And Then There Were None (1945)

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.

Comparisons, comparisons:

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.

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29 thoughts on “And Then There Were None (1945)

  1. This movie is certainly better than the 1965 “And There were None” starring Richard Attenborough (Ath-Ana-Bharo). Objectively speaking (OK maybe not so objectively), “Gumnaam” can be said to be the best adaptation, what with Tarun Bose, Pran & Helen in it.
    I remember watching this movie alone at late night (on TV), and even though I had read the book, the suspense got to me.
    Interesting piece about the “Hays Code”, did not know about it.
    Could not agree with you more about the review, except of course, you have a far more detailed analysis.

    • I haven’t seen the Attenborough (I like that desi rendition of his name!) film, but oh – Gumnaam is an old, old favourite. I’ve seen it quite a few times, and I think it’s a good example of what one would call ‘Bollywood noir’ (I’ve written about that in the essay I wrote for The Popcorn Essayists). Noir in the sense that it is dark – in a way – yet so quintessentially Bollywood, with all the elements one would expect of a 60s Hindi film.

      A lot of film adaptations of books during the 40s, were, as far as I know, changed quite a bit because of the Hays Code. The Postman Always Rings Twice was, in the book, much more explicit about the affair between the Lana Turner character and the John Garfield character. Also, if you compare the films of this era with earlier films – say, from the 20s, when Theda Bara made all those really wild films, it would come as a surprise that instead of becoming more progressive over the years, Hollywood actually regressed. I think that was largely because of the Hays Code – though I must admit this is mere speculation on my part.

      • I did some brief research into the “Hays Code”, and your surmise sounds right. The code came into existence during “The Great Depression” of the late 20’s – 30’s, and that probably contributed to its adoption. It is interesting to note that this conservative code was voluntarily adopted by Hollywood during a liberal FDR administration. As former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan would say, “This conundrum deserves more research”.

        And as I have commented earlier, did read the book “The Popcorn Essayists” and your article within, and loved it. Highly recommended for serious filmbuffs.

        • Thank you, Samir, for the appreciation! When Jai first commissioned the article, his brief was to give it a personal touch – as long as I wrote on cinema, I was free to follow whatever path I wanted. And seeing how fond I am of old Hindi suspense films, that seemed the most obvious choice.

          I wonder why Hollywood voluntarily adopted the Hays Code. Something rather inexplicable about that decision – especially as they seemed to have been very happily going in exactly the opposite direction for long enough prior to that.

          Incidentally, you say that the Great Depression may have contributed to the adoption of the Code – any idea why?

          • http://www.callmefatty.com/id8.html
            contains a pretty good explanation, and of course, there are many other sources as well.
            To summarize :-
            1) HWood voluntarily adopted the code to prevent more stringent US Federal Govt. censorship rules from being enacted.
            2) The Great Depression caused movie revenues to plummet significantly (as much as 30 – 50 %), thereby incentivizing producers to create films that could easily bring in more revenue. Such films contained much more explicit sex & violence, and this in turn brought more complaints & threats from religious and other organizations.
            3) My guess is the liberal FDR administration had its hands full with managing the Great Depression, and later with World War 2; that Free Speech took a backseat. FDR did make speeches proclaiming the necessity of Free Speech, but as history notes, allowed a benign to fairly stringent reduction in Free Speech (Obviously depending upon your beliefs, you may use either benign or fairly stringent to anywhere in between.).
            4) Another thing is the FDR administration was also imposing new rules & regulations on Private Business, and there must have been some friction with Hollywood on that issue.

            • That is what comes of laziness. ;-) Friends and readers take the trouble of doing all the work! Thank you for that, very much.

              It does make sense, I guess – though I do wonder how much more stringent the US Federal Govt censorship would have been if they’d got around to draughting and enforcing their own set of censorship rules.

      • Gumnaam is a good adaptation of this book. But what I couldn’t digest was the fact that everyone seemed to be having a swell time despite the threat of death looming over them. Too much frolicking for a “dark” tale. But as you said, the 60’s Bollywood elements are very much there and that prolly accounts for all the frolicking and flirting that goes on in the movie. BUT I love it nonetheless and despite much ridicule from one and all, I bought the DVD some years ago. My brother still thinks me insane for loving the movie so much. Hmmm. I think I’ll watch it again tonight to relive the morose and masale-daar magic of this movie. :-D

        • “everyone seemed to be having a swell time despite the threat of death looming over them”

          Too true! That is where And Then There Were None scores over it – other than the (admittedly very few) moments of what was meant to be humour, one never forgets that each of these people is well aware of the fact that one of them may not live to see the next day.

          But I’m with you on this one. Despite its many shortcomings, I still love Gumnaam – possibly because it’s so typically, unabashedly Bollywood! :-)

  2. ‘Gumnaam’ is one of those films I’ve always wanted to see, and never got around to doing it. I like anything based on Agatha Christie books, because I’m a sucker for mysteries. :) Strangely, I don’t mind when things are changed from book plots, but I do hate the funnies. I’d love to see this film.

    • I’m a sucker for mysteries, too! :-) Love them – and Agatha Christie wrote some of the finest there are! I usually don’t mind some changes from books – after all, a book has more time in which to generate a plot, build a storyline and characters, and so on, whereas in a film you only have that 2 hours or whatever… what I don’t like are inexplicable changes, that are made just for the heck of it.

