 total).
Winner: And Then There Were None (1945) – 6 x gold, 8 x silver (14 total)