Since The Train was, all said and done (though I’m not convinced about it) a suspense film, I decided to stick to that genre for this post as well. And Then There Were None is a classic suspense film, based on Agatha Christie’s book of the same name. Christie’s book (originally titled Ten Little Niggers) is supposed to be the best-selling book of all time – 100 million copies sold to date, and with several cinematic adaptations as well.
This adaptation is the earliest of them all, and was based on a stage adaptation that Agatha Christie herself wrote. For those of you who’ve read and enjoyed the book, you’ll be glad to know that it’s pretty much the same. But for those of you who (like me) are purists and don’t like any toying around with good plots – even if it’s been done by the author herself – there are some differences, too.
The film begins in a motorboat which is making its way out to a lonely little island just off the coast. It’s too windy and the sea is tossing the boat about too violently for any conversation to be held, but from the somewhat polite – but distant – smiles that the passengers give each other, it’s obvious that this isn’t a party of old friends out on a weekend jaunt.
The boat finally docks, and the man who’s been sailing it helps the passengers off. There are eight of them: two women and six men. They look up at the large house standing overlooking the sea, and are surprised when the sailor tells them that he’ll be getting along now. It turns out that he had been hired by the owner of the house, a Mr Owen, to bring this group of strangers out to this deserted island with its lone house. Those were his instructions, nothing more.
So the motorboat goes off, and the eight newcomers make their way up to the house, where they are welcomed by the butler, Rogers (Richard Haydn, who – 20 years later – played the role of Max Detweiler in The Sound of Music) and Rogers’s wife (Queenie Leonard). Three facts emerge, that:
(a) This group that’s landed on the island are actually strangers to each other
(b) Rogers and his wife are the only servants in the house
(c) Neither of the Rogerses have seen the Owens. They were employed by letter, have received their instructions by letter too, and have been told that Mr and Mrs Owen will arrive at the island later that evening.
Mr and Mrs Rogers show the guests up to their respective rooms, and later in the evening (there’s no sign of their hosts yet), the guests congregate in the drawing room for pre-dinner cocktails, and later, dinner. Over the course of the evening, we get to learn a little more about these people.
First of all, there is the retired old General Sir John Mandrake (C Aubrey Smith). He’s pretty senile, terribly hard of hearing, and a widower.
Then, another retiree, but very different from the general: a judge, Quincannon (Barry Fitzgerald). Justice Quincannon has all his wits about him – and they’re very sharp too. He has a lifetime of judicial experience behind him.
Diametrically opposite to the sharp-witted, keen-eyed judge is ‘the Russian’, Prince Nikita Starloff (Mischa Auer). This man is the flighty, frivolous sort with too much time and money on his hands, no conscience to speak of, and little to do except enjoy himself. He admits that he is here as a ‘professional guest’.
While the others may not be openly disapproving of Nikki (as he likes to be called), one of the ladies – Emily Brent (one of my favourite character actresses, Judith Anderson) makes no bones about the fact that she considers him lowlife – and lowlife of the lowest order. Ms Brent is self-righteous in the extreme and turns up her nose at just about everything and everybody in the house.
The other woman in the group, Vera Claythorne (June Duprez) is nothing like Ms Brent. This is a young, poised and pretty young lady, and it’s obvious at a glance that she’s going to be popular with the men in the group. It turns out, too, that Vera is the only one in the group who’s an employee of the Owens. She tells the others that Mrs Owen had approached an employment agency for a secretary, and it is through the agency that she’s been given this job.
Like the others – all of whom have come here on invitations from long-lost friends or from other obscure sources – Vera has never seen the Owens.
Probably the most fascinated by Vera is Philip Lombard (Louis Hayward), a young man who used to be in the army, though no longer. Oddly enough, Lombard’s luggage – a bag – has the initials CM on them. When asked, he says that CM stands for Charles Morley, the name of a dear friend of his, whose things he, Lombard, sometimes borrows.
The man who notices the discrepancy between Lombard’s own initials and the ones on his bag is Blore (Roland Young), a private detective from Plymouth. He later says that he’s been called here by Mr Owen on a job; a letter with a ‘fat money order’ has summoned Blore.
And, lastly, a doctor – Doctor Armstrong (Walter Huston), who it later emerges, is here because Mr Owen wanted the doctor to examine his wife. A glimpse of Dr Armstrong in his room as he downs a swig from his hip flask, and we realise that this is a man who likes his liquor – perhaps a little too much.
Despite the fact that the Owens were supposed to arrive that evening, they don’t, and the motley group of people sits down to dinner. They find an odd little arrangement in the centre of the dining table: a little group of ten porcelain figures in the form of Indians (I’m talking ‘Native American’ here, not my fellow-countrymen and I). Vera remembers the nursery rhyme about ten little Indian boys, and begins to recite it for the benefit of the others.
She also points out that a copy of the rhyme is on the piano, so Nikki sits down at the piano, begins to play, and sings the poem. He’s just finished when, from the next room, a loud voice booms out: “Silence, please! Ladies and gentlemen, this is your host, Mr Owen, speaking. You are charged with the following crimes…”
The voice goes on to list the crimes of which it accuses these people. Ms Brent of causing the death of her nephew; Vera of killing her sister’s fiancé; Philip Lombard of sending 21 men of an East African tribe, to their deaths in military action; General Mandrake of killing his wife’s lover; Dr Armstrong of having – because of uncontrolled drunkenness – killing a lady on the operating table; Nikki of causing the deaths of two people; Justice Quincannon of sentencing to death an innocent man; and Blore of perjury which resulted in an innocent man dying in prison.
