Ten Little Indians
The 1965 version of the Agatha Christie classic is coming to Blu-Ray on 15 March, courtesy of Network. Jonathan Rowe takes a look...
It’s the world’s oldest horror story, told (I imagine) by Stone Age hunters, gathered around a fire, while predators circle them in the night. Then, the refinement of terror, that the Beast is not out there, furred and fanged, but present within the circle of light: one of us, wearing human skin, is the Beast. If we are the apex predator, it’s by dint of cooperation, but as predators are we doomed to turn on each other?
The story is so elemental that it’s curious that it took until 1939 for Agatha Christie to arrive at the definitive form. The Grand Old Lady of crime thrillers brings together ten people, eight guests and two servants, at a remote mansion, where they are murdered one by one, in penance for past crimes uncovered by their unknown host, the coyly code-named Mr U.N. Owen. Halfway through the drama, the survivors realise that their host is one of them: factions form, mutual suspicion replaces cooperation and the deaths continue until only two remain, confronting one another, baffled and betrayed.
The novel was a deserved bestseller, in spite of its original title, based on a nursery rhyme containing a racist slur, but renamed for the 1945 film version as And Then There Were None (the novel’s title today) and in this 1965 version as Ten Little Indians, which has the virtue of referencing the important nursery rhyme, but suffers from containing another, different racial slur. It’s ironic that naming this mystery proves as difficult as solving it: a tribute to its troubling, nightmarish quality.
George Pollock’s 1965 adaptation is coming to Blu-Ray in March. It’s a chance to see a stylish and attractive version of the progenitor of the slasher horror genre, where the mystery killer murders his victims in darkly poetic ways, whittling away at the cast for our entertainment. The same essential dilemma recurs in The Thing (USA, John Carpenter, 1982), with MacReady and Childs confronting each other in the snow at the end, each certain that the other is the monster. Recently, Ready Or Not (USA, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin/Tyler Gillett, 2019) flipped the convention, where instead of one killer among a party of innocents, there is one innocent among a party of killers.
Common to all these variations is a focus on trust and loyalty: testing the bonds of romantic and familial love and traditional authority while relationships fray and warp, unlikely allies discover each other and treachery is revealed in unexpected places. The Final Antagonist is as hard to predict as the True Adversary – or should be. These days we’re pretty familiar with the trope and its Mortality Algorithm, that predicates the young, attractive and chaste will make it to the end, stepping over the bodies of the old, the ugly and the sexually incontinent along the way.
But these tropes hadn’t been hammered out in 1965 and Pollock’s film retains that lost uncertainty. Enjoy it, even though, modern viewer that you are, you can step back from the action and make cynical but accurate calculations about who’s doomed and who’s not.
Heading the hapless cast is Hugh O’Brian’s lantern-jawed everyman and Shirley Eaton’s delicious blonde – yes, the Shirley Eaton who only the previous year died coated in gold in the third James Bond outing, Goldfinger (UK, Guy Hamilton, 1964). Veteran actor Wilfred Hyde-White and actor-comedian Stanley Holloway are in the mix too as the judge and detective, reunited after the previous year’s smash hit musical My Fair Lady (USA, George Cukor, 1964).
These two films from 1964 cast shadows over this production. They were lavish, colour affairs with location filming in exotic places or big sound stages. Ten Little Indians is black & white and feels like a movie that predates the other two by a decade, rather than coming twelve months after them. Fortunately, the new Blu-Ray version makes the most of Ernest Steward’s cinematography with great lighting and crisp shadows. Unfortunately, the dated feeling is exaggerated by Malcolm Lockyer’s pedestrian score, which swoops and tinkles like the musical annotation of a Carry On movie. A long shadow is cast by the previous 1945 adaptation by René Clair, which featured a far more ominous score by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco.
