Monday, June 25, 2012

And Then There Were None - 1945

“And Then There Were None” (1945) is an almost perfect blend of solid direction, crisp black and white photography, and somewhat cheeky ensemble acting -- by mostly veteran character actors. It’s also a great example of how well Dame Agatha Christie’s novels translate to the screen.

We should note at the start, however, that this film adaptation is from the successful stage play, also written by Christie, and not an adaption of her novel, Ten Little Indians. The most glaring difference between the novel and the play/screenplay is what happens in the last few minutes. However, since this is a mystery, I won’t go into that.

It’s one of those movies where the atmosphere created is so much a part of the storytelling. We have the remote mansion on the isolated island, the constant bashing of the waves on the rocks, and curtains of sea spray flying before our eyes, and the sound of the wind behind the dialogue.

Except for Walter Huston, much of Hollywood’s English Colony was emptied to make this film. Part of its charm is the ensemble acting with no big stars to take leads.

The story, well known, is of ten visitors to this remote mansion at the request of its absent owner. Two are hired servants, played by delightfully adenoidal Richard Haydn, with Queenie Leonard as his wife.

The guests include Huston’s country doctor, a retired judge played by Barry Fitzgerald, a dissolute self-described “professional houseguest” played by the wonderful Mischa Auer (who, as in “My Man Godfrey” -- where he plays another professional houseguest, bangs a few strains of “Dark Eyes” or Ochi Chornya on the piano).

Judith Anderson is the sublimely puritanical Emily Brent, who wears her almost sinister self-superiority like a protective cloak. Roland Young is a bumbling detective, and C. Aubrey Smith as the forlorn but dignified retired general. June Duprez and Louis Hayward round out the cast as the hired secretary and the bold adventurer. They are younger, and prettier than everybody else.

On their first night together, they all dress for dinner (of course), where upon retiring to the parlor for bridge and cocktails, a spoken record on the gramophone accuses of them of various crimes. One has killed his wife’s lover. One has killed pedestrians by reckless driving, events from their past nobody knows but themselves. They are barraged with examples of the old nursery rhyme “Ten Little Indians”, which begins:

Ten little Indian boys going out to dine,
One choked his little self and then there were nine.

During the evening, one of their party appears to choke, and dies. The camera pans back from the shocked guests in the parlor, back through the open double doors to the dining room where a china centerpiece of ten little Indians had earlier caught their attention. One of the Indian figurines has toppled over and broken.

Now there are nine.

And so this continues through the rest of the poem, one by one as a guest suffers a fatality based on a verse. Each time someone dies, another Indian figurine goes missing.

The action is a mixture of eerie and comic, but neither tension nor comedy are overt or over the top. It’s a smooth balance. A charming moment at the beginning when Mr. Huston and Mr. Fitzgerald, two aging professional men, share an adjoining bathroom and Huston helps Fitzgerald with his detachable starched collar and tie.

At one point later on, Huston describes his doctor’s work as mostly handholding to nervous patients and Fitzgerald teases him, “Don’t you believe in medicine, Doctor?” To which Huston replies, “Do you believe in justice, Judge?”

This becomes the paramount question. What is justice? Can we ever escape it? Who has the right to mete it out?

It becomes apparent that one of them is a murderer and all who die are being punished for crimes they’ve done but for which the law has not caught up with them. The doctor, for instance, lost a patient on the operating table. The doctor had been drunk when he attempted to perform the operation. Butler Richard Haydn and his wife were accused of bumping off a former elderly employer. All are here for their comeuppance.

They grow suspicious of one another, and afraid to be alone with only one other person in a room. A scene as funny as it is tense occurs when Huston and Fitzgerald, companionably enjoying a game of pool, suddenly find themselves alone in the room and panic, wielding their pool cues like defensive weapons.

The mystery -- not only who is the murderer, but who is next to die?

Director René Clair sets up some inventive shots, such as when one guest spies on another through a keyhole. The camera pans back, and we see that guest in turn being spied on through another keyhole.

I’d like to know where the location shooting was done, it’s spectacular.

Richard Haydn is comically pitiful as the beleaguered butler, who after his wife has been murdered, must still keep up with his duties, apologizing for serving cold meat for supper. When he is suspected of being the murderer, he drinks a little too much in resentment and sloppily serves or fails to serve from a silver platter. When he is told to open a door he has locked to accept a key, he replies testily, “Shove it!…under the door, Sir.”

I watched this movie recently after not having seen it since I was a child, and was amazed to discover how much I remembered, how vivid the images were to have stayed with me so many years. It’s a simple story, simply staged, but I think this is probably the best of all versions. Even the character parts that are smaller are neatly delineated so each actor has his moment to create in indelible image. We don’t know much about these people, and yet we know them very well.

Addendum:  Thanks to Casey at Noir Girl for asking where to see this movie.  I should have added this: it's currently on YouTube in it's entirety here:


Page said...

