Monday, August 20, 2012

And Then There Were None (Popkin/Clair/20th Century-Fox, 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was the 1945 film And Then There Were None, the first of at least four films directly based on Agatha Christie’s variously titled suspense novel (originally Ten Little Niggers, then changed to Ten Little Indians and after that to Ten Little Soldiers as the P.C. police came down on the previous titles) and her own adaptation of it for the stage. Charles had read the play but not the novel; I’d read the novel but not the play; and apparently they’re not identical, so maybe it was Christie’s idea and maybe it was screenwriter Dudley Nichols’ to change the ending from the dark one of the book to a much lighter one that spares the lives of the two ingénues and allows them to leave Indian Island alive and live happily ever after. In case you didn’t know, the story deals with 10 people from various backgrounds and walks of life who are invited to a weekend party on Indian Island off the British coast — so named because the cliff that dominates it is said to look like the head of an American Indian — by a mysterious host named “U. N. Owen.” Among them are Judge Francis J. Quincannon (Barry Fitzgerald, top-billed), a notorious hanging judge who let an innocent man get convicted and hanged because he didn’t like the man’s attorney (in the novel the man was actually guilty, but that was only definitively established when new evidence was discovered after his execution); alcoholic doctor Edward G. Armstrong (Walter Huston); young veteran Philip Lombard (Louis Hayward), who allegedly caused the deaths of 23 natives in one of Britain’s colonial battles when the British Empire was still a going concern; private detective William Henry Blore (a marvelously droll performance by Roland Young); Vera Claythorne (June Duprez, playing her part with a restrained sensuality and power that should have marked her for biggers and betters, but didn’t), who in the book was accused of letting her obnoxious nephew drown but whose crime was changed for the film; Prince Nikita Staroff (Mischa Auer) — he was a British adventurer in Christie’s book — who casually ran down two children and killed them in a hit-and-run auto accident; General Sir John Mandrake (C. Aubrey Smith); Emily Brent (a marvelously sinister performance by Judith Anderson rivaling her work in Rebecca); and servant couple Thomas and Ethel Rogers (Richard Haydn and Queenie Leonard).

They soon learn that “U. N. Owen” is simply code for “unknown” and that the mystery man (or woman) who’s invited them is going to kill them for various crimes he believes they committed in such a way that the law couldn’t touch them. When I first saw this movie I was disappointed in it because it seemed way too campy — though it was blessed with major talent both behind and in front of the camera (the director was René Clair), it seemed too comic, too broadly funny to capture the sinister terror of Christie’s story. Also I found myself bothered by Barry Fitzgerald’s performance as the judge, who turns out [spoiler alert!] to be the mystery killer. He explains at the end (after Vera has faked shooting Lombard and returned to the house on the island, where the judge has set up a noose with which he expects her to hang herself as in the end of the “Ten Little Indians” rhyme — a gimmick done much more effectively in Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim the year before) that over his years as a judge he had run across many people who had essentially committed murder but had done so in a way the law couldn’t punish, and when he was diagnosed with cancer and forced to retire from the bench he had decided to avenge himself against 10 such people and do it in sequence according to the nursery rhyme. This time around I liked the film a lot better; it’s still a bit too comical in the opening sequences but once the original cast has been cut in half by the sequence of murders, Clair’s direction and Lucien Andriot’s cinematography turn appropriately Gothic and almost noir, and while Fitzgerald still seems to be miscast as the villain, the more “right” candidates who would have been available at the time, Charles Laughton and Boris Karloff, would have given the game away, whereas Fitzgerald was just coming off his star-making role as the priest in Going My Way with Bing Crosby and so having him turn out to be a multiple murderer (albeit out of a twisted sense of “justice”) was a genuine surprise for the audience of 1945.

This film was produced independently by Clair and Harry M. Popkin but picked up by 20th Century-Fox for release (at a time when it was quite unusual for major studios to buy and release independent films — however common that is now!) and it must have done well enough at the box office, though the basic gimmick had been used at least twice in films before Christie’s novel was first published in 1939: in The Ninth Guest, made by Columbia in 1934 and based on a 1930 novel by Bruce Manning and his wife, Gwen Bristow (and one wouldn’t get the impression from such a macabre movie that when Manning finally made it as a movie writer, it was cranking out vehicles for Deanna Durbin at Universal!); and in A Study in Scarlet (1933), ostensibly an adaptation of the first Sherlock Holmes story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle but actually a screen original by Robert Florey (though using the Holmes character and a few bits of Conan Doyle’s dialogue) because the Conan Doyle estate charged less just to license the character than for the rights to the story itself. Both these films actually used the “Ten Little Indians” rhyme as a model for the killings, and both also included a plot turn Christie later used — the actual killer fakes his own death midway through his spree so he can watch the other survivors turn against each other and hasten the success of his plot. But it’s Christie’s version that has not only been filmed directly four times (plus an impending fifth version, just called Ten, slated to star Arnold Schwarzenegger) but has been recycled again and again, including Neil Simon’s spoof Murder by Death (in which the victims are famous fictional detectives) and — though I hadn’t realized this until this latest viewing of the 1945 film — The Hunger Games. It’s an effective gimmick for a thriller, though it suffers from the usual fault of Christie’s writing — her lack of interest in creating really deep, multidimensional characters (Raymond Chandler, who couldn’t stand Christie’s writing, said he thought it was totally false to think that a judge, someone who’d devoted his life to enforcing the justice system and trying alleged criminals according to the rules, would suddenly go off the rails and turn himself into a private avenger/vigilante) — and Clair, a first-rate comic director, really wasn’t the right choice for a suspense piece (just think of what Hitchcock, Lang or Whale might have done with this story!), but it’s still a fun if rather mild chiller and it benefits from first-rate acting, Walter Huston and the woefully little-known June Duprez in particular, as well as Andriot’s marvelously atmospheric cinematography and Ernest Fegté’s Gothic set design.