Looking Back At ENDLESS NIGHT (1972) - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At ENDLESS NIGHT (1972)

Tony goes to play in the woods…
Endless Night is, on paper, one of the best novels Agatha Christie ever wrote.

But hey, don’t take our word for it – while she found And then There Were None among the most difficult to write, and it’s subsequently sold over 100 million copies, the much less well-known Endless Night was one of her personal favourites.


Possibly because of its unusual perspective, and possibly because it has no interfering detectives rushing in to foil the plot. Possibly because it’s written with a front end crammed with characterisation, and because there’s no murder in it until very late in the day. In a sense, Endless Night is Agatha Christie writing a story that would fit more into Patrick Hamilton’s bibliography.

Patrick Who-Now? If you remember Nigel Havers as Ralph Gorse, “The Charmer” – that guy. His style was very meticulous, observing the details of class and its tiny, grinding conflicts, and that’s really where Endless Night sits and lives. It’s possible that its very difference from most of the detective plots her public demanded of her was a kay part of what made it one of Christie’s favourites, because this is not Agatha Christie as you expect her to be.

The movie version from 1972 stars Hywel Bennett, Hayley Mills, Britt Ekland, George Sanders, Peter Bowles, and Per Oscarsson, so it’s rich in creative, naturalistic acting talent, and the way it builds makes you always fairly certain that the other shoe will drop – but never entirely sure until it does, in which direction the plot will twist in the final reel.

Bennett stars as Michael Rogers, the viewpoint character of the story. Distinctly working class, his story starts out almost like Michael Caine’s Alfie – his working class roots only being revealed several minutes in, as he introduces himself as an aesthete, a lover of beautiful things, bidding on paintings at auction.

It turns out he’s a chauffeur for hire, seeing the world of the rich and vulgar, but never being any real part of it – his dreams of owning rich and beautiful things are just that. Dreams he has no way of fulfilling.

We see him in his real situation in life, living with his mother, who frankly dislikes him as a secretive and unreadable creature.

So far, so good. What Endless Night immediately reveals is the potential star quality of Hywel Bennett. He’s known to most Brits predominantly as Shelley, the loveable overeducated scrounger in ten series of the self-titled sitcom that catalogued the decay in the social safety net throughout the Thatcher governments.

But back in 1972, Bennett displays the leading man potential of an Oliver Reed or an Alan Bates, complete with chin-cleft, steely eyes and mercurial performance. He really is worth the price of admission on his own.

Having come across an area of outstanding natural beauty on one of his chauffeuring jobs, Michael conjures the fantasy of buying the land, building his dream house, marrying his dream girl, and settling down to a life of bliss in the place called Gypsy’s Acre.

But of course, it’s a pure folly – he will never, on his chauffer’s wages, have enough to buy even the land, let alone to build on it. It stands as the archetype of working class dreams, the good life forever denied to the wage-slave by the already-landed, the have-nots always shut out by the haves.

Then, on one of his European jobs chauffeuring Americans around on a grand tour, he meets a famous architect by the name of Santonix (Oscarsson). The two get to talking, and Santonix tells the amiable Michael that if he sends him some photos of Gypsy’s Acre, he will design him a house, more or less as a gift, because Santonix is already dying, and would like to do the man a favour.

Returning to the Acre to take his photos, Michael encounters Ellie (Hayley Mills), a free spirit who dances like no-one is watching. The two fall quickly in love, and Ellie reveals not only that she’s one of the richest heiresses in America, but that she’s bought Gypsy’s Acre, determined to help Michael fulfil his romantic dream of building his dream house, and his dream life. The two are married behind the back of Ellie’s family, and the work begins on building the house at Gypsy’s Acre.

You’ll note, that’s quite a lot of plot with not a single murder. In fact, if you’re looking for a traditional Agatha Christie story with its usual quota of corpses on the carpet and scandalised vicars, you’re way out of luck with Endless Night.

In fact, for the most part, Endless Night plays out like a melodrama or a Shakespeare play – the couple are en route to their now shared dream, but three flies remain in the ointment.

