Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Ten Little Indians (1974)

aka And Then There Were None

Under various pretexts, the mysterious U.N. Owen invites a group of people (Oliver Reed, Elke Sommer, Adolfo Celi, Herbert Lom, Gert Fröbe, Maria Rohm, Charles Aznavour, Stéphane Audran, Alberto de Mendoza and Richard Attenborough) into an unused hotel smack dab in the Iranian desert next to some picturesque ruins.

On their first evening, a tape message by the voice of God, or Orson Welles, accuses everyone in the house of being responsible for the death of at least one other person. Usually, that would be quite enough to stop every party, but this one takes until Charles Aznavour sings a song with an invisible band to get antsy; or the sudden nervousness might be on account of his death by poisoning shortly afterwards.

Now, our protagonists find themselves trapped in the Hotel, for the desert seem rather unconquerable, and there are neither cars nor telephones around. Soon, more people die based on a free very interpretation of the “Ten Little Indians” nursery rhyme, and people become increasingly paranoid, convinced the killer must be one amongst their ten.

Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians seems to be a book that brings out the best in the people adapting it, perhaps because it lacks a single annoying detective and replaces her or him with a perfect opportunity for a bunch of actors to emote, chew scenery, or something of that kind.

Dubious yet sometimes lucky British producer Harry Alan Towers loved the material so much, he made three adaptations of it, about one every fifteen years. Okay, I suspect he needed to keep making them to keep a license alive, but given that two out of these three films are actually rather good, that’s not the worst that could have happened. As far as I understand, this second Towers version uses much of the dialogue from his first version, but it still retains a character very much of its own thanks to its acting ensemble, its locations, and Peter Collinson’s direction.

Collinson, a man with mediocre as well as quite great films on his CV, clearly saw the opportunities the locations Towers acquired gave him to build a rather macabre mood. His camera finds the inherent threat in the hotel’s interiors where spacious oriental kitsch meets occidental colour-blindness, he uses spectacular staircases for playing games of the audience watching someone watching someone else while he himself is being watched without needing more camera involvement than decidedly clever placement, etc, and so forth.

The film’s visual style seems highly influenced by the giallo, the camera generally being positioned in the more peculiar and telling ways available with no conversation – and this is a very conversation heavy peace – not enhanced by direction that seeks to express the mood inside a room via its own movement and positioning even before the actors do anything at all. Like many a giallo director, Collinson succeeds in leapfrogging an audience’s scepticism towards a faintly – or very – ridiculous plot by creating a mood that suggests dreamscapes and the workings of the subconscious, making it very easy to read the resulting films in a manner where what a film’s plot has to say becomes secondary to what its mood tells us about its characters and the meaning of the world surrounding them.

I am – obviously – very fond of that approach to filmmaking, perhaps even to a fault, but I think this particular Christie novel just calls for it. This is, after all, a film about members of the upperclass and the bourgeoisie having to show and confront the truths behind their masks and the lies they tell themselves to get to sleep at night. Why, two of the more working class characters might even be called innocent, which would probably be more telling in a class-political sense if the other two weren’t just as murderous the bourgeois.

These characters are brought to life in various ways between subtlety, thespian grandstanding, and good old scenery-chewing with most of the involved well able and willing to use all three approaches, depending on what any given scene calls for. It’s all rather lovely to watch, particularly in scenes like the surreal confrontation between Lom and Attenborough with two packs of matches and a billiard table as a prop.

This all adds up to a very fine movie, even if the ending eschews to embrace the darkness of the novel and goes for a rather more normal happy end that only fits the tone of what came before vaguely. Despite the problem of the ending, Ten Little Indians is another exception to my usual “Ugh, Agatha Christie” rule.

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