With Judith, Aubrey and Huston alone you know this film is going to be good. I love a good murder mystery, especially when it's set in a very old home with dark surroundings. But how many films have we seen with that very backdrop that were terrible? Looking at you "The Gorilla"

In your perfect description of the mood, their surroundings we're reminded of what made Wyler so great in this genre.

On a side note: I played a PC game a few years ago that I believe was Agatha Christie that followed pretty much the same plot but instead of Indians the statuette was of sailors. Man, that game was difficult!

Love the screen grabs you provided here, especially with C. Aubrey with the jagged rocks and manor looming atop the hill. With that one shot you want to know what's going on up there.

The perfect contribution to the Wyler Blogathon.

Caftan Woman said...

"And Then There Were None" is such fun. The cleverness of Christie is matched by the cleverness of Clair. They would seem an odd pairing yet those two minds came together to give us a perfect movie.

It is interesting that you singled out that scene with Huston and Fitzgerald. My youngest sister watching this movie years ago wondered aloud what was going to happen with Father Fitzgibbon and the other guy. The actors have been etched in my mind as such all these years.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I particularly like Fitzgerald's turn as the judge here. He begins as an avuncular type, then turns officious, then we slowly begin to see how he could be a "hanging judge" and seem sinister. You're right, director Rene Clair is really clever with this piece, gives it just what is needed.

DorianTB said...

Jacqueline, I loved the Rene Clair version of AND THEN THERE WERE NONE when I saw it on TV years ago, and I've been wanting to catch up with it again ever since! You can't go wrong with that great cast, not to mention the sly twists and atmosphere. I hope it turns up on a DVD one of these days, but until then, YouTube will do! Your review had me on tenterhooks even though I already knew how things turned out! :-) Great review!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, Dorian. I agree this movie has all the ingredients for splendid entertainment. I don't know why it's not shown more often, but finding it on YouTube was a pleasant surprise.

Yvette said...

This is my favorite version of what is not a favorite Agatha Christie story. And I prefer the movie ending.

Though I've always found Barry Fitzgerald very hard to take, Louis Hayward more than makes up for it. :)

I think as a kid I watched every movie Louis Hayward was in. I was a fan-girl. :)

My fave? The always hokey, SON OF MONTE CRISTO. Ha!

P.S. I love Mischa Auer. :)

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Yvette, I thought of you when I wrote this post and wondered what a Christie expert would think of this movie. I had read the book just about when I saw the movie as a kid, and I remember thinking the ending was a Hollywood tacked-on affair, until I read that Christie herself wrote it in her play. I'm ambivalent, either works for me.

panavia999 said...

Richard Haydn is a very interesting actor. His adenoidal character was his bread and butter, but a few times he played characters with his natural voice and looks, and I did not recognize him. (e.g. Please don't Eat The Daisies and Forever Amber.)
I'd thought he was a man with bad adenoids who turned his nasal disability into a career.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I know what you mean, Panavia, about Haydn appearing so very different when he does not use that funny voice. But I love the adenoidal Haydn. That voice just cracks me up. He must have been doing it at parties for years before he brought it to the screen.


Barry Fitzgerald just may have been the greatest character actor of all time.

barrylane said...

For the question re loation-- And Then There Were None was shot on Catalina Island.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks so much.

barrylane said...

And Then There Were None is available on DVD from VCI and other sources. Check Amazon

Ryan said...

I bought this years ago on DVD, and it's still my favorite movie version of this story. The cast was perfect, and to tell you the truth, though I love the book, I almost prefer this ending. I think it's the hopeless romantic in me.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I agree with you, Ryan. This movie is my favorite film version. The ending doesn't make for as good a shocker as the book, but Hollywood expected its audience would want to cheer for somebody, and maybe they were right.

barrylane said...

And Then There Were None now available on a fairly good Blu Ray disc from VCI.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks Barrylane. I guess it was only a matter of time.

Malcolm said...

I, too, absolutely love Rene Clair's movie version (I read the book long ago), but I have a question about something that drives me crazy. In both the book and the movie, as you all know, the guests suddenly hear accusations on a gramophone record. In both versions, the butler admits putting the record on but thought it was a piece of music and says he was instructed to do it by "Mr. Owen." In the movie, the old general tosses the record but it does not break. After that, it is never mentioned again! This is especially amazing in the book version, because the police in that version actually go to the island and find the bodies. I'm a lawyer, maybe that's why this baffles me. In my view, any police officers finding ten murdered bodies and a recording accusing them of murders would immediately want to know who made the recording and why. In the movie we can hear that it is not the voice of any of the people present. Yet, no one ever refers to this recording again in any way. Has anyone else ever thought or wondered about this?

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome, Malcolm. I suppose the record cannot sound like Barry Fitzgerald because that would tip us off. Just movie sleight of hand, and not so logical because screenwriters are not lawyers. Good point, though.

Sophia said...

When I was a child, I read one of Agatha Christie’s novel and I absolutely loved it. After that I devoured all of her texts. I preferred those with Hercule Poirot as the detective. I cannot recall the ending of this one though. I think it is high time for me to re-read her books!

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