Wednesday, 29 December 2010

And Then There Were None - review


I enjoyed Rene Clair’s 1945 film version of my favourite Agatha Christie novel, And Then There Were None. The screenplay, by Dudley Nichols – who had previously been the first person to refuse an Oscar – was sound, despite a number of changes from the original.

The set-up is an absolute classic – eight people, along with two staff, are invited to a lonely island by a mysterious stranger. A disembodied gramophone recording accuses those present of having each been guilty of murder. And then, one by one, the guests themselves are murdered...

Apparently, some of the script changes were to fit with the Hays Code of morals on screen that was in force at the time. Christie’s story included a child murder committed by one of the guest, and such a crime was deemed beyond the pale. This plot point is an instance, by the way, of Christie’s work sometimes being darker than her critics tend to allow.

The big cop-out is the ending, which is much less sinister than the brilliant original (even if the original does require a lengthy written confession, a sign of structural weakness in most detective stories, but not here). However, I thought Clair and his cast did a pretty good job on the film and I was glad to catch up with it at long last. My third 'Christie for Christmas'!

14 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - Thank you for reminding me of one of Christie's best works. And as a matter of fact, this one is said to have been Christie's own favourite of her works.

Interesting, isn't it, how different eras see things such as what's acceptable for film...

Eric Mayer said...

Having come late to the mystery genre I haven't read all the Christie's, so in a way I'm lucky. A couple weeks ago I read The Mysterious Affair at Styles and I've just started Cards on the Table, which I recall you spoke highly of. I have to say I have thoroughly enjoyed every Christie I have read. Last month I tried a later one Third Girl and liked that also. As far as I am concerned criticism of her is misplaced.

Fiona said...

It sounds as if this more than made up for the dire 'Secret of Chimneys', both of which I missed but this is obviously the greater loss! One of my favourite Christies too, but it's a pity the film couldn't cope with the book's masterly ending.

I think I enjoyed Orient Express, by the way, but didn't quite know how I felt as it ended....I certainly needed time to absorb it, rather than finding an instant reaction. Unfortunately I am hard of hearing and missed an awful lot of the dialogue (though very little of David Suchet's) so it took me quite a while to sort out all the characters; the accent of M. Bouc I found totally incomprehensible! But I did think Suchet gave a matchless performance.

Martin Edwards said...

Margot, your point about acceptability is very well made. And it's true about titles of books, as with this novel, and also their content. An interesting topic to which I shall return!

Martin Edwards said...

Greetings Eric - all the best to you and Mary for 2011. I am a lifelong Christie fan, though I do think there is a big variation in quality between different books. But at her best she is peerless.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Fiona, I suspect that repeats will soon enable you to catch up on these shows, if you feel brave enough for Chimneys!

Deb said...

Has there ever been an adaptation of AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (either a movie or television broadcast) that was faithful to Christie's book? The versions I've seen (including one I remember from the 1970s with Oliver Reed and Elke Summer, I believe) all seem to cop out at the end. Perhaps the ending--perfect for the book--is a little to nihilistic for a more visual medium.

Martin Edwards said...

Deb, I've never seen a faithful film version, and I didn't see the Oliver Reed one. As you say, it's a tricky book to adapt for the screen.

aguja said...

I remember it! I remember it! And I can recall the thrill and tension, too.
So, thank you for the memory, Martin!

J said...

It's been a while since i saw it, but if the film is based on Christie's own stage version, then at least some of the changes are her own. (When I directed the play, I took the liberty of making several small alterations in the last scene, restoring the proper number of corpses.)


S P O I L E R:

In addition to all the other brilliant twists in this book, it has the name of the killer in the first and last sentences...

Martin Edwards said...

J, you are quite right. Can you tell us more about your directing experience - was it fun to do this play?

J said...

Yes, it was a lot of fun. (Thank you for asking, and pardon the length of my reply...)

I'd originally agreed to direct The Mousetrap for a local community theatre, but the group found that the rights were not available. (I believe because there has not yet been a professional production in the U.S., no amateur group can do it legally.) We "settled" for Ten Little Indians instead. I was not happy, as I didn't think the script was as good, but at the first reading, the characters started somehow to come to life, and I concentrated on the mechanics. (How do you convince an audience that a man's head has just been crushed by a falling statue? Hint: it involves a watermelon...)

One of our crew went to a ceramics studio, and made a huge number of little indians (as we smashed several at every performance). These were lined up on the mantelpiece as the lights came up, in defiance of the stage direction which says, "They are not spaced out, but clustered so that the exact number is not easily seen." The first one was removed during Marsden's "seizure," in full view of the audience, yet I don't think a single person ever spotted it. (The broken one was on the floor all the time, upstage of the chair in which he died.) Others were taken away as needed by cast members, during the blackouts; it was a point of honor that no stagehand ever touched them during the performance.

The script really is a marvel, when you get to know it--and it was her first stage play! The only dull point was the recording of the accusations in the first scene. The recitation could not be rushed, but unless the reactions were overplayed like a silent movie, it seemed to go on forever. (I updated some of those references so we didn't have to fuss with period costumes, and this was before everyone in the world had a cell phone. One or two very dated product names were also changed, though Marsden still said "Wizard!," which always got a big laugh.)

more...

J said...

This is probably what you really wanted to read:
I knew that the film versions all stuck to the romantic ending Christie had created for the play, and decided to surprise the audience--if they'd only seen the film--by going back to the book.

When Vera shot Lombard (the gun very loud in our small performance space), he clutched at his chest, and when he took his hands away, the white shirt was soaked with (stage) blood. In the printed script, he finishes speaking before Vera shoots him, but I had her interrupt him with the shot. He then croaked, "...and quite quite mad," falling to the floor, and taking one end table with him, its contents scattering on the floor.

Downstage left was a door which went to the kitchen, on special hinges which permitted it to open either in or out--with the hinges on the downstage side! Throughout the play, the actors had *always* pushed the door offstage, out of sight, or pulled it toward them when they came in, so that the audience was unaware that it worked both ways.

As Vera dropped the gun, the killer opened the door *onto* the stage, so that it hid him, and started laughing. At our matinee performance, one woman--who clearly believed that all the other characters were dead at this point--let out a gratifying yell! (The killer was an actor known for his musical comedy performances...a perfect Least Likely Person.)

The killer now made his usual speech about the scheme working out, but told Vera she must kill herself as well, or face trial for all the other murders (every word spoken came from the novel). He whipped open the curtain on the upstage french door, open now, to show a noose already prepared. He collected the gun and went offstage. A moment later, we heard another shot, and Vera's fragile hold on reality gave way. She started talking to the long-ago boy on the beach, encouraging him to go out in the water--and we know why he never came back. Sweeping the remaining indian figurines to the floor, she started toward the doorway as the lights faded. The End.

Martin Edwards said...

J, that is fascinating. Thanks so much for taking the trouble to respond.