Afficionados of the genre often point to Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” as the best mystery novel ever written. Is it any wonder, then, that there have been so many screen versions of it, both for the motion picture theater and TV? Of the half a dozen of so available adaptations, “Ten Little Indians” from 1965 is among the most competent, although that may be as much a compliment to Ms. Christie’s impeccable story line as to the movie itself.
The problem is that the book was already made into a much better movie twenty years earlier by director Rene Clair, and no other versions since have matched it. That the 1965 version is merely competent, therefore, may not be saying a lot. George Pollock directed this one, the same director who gave us the Margaret Rutherford “Miss Marple” movies of the early sixties. Those films, though, were lighthearted and lightweight, and “Ten Little Indians” is far more serious, something I’m not sure Mr. Pollock completely understood.
In any case, Christie wrote “And Then There None” in 1939 under the unfortunate title “Ten Little Niggers,” a name rather hurriedly changed when the publishers brought the book to America in 1940. The title refers to an American comic song of the post Civil War era about ten little boys going out to dine and dying one by one until there were none. Christie used the idea to set a situation where ten people are stranded on an island, and each of them is murdered one by one. Only after the second or third murder does it dawn on the stranded people that there is no one else on the island but themselves, and that, therefore, the murderer must be among them.
It’s an idea that filmmakers have not only translated to the screen any number of times directly but one they have used indirectly as the basis for most of the slasher films of the last three or four decades. Characters are knocked off one at a time, diminishing the list of suspects as the audience tries to guess who could possibly be the guilty party (as well as guess the order of the characters’ demise). While most slasher films only bastardized the idea, Christie’s book makes the ending a complete and utter surprise, an outcome that sneaks up on you and comes as one of the most satisfying denouements in all of mystery fiction.
So, where does that leave the 1965 “Ten Little Indians”? As I say, it’s pretty much a capable if somewhat lackluster run-through. The first thing we notice amiss is that we are greeted from the outset by a loud, upbeat jazz score accompanying the opening titles. The music seems wholly inappropriate for the murder mystery to follow, and it’s even used more inappropriately later on. Nonetheless, it seems very much a part of the hip, cool sixties’ culture of pseudo-swinging sophistication.
Second, the screenwriters, Peter Yeldham and Peter Welbeck (Harry Alan Towers), changed the story’s location from a secluded island to an isolated alpine chateau. Later adaptations would set the story in the middle of the desert or in godforsaken parts of Africa and the like. I suppose these were attempts by the filmmakers to do something different in their adaptations without substantially changing the plot.
The filmmakers keep the story line for this one largely the same, thank goodness, the changes of only a few character names and one or two of the deaths standing out. Again, we have ten people invited to an almost inaccessible spot by a mysterious host, Mr. U.N. Owen, whom none of them has met. A suspended cable car is the only way up to the chateau, and once the guests get off on Friday afternoon, its operator won’t be back to return them to civilization until the following Monday morning. What’s more, the telephones aren’t working. They’re in for a long weekend.
A tape recording of Mr. Owen’s voice greets them by accusing each of having committed a heinous crime in his or her past. (The voice on the tape is that of an uncredited Christopher Lee, a villain for all time.) No one is amused, but there is no way out. No one is frightened until the first murder occurs, attended by the breaking of the first of ten little Indian statues in the dining room. Each killing follows the manner of death described in the “Ten Little Indians” poem hanging in each of their rooms.
All of the guests seem guilty of something and all of them act suspiciously, so everybody is a suspect. It makes for a perfect whodunit. More important, thanks to Ms. Christie’s deft hand, we get to know each of the suspects as a distinct personality; they aren’t the kind of interchangeable characters we so often encounter in shoddy imitations.