Even the Rogerses aren’t spared; that voice of doom accuses them of having killed an ex-employer because she had left them a considerable bequest.
Mrs Rogers, on hearing this accusation, shrieks and faints. Some of the men gather round, trying to revive her, and Blore, in the meantime, discovers where the voice is coming from: a record player with a record on it. Rogers admits that he was the one who played the record: he had been given instructions – in Owen’s letter – to do so after dinner. Rogers had no idea, before the record played, what it was all about.
As the old general sums it up, this seems to be a practical joke, a pack of lies.
Mrs Rogers – by now hysterical – is taken up to her room, and Dr Armstrong gives her a sedative to help her sleep. Meanwhile, downstairs, the assembled party discusses the practical joke. The record, as the judge discovers, is named ‘Swansong’. And, when they talk it over, they realise that none of them really know who the Owens are. In fact, as Dr Armstrong points out, all the letters received by these ‘guests’ have been signed by someone calling themselves U N Owen. Unknown?
It all seems laughable, but Justice Quincannon wonders what truth there is behind those allegations. Nikki is the first one to admit: he did run over two people, but that was because they came in front of his car while he was driving fast. Too bad for them, but what he regrets most of all is that his driving license was taken away. “Beastly bad luck,” he says. He seats himself again at the piano, starts playing, takes a sip from his glass – and keels over, dead.
…and that night, after everybody has gone to their rooms and he’s locking up, Rogers finds that of the ten china Indians on the dining table, only nine remain: one has been smashed.
The next morning, Mrs Rogers is found dead in her bed. And there’s one less Indian on the table.
One death could be an accident, or suicide. But two? And the vanishing china figurines?
Who is behind this macabre business? Who, inexorably, is sending, one by one in excruciating succession, each of these people to their deaths, following the nursery rhyme to a T? The people still alive realise that it has to be one of them; after all, they’ve searched the entire island and every inch of the house and there’s nobody there but them – so who is it? Which of these people is a ruthless murderer? Watch as the story unfolds, as the group becomes increasingly suspicious of each other, and grows almost paranoid as they find there is no escape…
What I liked about this film:
The suspense. It’s a very good suspense film, and till almost the last scene, there’s not a breath of a clue as to who is behind this spate of killings. Of course, a large part of that must be credited to Agatha Christie’s original story, which is brilliantly written.
The acting. Some of my favourite actors are here: Judith Anderson, Walter Huston and C Aubrey Smith among them. Stalwart performances, all.
What I didn’t like:
Odd little holes in the plot. For instance, there’s the point of the china Indian figures being found broken and missing after each killing. In some cases (for example, Nikki’s death), the death occurs in the drawing room – in full view of the dining room, where anybody smashing a china figurine would’ve surely been noticed by someone. Even if they’d not been noticed, the sound would have carried, wouldn’t it? It’s not easy to smash a china figure (and these ones look pretty solid) without making some noise. What’s more, at least in Nikki’s case, I don’t see how the culprit actually achieved the smashing of the figurine: he seemed to be nowhere near the dining room at the time.
The ‘humour’ in the story. There are moments when there’s an attempt to infuse some funniness in the plot – and they fall flat. For example, there’s a scene where Rogers, on discovering that he is suspected of being Mr Unknown, goes a little berserk and literally drinks himself under the table. Or there’s the scene where someone’s been found with a chopper buried in their back, and Blore, in trying to reconstruct the crime, insists it was a suicide. And this man’s supposed to be a private eye. How many people can kill themselves by planting a chopper in their own backs?!
The finale. Yes, this is what Agatha Christie changed it to in the stage version of her story, but still. I didn’t like it.
Since I haven’t read the play, only Christie’s book, I’m going to compare the film to the book.
On the whole, the film is a good, mostly faithful adaptation of And Then There Were None. The characters are the same (with a couple of changes in name and in the crimes they are accused of: for example, in the book, Vera is supposed to have murdered a child; because of the Hays Code, the victim was changed to a man in the film). The plot is the same, and so is the setting. For a purist, this is a satisfying watch – except, as I mentioned in ‘What I didn’t like’ for the end. That was just too Hollywood for my taste.
Another observation: they shouldn’t have tried meddling with the details. There’s the bit about the china figures: in the book, they merely disappear; no smashing (which would have been noisy) takes place. Broken figures are later found outside a window or something, but a half-smashed china figure with its legs still on the dining table isn’t part of the story. Made sense, I thought.
Oddly enough, one thing which I actually liked more about the film as compared to the book was the fact that the film didn’t get into the minds of the characters. In the book, the point of view shifts constantly – from Vera to Ms Brent to Dr Armstrong, and all the others, each of them dwelling on their own guilt in the crimes of which they’ve been accused. In that situation, the fact that the thoughts of the culprit aren’t really explored stands out.
On the other hand, in the film, one gets to know about these people, their feelings about the ‘crimes’ they’d committed, and so on, through their own dialogues and actions. A better way of keeping up the suspense, in my opinion.
If you like suspense as a genre, do watch this one: it’s a good mystery. And if you like Agatha Christie’s work, also watch. It’s a very decent adaptation.
By the way, And Then There Were None is officially in the public domain; you can watch it here.