Looking Back At AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1974) - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

Home Top Ad

Post Top Ad

Looking Back At AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1974)

Tony reads a rhyme…
Ever wondered what the world’s most popular mystery story is?

You could probably hazard a guess at it being an Agatha Christie novel, but with over 100 million copies sold, come in And Then There Were None, your number is up.

In some respects, you can immediately understand the appeal. In the book, ten strangers are invited to an island, only for it to be revealed by an unseen host that they are all murderers. And one by one, they all get bumped off. Alliances are formed, confessions made, red herrings deployed, and still the murders continue, all at least vaguely in line with a ghastly doggerel nursery rhyme, the rhyme seeming to taunt them as actual, real people die.

The question of who the murderer is in And Then There Were None is an ever-switching game of Change Your Suspect, and the more you try to find any particular motive, the more unstuck you get, because it’s one of Christie’s purest “serial killer” novels – the murders are the point in And Then There Were None, there’s little that’s accidental or opportunistic about the fact of the deaths, despite a degree of opportunism being involved in quite who dies when. By the end of the plot, everyone is going to end up dead.

You’ve got to know that a plot like that is going to shift copies – and clearly, it has done. A plot like that is why And Then There Were None has been adapted time and time and time again for theatre, TV and film – and often, when it comes to the film versions, some of the best actors of the age have bitten the hand off directors to be among the party.

Which brings us neatly to the 1974 version. The 1974 version, directed by Peter Collinson from a screenplay by Harry Alan Towers, is almost absurdly crammed with some of the best and most memorable acting talent on the planet at the time.

Where else are you going to get Richard Attenborough playing the morally corrupted Judge Cannon, alongside Oliver Reed’s dubious businessman, Hugh Lombard, Charles Aznavour’s weaselly entertainer, Michel Raven, Herbert Lom’s Dr Armstrong, Elke Sommer’s Vera Clyde, Gert Fröbe (Your actual Goldfinger) as Wilhelm Blore, and the vocal talents of none other than Orson Wells as “Mr U.N. Owen,” (Mr Unknown – really, it’s that sublime), the nominal gatherer of the guilty to this time and place.

Curiously enough, the script for the 1974 version was essentially the same script, by the same screenwriter, as was used in the 1965 film version, which also had a heavy-hitting cast, albeit many more of them from the world of comedy – Stanley Holloway, Wilfred Hyde White, and Dennis “Kind Hearts and Coronets” Price were among that cast, with Vincent Price voiced U.N. Owen. In a delicious twist, it also starred Shirley Eaton, who just the year before had become “the girl who died covered head to toe in gold” in Goldfinger, opposite Gert Fröbe, who went on to star in the 1974 And Then There Were None.

But if the script is the same, the setting is arrestingly different.

Many of the adaptations of And Then There Were None use the original novel’s idea for a remote, inescapable location – an island. But the 1974 version changes things up significantly, stranding the gang of murderers (Side-note: what’s the correct collective noun for a group of murderers? A poisoning of murders? A bloodletting of murderers?) in an elaborate, only slightly Shining-style hotel in the middle of the Iranian desert. The scenery includes lots of ruins and pillars, and that adds a creepy sonic dimension to the whole thing – both cries and screams echo and resonate, letting confusion reign over everything outside the hotel. Meanwhile, the desert location is an interesting take on the principle of an isolated, inescapable environment, and gives the 1974 And Then There Were None a visual style all of its own.

The soundtrack is very distinctly “Seventies Terrror,” all scraping, sharp violins, as though the bow is being dragged over your nerve endings – it plays a significant part in turning some scenes which might otherwise feel flat and full of silence into tense, nerve-shredding moments.

The success or failure of any rendition of And Then There Were None though depends on the elements that keep the players moving, their minds spinning, and the 1974 version does a reasonably good, if never an exceptionable job of that.

Oliver Reed gives his Hugh Lombard a good deal of fidgety, twitchy energy, frequently resulting in people who share scenes with him flaring up into shouting matches, from Otto Martino (Alberto de Mendoza), one half of the hotel’s staff, who flounces out in the middle of dinner when Lombard asks him about how he and his wife Elsa (Maria Rohm) were engaged and knew they had to be at the hotel before anyone else arrived, to Wilhelm Blore, the police official who landed an innocent man in jail for a decade – where he died before he could be released.

Blore is played by Gert “Goldfinger” Fröbe, so when he rages across the scene, it’s particularly impressive and unnerving. But he’s also the character in the 1974 production who seems to be there with the least active purpose, for all the script keeps finding things for him to do, like trying to fix the generator when it acts up.