Unfortunately, it’s the cast of this 1965 version with which I have a few concerns. Most of them would have been well known to audiences of the sixties, but are today largely forgotten. The biggest star is Hugh O’Brian, who had made it big on television some years before as Wyatt Earp but who never translated well to the big screen despite his rugged good looks. He plays an engineer, Hugh Lombard, with an honest face and a stalwart hero’s demeanor. However, O’Brian was so well loved by viewers at the time that it was, and for those who know the actor’s work still is, hard to believe he could be one of the characters suspected of murder. Next of importance is Shirley Eaton, an actress who had come to prominence the year before as Jill Masterson in “Goldfinger.” Here, she plays Ann Clyde, recently hired as Mr. Owen’s secretary but whom she has never met. Like O’Brian, Ms. Eaton’s reputation preceded her, and it’s hard to imagine that she, too, could possibly be a suspect. I suppose, though, that these audience biases could work in favor of both actors, making their characters the least likely and, thus, the most likely, suspects; but one’s doubts are awfully strong to overcome.
The other actors hold up marginally better. In what is essentially a typecast cameo, we have pop singer Fabian playing a pop singer named Mike Raven. He is thankfully dispatched early on. As Judge Arthur Cannon, we have Wilfrid Hyde White, who gained fame the year before as Col. Pickering in “My Fair Lady.” And also from “My Fair Lady” is Stanley Holloway, Eliza’s father, as private-detective William Blore. Sexpot Daliah Lavi plays screen actress and sexpot Ilona Bergen. Incidentally, it seems a little unfair that while Ms. Eaton gets to play two separate scenes in her underwear, Ms. Lavi only gets to walk around in one of sixties’ lacquered hairdos that looks like a motorcycle crash helmet. Character actors Leo Genn and Dennis Price play General Sir John Mandrake and Dr. Edward Armstrong, respectively, and Marianne Hoppe and Mario Adorf play the hired help, Elsa and Joseph Grohmann.
The production design for “Ten Little Indians” is efficient rather than elaborate; the acting is capable rather than inspired; the direction is workmanlike rather than inventive. It’s almost all left to Ms. Christie’s plot and characters to make the movie work. Which isn’t a bad proposition.
Trivia note: Movies like this one remind me that major Hollywood studios were still producing black-and-white movies well through the 1960s. It wasn’t until the 1970s that color became the standard for the motion-picture industry, with black-and-white used thereafter primarily to make a point, create an atmosphere, or set a mood (“Young Frankenstein,” “Schindler’s List,” “Good Night, and Good Luck”).
Warner Bros. found a decent print of the film and transferred it to screen at a reasonable bit rate; thus, the video quality is generally good. Black-and-white contrasts are strong, and definition stands up well to inspection. There is, however, some varying degree of grain from scene to scene, the outdoor shots faring most poorly; and one notices some occasional age spots, flecks and lines. There is also one instance of severe vertical lines occurring about halfway through the film, but these lines last for only a moment and should not distress anyone.
The sound comes to us via Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural, so don’t expect much in the audio department. There is a good dynamic thrust, a reasonably balanced tonal output, and quiet backgrounds. Look for a clean, clear midrange response, which serves the dialogue well; otherwise, it’s a pretty ordinary mono track.
There is not much in the way of extras, but the main one is amusing. It’s the “Whodunit Break” segment from the original theatrical release, a kind of William Castle gimmick toward the end of the film that gives audiences a one-minute pause to guess who the murderer is. You remember William Castle, who gave us skeletons and electrified seats in movie houses, and insurance policies in the lobby in case you died of fright. This “Whodunit Break” is along those lines, and it’s a mercy that the present version of the movie dispenses with the idea. But the disc offers the break here for the entertainment of DVD viewers. Just be sure not to watch it until after you’ve watched the picture.
Other than that, there is an “Agatha Christie Thrillers” trailer gallery that includes trailers for this film and the four Margaret Rutherford “Miss Marple” mysteries, all in widescreen. Plus, there are twenty-four scene selections, but no chapter insert; English as the only spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
There is really nothing wrong with “Ten Little Indians,” and I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I disliked it. The problem is that Rene Clair’s vision of the story is far more compelling than Pollack’s. Pollack is more literal, more straightforward, lacking by comparison in spirit, drama, and tension. Part of this, as I’ve said, is in the movie’s cast of minor sixties’ movie stars; part of it is in the director’s own creative want. Pollack was something of a lightweight and never showed a lot of flair for things seriously startling or theatrical. End line: To begin with, read the book. Second, buy or rent “And Then There Were None.” Finally, check out the 1965 “Ten Little Indians.” Who knows; you might like it best of all. Just stay away from the other remakes.