These stylistic lapses seem significant. Does George Pollock want his film to be an edgy exercise in claustrophobic dread or light matinee entertainment? Pollock’s previous forays into Agatha Christie adaptations were his ‘Miss Marple’ films, starring Margaret Rutherford as Christie’s beloved detective and Ron Goodwin’s none-so-Sixties galloping theme tune. They were hits for MGM in 1961-4. It’s a hard formula to break away from.
Pollock’s uncertain tone is obvious at the start, where the guests arrive at their mountain retreat on sledges, complete with the sort of sleigh bells and big band orchestration you associate with a Christmas film (the movie was released in June). The decision to relocate the action from a storm-lashed island to a mountain hotel accessed by treacherous cable car is unfortunate. A castle on a snowy mountain doubtless looked good on paper, but the movie’s budget never extends to establishing the Alpine remoteness – a setting celebrated in horror-romance as early as Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818) and in vogue for Sixties spy thrillers. In contrast, Christie’s original island setting, so well depicted in Clair’s 1945 version, encapsulates the mythological structure of the story: the guests have crossed the River Styx and wait at the entrance to the Underworld to be judged.
Fortunately, the cast go to work on the material with gusto. Dennis Price and Leo Glen are old hands at portraying English archetypes (alcoholic doctor, stern retired military chap), Marianne Hoppe and Mario Adorf get to be shifty as the Eurotrash housekeepers and even Dalilah Lavi (budget Sophia Loren) and Fabio Forte (budget Elvis) have moments of charm and sparkle before meeting their appointed ends. Hugh O’Brian wastes no time in taking his shirt off and Eaton dresses down to her elegant Sixties underwear on two occasions, in obedience to the rules of the emerging horror genre that the heroine be stripped physically as well as emotionally before traumatic rebirth in the final scene.
At the halfway point, the cast is also reduced to half its original number, and the movie shifts gear into a more fraught and unpredictable affair. Eaton is particularly good, alternating between damsel in distress and alluring vamp, causing you to adore and mistrust her in equal measure. O’Brian pushes out that firm jaw of his. Hyde-White chuckles with increasing menace, like Colonel Pickering if he were in charge of a Boer War concentration camp. A gun is passed around. Once the lights go out, we’re in firm horror territory. You wish Pollock had committed to this interpretation right from the start.
Then, at the 1:20 mark, madness! The movie freezes and Voiceover Man announces a 60-second whodunnit break. Yes, cinema-goers were to talk among themselves and try to predict the dénouement. Onscreen, a clock ticks down and a montage reminds us of the cast and their grisly ends. A contemporary review in the New York Times enjoyed this ‘hokey gimmick’ claiming ‘it seems to work. People all around me were muttering guesses … Only two or three were correct.’(1)
In terms of immersion, this ruins everything, unless you’re a fan of Brechtian alienation devices. On the other hand, a lot of lacklustre Hollywood sequels in the 21st century would benefit from something like this. Freeze the camera, take a break: how do you think the Final Girl is going to defeat the Alien Queen or Terminator this time? Sixty seconds, folks: turn to your neighbour. Again, you wish Pollock had gone further, bookending the film as a story-within-a-story, leaning into the artifice rather than springing it on us, unexpectedly, then returning to conventional narrative for the big climax.
If you remain unmoved by the serpentine construction of Agatha Christie’s story and the deep veins of social and sexual anxiety it probes, you’re probably already employed as a Hollywood scriptwriter and there’s nothing more to be done for you. Everyone else will find Ten Little Indians irresistible, although that is probably more due to the primordial fascination of Christie’s scenario and the cast’s enthusiasm than producer/scriptwriter Harry Alan Tower’s workmanlike adaptation. It’s a story that demands to be watched. Clair’s 1945 version is moodier and the BBC’s 2015 serialisation is sexier, but there’s something about Sixties cinema that always feels like the birth of the cool (with apologies to Miles Davies) and the conventions of cool horror cinema are born here.
Ten Little Indians is released on Blu-Ray and DVD on 15 March 2021.