When he meets his end, Blore should be more of a loss to the party than he ends up being, because by that point, the high body-count has become something we’ve entirely accepted.

That’s a notable issue with the 1974 movie of And Then There Were None – it stands for no introspective nonsense and belts right along from the moment of the first murder, when Charles Asnavour’s Michel Raven stops driving everyone up the wall with his singing, and starts collapsing of arsenic poisoning on the stairs (Oops – spoiler – don’t worry, there are plenty more we won’t ruin for you).

But that pace, which gets you handfuls of murders within not much more than 90 minutes, means very few of the characters have the space and time to really reveal much of their characters. It’s understandable from a production point of view, but it makes it hard to care for many of the characters, and easy to fall into the trap of simply shrugging when they die and singing Another One Bites The Dust.

And the point is, if you’re going to get actors of this calibre to play roles in an adaption of the most successful mystery story in the world, you want to care about them as people – even if they’re all reprehensible murderers. You don’t want them to be as disposable as the figurines that represent them in the drama, and here, it’s sad to realise that they mostly are.

There’s some romance between Reed’s Lombard and Sommer’s Clyde, but it’s clunky and awkward and not a little convenient, so it never really convinces as something that might ever survive the situation of being trapped in a desert hotel with a potential serial killer – even assuming it’s not one of them that IS the serial killer.

Where this version shines in terms of character dynamics is in getting Herbert Lom’s Dr Armstrong and Richard Attenborough’s Judge Cannon together, playing cat and mouse with one another on opposite sides of a billiard table while the power flickers on and off.

In that one small scene, there’s enough human drama to almost rebalance the fact that we don’t care (or even really notice) when some of the characters in this version of And Then There Were None die.

Attenborough of course had some stellar experience to call on when it came to portraying a plausible man with a dark secret, having immortalised the stunningly workaday serial killer John Reginald Christie in 10 Rillington Place just three years earlier. And Lom was no slouch in the suave villainy stakes either, with performances in the likes of The Ladykillers and Gambit under his belt by the time he came to the middle of the Iranian desert.

Seeing those two feel out some way to both try and survive the night against the possible intentions of a psychotic serial killer with a penchant for “justice” and the certainty that they were both guilty is a crackling few minutes of screen work.

If you’re looking for reasons to watch the 1974 version of And Then There Were None, that single scene is right up there. First, the unusual location and the acoustic effects it brings. Second, the edgy, nerve-shredding soundtrack - which works so well, you may not actually thank it for putting you on edge for 90 minutes. Third, that scene with Attenborough and Lom, perfectly drawing the reality of the question at the heart of the whole drama (and pre-dating the Saw movies by several decades!) – how far would you go to save your own life? Would you team up, even if you knew it meant other people like yourself would die?

Most adaptations of And Then There Were None take at least some liberties with the ending of And Then There Were None – which is odd, because in itself, the version in the book is sublime, pre-dating the notion of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs being able to talk someone into committing suicide, and solving the mystery of the island only later, and with a confession in a bottle, thrown out to sea.

That’s the absolutely sick denouement of the literary And Then There Were None – the final two survivors on the island face off, and one convinces the other to hang themselves, then commits their own self-satisfied suicide, escaping the justice of the law by taking it into their own hands.

The 1974 version takes rather more liberties with that piquant ending than most adaptations, meaning that the ending doesn’t really work. While it is somewhat clumsily established earlier in the film that two of the ‘murderers’ in the desert are actually being falsely accused, it still makes for a less complete and perfect story at the end when those two survive the plans of the serial killer and eventually get to leave.

Yes, technically, it should satisfy us on a “rewards of relative virtue” level, but it genuinely doesn’t, because while we rejoice in the survival of relatively good people and the eventual foiling of the plans of serial killers, there’s such an encapsulating elegance in the original ending that any attempt to worm out of it feels like a much less satisfying ending to all the nervy drama that’s gone before.

The 1974 version is probably not the best adaptation of Agatha Christie’s arguable masterwork with the deeply troublesome original title (and while we’re on it, the 1974 version actually uses the American version of the troublesome title, rather than actually calling itself And Then There Were None).

But it does reward a viewing with a roomful of powerful acting talent, a fairly stage-like setting, a heroically different take on the venue, a screechy, nerve-jangling soundtrack, and at least a couple of scenes that show the central dilemma really well.

Plus, you get all that within just over and hour and a half of movie, which means it’s a Christie that’s well worth getting under your belt, and which won’t bog you down too far in individual motivations.

Watch And Then There Were None today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post Top Ad