George Pollock, 1965
Starring: Hugh O’Brian, Shirley Eaton, Daliah Lavi, Fabian, Leo Genn, Mario Adorf
Eight strangers plus two caretakers are invited to a weekend party in a remote house in the mountains by a mysterious host, Mr. Owen, but they soon realize that they’re stranded there for the entire weekend and their host has accused them all of murder. Though he has promised to show up for their first dinner together, there is only a record with his voice charging each of them with a specific crime, which they all deny. But the first guest to admit that he is at least partially guilty is found dead soon after and the surviving members of the party realize that their host’s obsession with the “Ten Little Indians” poem could spell doom for them all...
Now generally known as And Then There Were None to avoid any of the racist connotations of the original title, Agatha Christie’s book is a must-read for anyone who likes murder mysteries and this film is the second adaptation of her much loved work. It contains some of my favorite of the genre’s themes: strangers trapped together in a confined space with no feasible way to escape, they are all murder suspects, and a murderer among them insures that they begin dropping like flies in some imaginative ways. Ten Little Indians diverges from Christie’s plot in several key ways, sadly, and the misanthropy of her book — where everyone actually is a terrible human being at best and some are actually murderers — is mostly absent, but I still have a real weakness for these sorts of plots.
Admittedly, Ten Little Indians also pales in comparison to the first adaptation of the film, René Clair’s 1945 film And Then There Were None. One of my favorite mystery films and one that is much closer to Christie’s novel, it relies more heavily on tropes found in the old dark house subgenre. The characters in that film are wildly unlikable, though Clair expertly builds tension and keeps the group as a whole sympathetic because of their understandable desire to stay alive. Any changes made to the script were largely because the Hays Code prevented Clair from depicted some of the novel’s bleaker themes, like teen pregnancy, something that Ten Little Indians did not have to grapple with in quite the same way.
For whatever reason, cult producer Harry Alan Towers and director George Pollock — hired because he made a number of successful films in the ‘60s based on one of Christie’s most popular recurring detectives, Miss Marple — decided to abandon the racier themes of Christie’s novel and go for more of a swinging ‘60s vibe. I can’t really say why I decided to include it in my British horror series, as it isn’t a horror film and abandons many of the spookier elements of Clair’s film in favorite of some hilarious death scenes (including two involving a tumbling from the mountain), but there is still something compelling about it and addicted to these types of mysteries. I love the snowy setting; though it doesn’t necessarily improve on the coastal English vibe from the first film, it adds a pleasantly continental feel, which is enhanced by a cast that is both English and European.
And that’s the real reason I think horror/cult fans will want to seek this out: the cast. Though there aren’t any major starring names, Christopher Lee has a cameo as the voice of Mr. Owen, lending his distinctive baritone to the memorable recording that accuses all ten of the guests of murder. Italian horror regular Daliah Lavi makes an appearance as a demanding, self-important actress, though my favorite appearance is from prolific actor Leo Genn (Green for Danger) as the amazingly named General Mandrake, what I would loosely call the protagonist for the first half of the film. Wilfrid Hyde-White (The Third Man), as the judge, is excellent and is especially allowed to shine during the second half of the film. And let us not forget Mario Adorf (!!!) who makes an appearance as a German caretaker, seeming far older than he was and more ridiculous than he would go on to appear to be in his numerous appearances in New German Cinema or giallo films.
Weirdly, overall, Ten Little Indians belongs to Goldfinger’s Shirley Eaton. Her performance here it made me wish she’d been in more mystery and horror films (rather than sex comedies) and now I have to revisit Jess Franco’s The Blood of Fu Manchu, in which she has a small role. The relationship between a secretary, Ann (Eaton), and an actor, Lombard (western star Hugh O’Brian) — which includes a sex scene — is a bit ridiculous and certainly there are a number of annoying characters, for example, I could really do without ‘60s pop singer Fabian, though his character is, blessedly, the first to die.
I don’t know if I can actually recommend Ten Little Indians. If you like murder mysteries, it’s an entertaining way to pass the time and anyone who loves Clue (1985) would probably be interested to see at least one or two versions of what is basically that film’s source material. There are a number of other versions of And Then There Were None to come after this film, and I’m also going to cover the 1974 version, which was directed by Straight on Till Morning’s Peter Collinson and stars both Richard Attenborough and Oliver Reed. It avoids some of the more absurd elements of Ten Little Indians — such as the lounge-appropriate, ridiculous, and very ‘60s score from Malcolm Lockyer, as well as the “Whodunit Break,” where you’re supposed to guess the identity of the murderer before he or she is revealed. And that goddamn cat. If you’re curious, pick it up on DVD.