Based on Turner Classic Movies’ (TCM) month-long marathon of the same name, it will not surprise some of my older followers that in addition to 31 Days of Oscar… I also do a Summer Under the Stars marathon. Summer Under the Stars is TCM’s annual marathon every August which spotlights the work of one actor or one actress for 24 hours (with each star’s day beginning and ending at 3 AM Pacific Time). The website to SUTS is here and the schedule can be found here.
Those who have TCM know that this blog’s queueing schedule often aligns with TCM’s schedule and that will be the case, at times, for August. The tags will be “SUTS 2014” and “Summer Under the Stars” and write-ups for films I saw during 2014’s SUTS will also be tagged accordingly. Because I’m actually not a big fan of SUTS, this marathon will not be as strict as, say, 31 Days of Oscar (in which every individual and film featured in those 31 days must have won or been nominated for an Academy Award with exceptions of recent deaths and honorary awards) or 2013’s The Story of Film: An Odyssey.
There is also the matter of the secret November/December marathon… of which I will provide another programming note early next week.
"Once you find the way, you’ll be bound. It will obsess you. but believe me, it will be a magnificent obsession."
Magnificent Obsession | Director : Douglas Sirk
And Then There Were None (1945)
While exiled from Vichy France in World War II, French director René Clair (whose work includes half-musicals À nous la liberté and Under the Roofs of Paris) fled to Hollywood during the war to continue his work. This adaptation of Agatha Christie’s mystery novel And Then There Were None (originally published as Ten Little Niggers and later published as Ten Little Indians) is probably the best film adaptation of a Christie novel despite its altered ending, altered names, and altered back stories (all of which will be explained later in this write-up). For those who have not read the novel, And Then There Were None is assured, adept filmmaking and is a delight to watch.
Eight random guests who have never met are invited to spend some time or work in a secluded, imposing mansion off the coast of Devon. Already present on Indian Island - named supposedly because it is shaped like an Indian’s head - are two newly-hired married servants in Thomas and Ethel Rogers (Richard Haydn and Queenie Leonard). All have been sent to Indian Island by the invitation of a Mr. and Mrs. Owen, who have not arrived yet. Among the eight guests is Judge Francis Quincannon (Barry Fitzgerald, whose character is named Wargrave in the novel), Dr. Edward Armstrong (Walter Huston), Philip Lombard (Louis Hayward), Detective William Henry Blore (Roland Young), Vera Claythorne (June Duprez), Prince Nikita Starloff (Mischa Auer… Anthony Marston in the novel), Gen. John Mandrake (C. Aubrey Smith… Gen. MacArthur in the novel), and Emily Brent (Judith Anderson). All ten individuals have something in common and when Thomas puts on a record at the written instruction of Mr. Owen, an accusatory voice rings out from the record player. The voice accuses all ten of murders in the past, decrying each crime unpunished and soiling the characters of all those gathered at this mansion. This night of feasting immediately turns sour as the guests question whether or not anyone has seen “U.N. Owen” - unknown to you and to them. As it is a Friday and the boat to and from the island won’t return until Monday, the guests must hold out for the weekend.
Of course, that sounds all too easy. Two guests are quickly killed off in a disturbingly similar fashion to the nursery rhyme "Ten Little Indians". To make matters even more unsettling, two Indian figurines at the dining table (the figurines are pictured above) are missing. What follows is a classic whodunit that unfolds in a way that is largely faithful to the Christie novel.