First, there’s the disapproval of Ellie’s family, who initially try to buy Michael off for a quiet divorce with no fuss – an offer he sharply refuses. Secondly, there’s Greta (played with both vigour and assurance by Britt Ekland). Greta is Ellie’s long-term companion, and very protective of her. She and Michael despise one another almost on sight, but eventually, for the sake of Ellie’s happiness, they find a grudging compromise and Greta comes to stay with the newlyweds.

And then of course, there’s the curse.

Did we mention the melodrama, Shakespeare thing?

Gypsy’s Acre is said to be cursed, following the deaths of all but one of its previous owners. The remaining one, Miss Townsend, is a local wise woman and curser of all incomers, and she tells the newlyweds no good will come to them in the Acre.

Because that’s the wedding gift that just keeps on giving.

Overall though, the couple settle in relatively well to village life, in particular making friends with the local doctor and his wife – Doctor and Mrs Philpott (Aubrey Richards and Ann Way). That’s a slight tweak from the book, where Philpott is a Major, but the story flows well in both versions.

There’s a little Hammer Horror about some of the framing devices, in particular Miss Townsend seeming to stand around in fields, watching the house all the time. She’s not alone, though – some of Ellie’s relatives, in particular the slick and sleazy Reuben Brown, played by Peter Bowles, in one of many such caddish roles throughout his career, seem to be keeping a watching brief on the house, suspicious of Michael and his motives in marrying their young heiress.

That adds a sense of siege to the film, a sense of never being entirely free to move about for fear of who might see what – despite the house at Gypsy’s Acre coming with one-way glass that means the events inside can’t be observed.

When Ellie dies suddenly of a heart defect when her horse rears, while Michael’s out at an auction house getting her a birthday gift with a great deal of her own money (and while geeks reel at a subtle performance by Nicholas Courtney as the auctioneer), you’re already in the last half-hour of a 90-minute movie. It’s the first contemporary death we see in the film, though there are some earlier flashbacks that show Michael undergoing the childhood trauma of watching a schoolfriend drown under a frozen lake.

The inquest turns up no evidence of any kind of foul play, and despite Michael not being satisfied, and the apparent disappearance of the creepy Miss Townsend, the usual processes of life and death move along. Michael, it turns out, has become Ellie’s heir without knowing it, as she changed her will shortly after they married – cutting off most of her family in the event of her death.

So perversely, Michael has all the money he could ever need, and the house of his dreams at Gypsy’s Acre, but at the cost of losing Ellie.

To tell you much more would be to spoil your enjoyment of the whole film. Suffice it to say, the direction by Sidney Gilliat reels you in early, and Bennett’s performance particularly is mesmerising, a kind of early precursor to Kevin Spacey’s Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects.

When the other shoe finally drops, late in the third act, it’s an explosive shoe that completely alters everything you think you know about everything you’ve seen. The revelation of one key fact shifts you back through time and space and makes you look at everything all over again in a whole new light.

The reveal is pulled off with face-punching aplomb, so that despite the fact that you’ve known all along that something isn’t right with events as you’ve seen them, when it all fits into place, you’ll catch your breath at the audacity and clarity of the whole thing.

As we say, Endless Night was one of Agatha Christie’s favourites of her own novels, and Gilliat does it justice on screen, despite stripping it down somewhat and losing some of the overall texture of the piece. In its place, he adds that Hammer Horror element of presentation when it comes to the so-called curse of Gypsy’s Acre, while crafting the ending with the right weight, so it delivers Christie’s denouement exceptionally well.

Endless Night is one of the best Christie movie adaptations, not least because the story itself is so unusual coming from her.

Adding a young Hywel Bennett as Michael, and surrounding him with players like Hayley Mills, Britt Ekland, George Sanders, and domestic legends including the likes of George Sanders as Ellie’s “Uncle Andrew,” the family lawyer, and Windsor Davies as the local policeman, Sergeant Reene, delivers a first-person Christie story that breaks the mould of everything you know about Christie stories.

It's a vintage belter that demands your attention early and won’t let you go until the very last scene, when every truth but one is finally revealed. If you happen to have an hour and a half of lifetime spare, you can improve it immensely by filling it with Endless Night on Britbox.

The tricky thing will be to stop yourself from going right back to the beginning and watching it again, to see when you should have guessed the truth.

Watch Encless Night 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.

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