  3. Same with me as well, I have never got around to watching Gumnaam, at least not yet, though I have its dvd.
    And I haven’t read too many Agatha Christi books as well. Will check out for this one though. Want to read the book before I watch the movie.
    A very good review and a good observation about the smashing of China figurine.
    May be it was old General Sir John Mandrake beside the murderer at that point of time, when Nikki is killed. Since, he’s already hard of hearing, he wouldn’t notice it ;-)

    • That’s a very logical explanation for why the breaking of the china figure wasn’t heard! ;-) Unfortunately, though, I have to break your theory into bits – all of the other guests are in the same room when Nikki dies. Everybody’s very agitated about the record and Mrs Rogers’ faint, you see, so they’re all discussing it.

      But read the book for yourself! It’s easy to get – Christie is all over the big bookstores, I saw it myself yesterday – and then see the film!

  4. It was last year I think, I watched ‘And then there were none’ and ‘Gumnaam’ back to back. And when one watches it that way ‘Gumnaam’ is not at all bad adaptation of it. Only if one compares it with Christie’s book that it stands pale.
    Personally, I don’t like film adaptations of a novel, I have always been disappointed. When one reads a book, one always has his/her own vivid images of it. And a film can never be the same.
    The book ending was so intriguing and engrossing, the film ending was, well, too Hollywood-like.
    Love the book, but the film was also okay in its own way.

    And the film ‘And then there were none’ would have climbed up a few notches if it had this:

    • Yes, the ending is just too Hollywood. :-( – as if they guessed that that was what the public would want (though I’ve seen a sufficient number of films made around the same time which did not have the requisite convenient yet ‘happily ever after’ end – Johnny Eager, for instance, or one of my favourite Mitchum films, Heaven Knows, Mr Allison.

      Jaan Pehchaan Ho is in a class by itself, no? I LOVE that. :-D (Can there be a bigger smile than that? If so, I’d like to put it in!)

  5. This was one film I always wanted to see for obvious reasons (Gumnaam being an adaptation of the same) and was quite envious of my brother when he had the opportunity of seeing it at the USIS, he was a member of the library there, it was no entry for me. I have read the novel though, yes this one is definitely one of Christie’s best works.

    • I agree with you, Shilpi – this is one of Agatha Christie’s best books. I like a lot of her Poirot or Miss Marple stuff too, but of the ‘generic’ (well, I mean not detective-specific) books she wrote, this is possibly one of the best I’ve read so far. And she was so immensely prolific too. 80 books is no joke!

  6. Agatha Christie is one of my favourite authors. I’m surprised that she changed the ending of her own story for the film.
    Thanks for the link. I’ll have to watch that one. :)

    • I think she was encouraged to change the ending by whoever was going to stage the play. They probably thought the original ending would disappoint audiences. Though I would have thought (as I’ve also written in my response to harvey’s comment, above) that that wouldn’t have been necessary – I’m sure audiences were mature enough to take the rough with the smooth! And it so often happens that one goes to watch a film (or a play) after having read the book. If you liked the book – ending and all – enough to want to see it played in front of you, it is likely to be very disappointing to see that it’s been tampered with so much. :-(

      Watch, though – it’s good!

  7. I read the book, saw the play and this version of the film (in this order). I think the book’s ending is better, and I was surprised at the way the play ended! And then of course, the film followed the play. It makes the whole story slightly less satisfactory in my opinion.

    • Yes, exactly. It somehow seemed too contrived, as if it had specifically been done to satisfy an audience that had been brought up on the typical Hollywood film, happy end and romance and all.

      The only one of Agatha Christie’s plays that I’ve seen on stage is The Mousetrap. Would love to see this one, but with the book ending, not the play/film ending!

  8. Gumnaam is very similar to this film in a lot of ways, but the ending is very different – largely because the motives behind the spate of killings are miles apart. As a suspense film, And Then There Were None wins; as pure good masala entertainment, Gumnaam is miles ahead. :-)

  9. Nice post! Just one minor quibble:

    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.

    I reread the book fairly recently, and the thoughts of the actual murderer (won’t name him/her here!) are explored to more or less the same degree as the other nine people. That’s one of the reasons I think this is among Christie’s best-crafted novels – because once the reader knows the basic premise, and is allowed into the private thoughts of each of the characters, we are constantly trying to work out the truth about the earlier crime each of them has been accused of committing. (The one who didn’t commit a real crime in the past, and doesn’t feel any guilt at all, is logically the guilty party in the present situation – but Christie cleverly gives us only fragments of their reminiscences, which makes it very difficult to guess.)

    • I thought that where Christie explored the thoughts of each individual so deeply – for instance, Vera dwelling so profoundly on the why and how of how she murdered Cyril – or Dr Armstrong remembering, in detail, how he had felt when faced with the woman lying on the operating table, and his impressions of the nurse who assisted him in the procedure – I did think Christie didn’t explore X’s thoughts that deeply. To some extent, yes; but it happens only in one scene, where, as X is getting ready for bed, X remembers what had happened. The rest of the time, X is only answering other people’s questions, when Owen’s record plays.

      I re-read the book just the day before I saw the film, and that did strike me.

      But yes, your observation (in your next comment) about Christie giving herself a pretext to not spend much time exploring the thoughts of X is very true… it’s a very well-written piece of writing, that book.

  10. …the thoughts of the actual murderer (won’t name him/her here!) are explored to more or less the same degree as the other nine people

    though I should add that (Spoiler Alert) the private musings naturally get more elaborate and more intense/paranoid once the murders start happening – which means that the reminiscences of the last 3 or 4 survivors get the most mileage. So if our real murderer is someone who appears to have died relatively early, Christie gives herself a pretext not to spend too much time on his thoughts!

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