There are no gimmicks and frights here like in William Castle’s similarly-themed House on Haunted Hill (1959). Vincent Price is not in this film to sneer at your intelligence or lack thereof concerning who is the murderer and whatever the hell is going on. This is a colder film; the person who is conducting all the murderers is cold and calculating. Those who have never read Christie’s novel will have no idea whether the perpetrator is one of the guests or an uninvited, shadow-lurking anonymity. The film is largely comprised of verbal sparring and investigations between all ten guests and trying to deduce and outwit U.N. Owen. Realistically, some characters come off as more likable than others. Fitzgerald as Justice Quincannon is a charismatic figure, Huston as Dr. Armstrong is personable, and June Duprez as Vera Claythorne is rather sexy (I also found myself feeling sorry for Richard Haydn’s Thomas, who is scapegoated by the guests early on). And then there are those you just want to see expire sooner rather than later, most notably Judith Anderson’s Emily Brent (Anderson, bless her soul, had this knack in playing unlikable, perhaps quietly cruel, psychopathic characters). Is the plot a tad unbelievable? Certainly, especially considering the fact that too many of the victims walk into their own deaths needlessly as they all seem to forget what happens in the poem. But I think the suspense and the macabre fascination of a well-written and wisely-plotted whodunit need not always make narrative sense.
An adaptation of any Agatha Christie novel, by necessity, must contain sharp, incisive dialogue that probes at the mystery and yet drives the characterizations forward. Dudley Nichols’ screenplay, which lifts here and there or paraphrases from the novel, does just that, leaving René Clair to concentrate on making the film as visually enticing as possible. The brooding lack of light is ominous in the night scenes and one audiovisual metaphor that includes a game of pool is one of the most satisfying scenes in the film. When the murderer is finally revealed, Clair elects not to shock anyone by quickly cutting to the person’s face. Instead, Clair teases a little longer, drawing his camera back behind a lamp to conceal the murderer’s identity for a few more seconds. Here, we rely on the aghast look on another character’s face to extend the dread. And when the murderer is revealed, one is witnessing a great example of sly visual poetry that suits the self-assured grin painted upon the murderer’s face.
With a cast of thespians with distinguished supporting role careers in film and established leading role careers on theater stages, there are no real weaknesses in the performance. Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, and even C. Aubrey Smith as an infirm, hard-of-hearing retired general all give confident performances. Judith Anderson excels in a type of role - typically unfriendly, secluded, eloquent, and quietly menacing - she was unfortunately typecast in and Richard Haydn (for those with good ears, he is the caterpillar in Disney’s 1951 version of Alice in Wonderland) and Queenie Leonard as Mr. and Mrs. Rogers are absolutely delightful. Haydn, as the beleaguered and mournful butler after his wife’s demise, walks a fine line in between comedic and dramatic acting during his extended drunkenness. Small moments like those allow the film to be more believable and far less rigid when accounting for the mannerisms of many stiff upper-lipped characters.
For fans of the novel like yours truly, the ending will disappoint as it is a radical alteration from what actually happens in the novel. These changes were in due part to the Hays Code - a censorship code established in 1930, strictly enforced in 1934, and designed to uphold puritanical views to censor drugs, sex, violence, and other objectionable behavior in motion pictures (the Hays Code was replaced by the current MPAA ratings system in the United States). As such, this film version of And Then There Were None is not allowed to mention teenage pregnancy nor murdering children. For this 1945 film version, the ending is the complete tonal and narrative opposite of what happens in Christie’s novel - again, to comply with the Code. For those who haven’t read the novel, the ending is wild, inventive, and extremely well-executed from a filmmaking and storytelling standpoint.
Otherwise, And Then There Were None is a remarkably faithful adaptation as the process of questioning who is the murder, the series of murders, and the setting are all so immaculately handled. Though stagebound at Samuel Goldwyn Studios in West Hollywood, Clair is able to summon a thick, morose atmosphere with an at-times fluid camera and excellent black-and-white cinematography. Fans who have read the book and those who have not will certainly be entertained either way. It is surely one of the best film adaptations of an Agatha Christie novel.
My rating: 8/10
^ Based on my personal imdb rating.
NOTE: Despite being a 20th Century Fox film, And Then There Were None is in the public domain. You can watch it here (the picture quality is not good, but there it is for your convenience).
James Dean & Natalie Wood ~ Rebel Without a Cause, 1955
Blackboard Jungle (Richard Brooks, 1955)
I’m just going to spend the rest of my life doodling Porthos