Ten Little Indians went to dine…whodunit, who’ll live through it, in this classic mystery?
I love a good mystery in any form but when it comes to Agatha Christie I’d much rather watch than read. She specializes in having a large group of fascinating characters mingle, obfuscate and drop the smallest of clues, and I find that much easier and more enjoyable to follow with great actors filling the roles. This 1945 adaptation of her massive bestseller (one of the top 5 biggest books of all time, at about 100 million copies sold, not to mention countless movies inspired and influenced) has an all-star cast to bring these “ten little Indians” to life and keep you guessing at the killer’s identity. The story is one of the models for many decades of derivative movies in which a slasher methodically eliminates victims in isolated places: ten people are invited to stay at a fabulous island mansion and start getting themselves murdered. None of them knows exactly who the host is and why they’re there, but from a recording they learn they’ve all been summoned because at one time or another they were responsible for someone’s death. Walter Huston, Judith Anderson, Mischa Auer, Barry Fitzgerald, Roland Young, C.Aubrey Smith, Louis Hayward, June Duprez, Richard Haydn and Queenie Leonard make this wonderfully diverse cast of totally different, all appealing, and, most importantly, suspicious characters. Knowing they all may be guilty of getting away with murder, compounded by the blase manner they talk about it, makes it forgivable for a viewer to be eager about seeing their demise, while also feeling sorry for them.
They soon deduce that the host, one Mr. U.N. Owen, is actually “unknown,” not an extra person on the island and therefore one of them, and as they start being killed off, the mystery becomes as much who’s doing it, as who will survive it and how? Great suspense and entertainment comes from watching them try to predict the next murder, give each other the side-eye, grab a weapon when in doubt, and form scheming alliances to suss the culprit out. There’s a lot of humour, like “Russian Prince” Auer banging on the piano while performing his interpretation of the nursery rhyme Ten Little Indians, a song whose lyrics dictate exactly the order and manner in which the ten will be eliminated, ranging from poisoning to being chopped in half, to death by bee sting. There’s Young, the supposed detective who is always way off in his deductions, has a firm grip on only the most obvious facts, and exclaims “I get it!!” before each theory — boy does he ever get it when he’s killed. There’s the sailor who’s chomping on what looks to be a smelly sandwich, thereby fully nauseating the seasick group during their intro scenes, and there’s the keyhole peeping that turns into an spectator sport with a chain of observers sneaking up behind each other. Judith Anderson is supremely aloof, and one dedicated knitter to bring in a long piece of creepy seaweed to copy for a shawl.
The parts where the characters introduce each other and later tell their “murder” stories by looking straight into the camera seemed out of place, but it’s nothing you can hold against a director who sets up every scene so artfully and with atmosphere galore, has the camera going through keyholes among other creative tricks, focuses on the shattered porcelain Indians in such a tense way that they become characters themselves, and who keeps the suspense ratcheted so tight for every minute of 97. Rene Clair did a fine job bringing plot, pace and people to life here. Really the only thing I can find to pick on is that June Duprez, though pretty, didn’t quite seem as ambiguous about her guilt as the story required, but she still had good chemistry with Louis Hayward and enough sass and smarts to hold her own in this cast of major leaguers.
The movie’s ending is very different from the book, and one that Christie herself rewrote when adapting this for the stage. If you haven’t read the novel let me just say that it would have made for an even more outstanding shocker of a movie, one that was probably–better to say wholly– unacceptable in ’45. So while it may not satisfy adaptation purists, as it stands And Then There Were None remains one of the best movies of its kind, enjoyable after many rewatches have made the ending familiar.