Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Friday Night Late Movie: Murders Abounds in a Snow-Covered Chateau in Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians"

I saw this 1966 remake of Agatha Christie’s classic whodunit as a teenager, then spent over a decade looking for the more highly-touted 1945 original And Then There Were None. When I finally saw it, I was somewhat disappointed. As in the case of Hammer’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, I realized that I liked the remake better. Part of my preference undoubtedly hinges on the setting: And Then There Were None takes place on an isolated island, while Ten Little Indians shifts the action to a more atmospheric, snow-covered, mountaintop chateau. But I also favor prefer the low-wattage cast peppered with British veterans (Wilfred Hyde-White and Dennis Price) and an unusual leading lady (the strangely attractive Shirley Eaton, best known for being painted gold in Goldfinger).

The opening features dreadful theme music and an over-the-top performance by then-popular singer Fabian. However, both distractions are discarded quickly as the mystery reveals itself. Eight strangers have been invited to a remote Austrian mansion for the weekend by the mysterious Mr. U. N. Owen. Gradually, the guests discover that none of them even knows their host. They also find it odd that the nursery rhyme “Ten Little Indians” seems to be everywhere: a framed copy hangs on a wall in each bedroom, the sheet music is on the piano, and a dinner tray—playfully decorated by ten little Indian figures—sits atop the dining room table.

Suspects Daliah Lavi, Wilfrid Hyde-White,
and Shirley Eaton.
Shortly after dinner, the guests and the two servants hear a recording by Mr. Owen in which he accuses each of them of murder. When one of them dies suddenly and one of the Indians figures disappears, the guests realize that they, along with the two servants, are being eliminated one by one. The situation becomes more complicated when a search of the house fails to uncover Mr. Owen, leading to only one possible conclusion: One of the potential victims must actually be the murderer.

Although Ms. Christie’s ingenious plot violates S.S. Van Dine’s famous essay “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories,” the murder’s identity is both surprising and plausible. And, unlike Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, the solution doesn’t feel like a cheat. Indeed, in the spirit of fairness, Ten Little Indians includes a “Murder Minute” near the climax, in which an onscreen clock counts down from 60 seconds as key clues are shown to the viewer again. (Inexplicably, the “Murder Minute” doesn’t appear in videotapes of the movie, but does appear in TV prints.)

Although the casting takes a backseat to the plotting, the mostly British actors bring life to each of their characters. Wilfrid Hyde-White as retired Judge Cannon, and Dennis Price, as the alcoholic Dr. Armstrong, rise above the others. They share a wonderful scene in which each suspects the other while playing a game of pool in a dimly-lit room. Hugh O’Brian and Shirley Eaton were clearly expected to heat up the screen a bit—he appears shirtless in one scene and she’s shown in her black lace undergarments more than once. Attractive, but in a sometimes severe way, Eaton only made a few more films and then retired from the screen.

Producer Harry Alan Towers mounted two more adaptations of Ten Little Indians: a 1975 version set in an Iranian desert with Oliver Reed and Elke Sommer and a cheap 1989 remake set in Africa with Donald Pleasance and Frank Stallone. Avoid these catastrophes at all costs and seek out the definitive 1966 film. For added effect, watch it on a snowy evening!

2 comments:

  1. An excellent film! Agatha Christie's influence on the mystery genre is still prevalent today. Many movies, especially slasher films, will employ a "Ten Little Indians"-esque plot. But as you suggested, most of them aren't as strong as this gem. Great write-up for a late Friday night!

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  2. Rick, this is indeed an excellent choice for A Month of Mysteries! I love the isolated setting and having the mystery occur during the winter is superb. As a mystery aficionado, I also appreciate S.S. Van Dine's rules. Great entry!

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