René Clair, 1945
Starring: Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, C. Aubrey Smith, Louis Hayward
Eight strangers are invited to an island off the English coast to spend the weekend at the mansion of Mr. Owen. None of them know their host, but they are greeted by two servants who were hired solely for the weekend. During dinner their host fails to arrive, but one of the servants puts on a record where a man's voice, presumably Owen, accuses each of them of murder. General Mandrake is accused of sending his wife’s lover to his death, a woman named Emily is accused of causing her young nephew’s suicide, Dr. Armstrong is accused of accidentally killing a patient while drunk, Russian Prince Starloff is accused of killing a couple in a hit and run car accident, etc. Even the two servants, a married couple, are accused of murdering their former employer. Mr. Rogers, one of the two servants, reveals that his instructions were signed by U.N. Owen, which they realize means “unknown.”
They want to leave, but as the boat from the mainland won’t return till Monday, they are stranded. Prince Starloff is the first to die. When he admits to killing the couple, he is immediately poisoned to death by a drink. On the table sits a centerpiece of ten Indian figurines and one disappears as each of the ten guests are gradually killed. Will they find out who their accuser is in time for some of them to survive the weekend? And are all of them really guilty of murder?
Based on Agatha Christie’s very popular novel Ten Little Indians, And Then There Were None is not really a horror film, but is a gripping murder mystery that borrows from the old dark house subgenre and includes a number of genre tropes. French director René Clair (Le Million, À nous la liberté, I Married a Witch) puts his expertise to work here and the film is beautifully shot, well paced, and full of suspense and dark comedy. The characters are mostly unlikable, or at best morally ambiguous, but it is impossible not to sympathize with the group desire to stay alive.
There are also a number of solid performances. Though there are admittedly a lot of characters and it’s difficult to keep them straight at first, the script succeeds in giving every character at least one defining scene. Character actor C. Aubrey Smith (Rebecca, Another Thin Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) particularly shines as the uptight General Mandrake and Russian actor Mischa Auer (You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Arkadin) is over the top as the drunk Price Starloff. Dame Judith Anderson (Laura, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Walter Huston (The Devil and Daniel Webster and grandfather of Angelica Huston), and Barry Fitzgerald (Bringing Up Baby, The Naked City) all also brighten up the proceedings significantly.
There are some changes from the novel, mostly because some of Christie’s plot was a bit racier than the Hays Code would allow and included themes like teen pregnancy. The ending is also different, which is a shame, because the ending of the novel is much darker. But I will leave it up to you to read it and figure that out, as the end result is basically the same. Another important change worth mentioning is the name of the novel. Christie’s book was first published as Ten Little Niggers, which was soon after considered offensive enough that it was changed to Ten Little Indians. The film’s title is a line from the disturbing poem, which I’m reprinting here simply because I enjoy how morbid it is.
Ten little Indian boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were nine.
Nine little Indian boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were eight.
Eight little Indian boys traveling in Devon;
One said he’d stay there and then there were seven.
Seven little Indian boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in halves and then there were six.
Six little Indian boys playing with a hive;
A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.
Five little Indian boys going in for law,
One got in Chancery and then there were four.
Four little Indian boys going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.
Three little Indian boys walking in the Zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were two.
Two little Indian boys sitting in the sun;
On got frizzled up and then there was one.
One little Indian boy left all alone;
He went and hanged himself and then there were none.
Some of the deaths stick to the poem, but there are a few surprises. The film is available on Blu-ray and a number of very cheap DVD releases, because 20th Century Fox allowed the rights to lapse and the film fell into the public domain. Hopefully someone will do a properly restored print with some special features eventually. Fans of mystery and early classic horror will want to seek this out, as it is a ton of fun and plenty of horror films (including John Carpenter’s The Thing) borrow liberally from it. This comes highly recommended and is one of my primary comfort films. Anyone who loves Clue will also want to check out the source material, 80% of which is lifted from And Then There Were None.