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Mystery writer Agatha Christie can lay claim to having penned the biggest-selling mystery of all time, Ten Little Indians, first published in England in 1939. The book was serialized in both British and American magazines under the title And Then There Were None. An instant best-seller, Christie adapted the story for the stage in 1943, and two years later Twentieth Century Fox released a widely praised adaptation, And Then There Were None (1945), directed by Rene Clair. Christie's works have never fallen out of favor, but she was enjoying a resurgence at the box office in the early 1960s, thanks to a series of British films featuring her Miss Marple character. This series, which starred Margaret Rutherford, was popular on both sides of the Atlantic. Producer Harry Alan Towers held the rights to Ten Little Indians, and wisely brought in director George Pollock, who had just helmed the Miss Marple series, to film an update featuring a screenplay by Peter Yeldham and Towers himself (as "Peter Welbeck").
The makers of Ten Little Indians (1965, aka Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians) intentionally crafted an unconventional adaptation, emphasizing the jet-set aspect of the cast of characters. They strived to capitalize on a mini-genre popular in the early 1960s and the film comes off as something like The V.I.P.s (1963)-as-a-Murder-Mystery. The setting is changed from the remote island of the novel to an isolated Alpine chalet. Ten Little Indians certainly doesn't open like a murder mystery. Crisp black-and-white photography (by Ernest Steward, B.S.C.) shows a group of horse-drawn sleigh riders amongst picturesque mountaintop winter scenery. The soundtrack features an up-tempo, brassy score (by Malcolm Lockyer), something more appropriate to a pop music ski movie from the same period, like Ski Party (1965). The main players are introduced in close-ups with individual credits as they ride together up a snowy hillside in a cable car. They are American Hugh Lombard (Hugh O'Brian), secretary Ann Clyde (Shirley Eaton), retired General Sir John Mandrake (Leo Genn), Dr. Edward Armstrong (Dennis Price), Judge Arthur Cannon (Wilfrid Hyde-White), detective William Blore (Stanley Holloway), actress Ilona Bergen (Daliah Lavi), and pop music singer Mike Raven (Fabian).
These eight people, all strangers to each other, arrive at the Alpine retreat at the top of a mountain and are met by the married domestics hired to attend to meals, Elsa and Joseph Grohmann (Marianne Hoppe and Mario Adorf). These are the "ten little Indians" who are brought together by a mysterious host. At the first dinner that night, the host's voice (an uncredited Christopher Lee) is heard by all on a tape recorder. He explains that each in the group have innocent blood on their hands; they have committed crimes that they have not paid for... but will over the course of the weekend. As if on cue, one of the houseguests then jokes about the gathering and promptly drops dead from poison. The others realize that they are also marked for death and that the killer may be one of their own. What follows is suspense and suspicion along with more inevitable fatalities, including death by crashing cable car, knife to the gut, severed mountain-climbing rope, falling statue to the head, and other colorful methods of murderous mayhem.
While any sense of the Gothic or the Old Dark House tradition may have been thrown out in the early going, the plot demands that there is much spying through keyholes, skulking up and down staircases in the night, flipping on light switches to reveal new plot points or twists - but it is all to the accompaniment of Lockyer's incongruous Bachelor Pad Lounge score. At one point Hugh O'Brian puts his TV training from The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955-1961) to work in an extended fistfight scene with Mario Adorf. It is a rousing but inelegant sequence, not in keeping with the Agatha Christie tradition.
Also not in the Christie tradition: in the original theatrical release, the producers borrowed a trick from the William Castle playbook and included a cinema-only gimmick. As explained on the original movie poster for the film, it was called "The Whodunit Break! A First in Motion Pictures! Just before the gripping climax of the film, you will be given sixty seconds to guess the killer's identity! The film will pause and on the screen you will see clues to help you decide who the murderer is... WE DARE YOU TO GUESS!"
Reviews at the time of release were mixed. A writer in Variety called the film "a good suspenser," saying it "...works quite a bit of suspense into the restricted action, successfully hiding [the] identity of the tenth Indian without resorting to too many 'red herrings.' One major switch, an unfortunate one, has the first victim, originally an eccentric prince, changed to an America rock 'n' roll singer (Fabian, in an embarrassingly bad performance)." In the New York Times, Bosley Crowther writes that the film doesn't come "within a country mile" of the 1945 version, but that it is nevertheless "...gripping entertainment for youthful (and unfamiliar) mystery fans." Crowther notes the "Whodunit Break" and calls it "...a hokey gimmick, but it seems to work. People all around me were muttering guesses yesterday morning. Only two or three were correct."
The critic in Time magazine called Ten Little Indians "...an anemic copy of the 1945 film And Then There Were None," and goes on to write, "Properly done, this old-fashioned brand of carnage can hardly miss. The remakers of Indians fail in every impossible way. By shifting the scene from a godforsaken island to an alpine retreat, they are able to engineer a couple of spectacular deaths among the crags, but the mood of boxed-in menace is effectively destroyed." This critic was not very impressed by the actors either, writing, "Mod sex appeal is dragged in by Shirley Eaton, fisticuffs by Hugh O'Brian. And, unlikely as it seems, there is Teen Idol Fabian, quaffing a lethal dose of poison immediately after singing a song. Fabian is the first of Indians' victims, and the luckiest. For him, the end comes quickly." Eaton does not deserve the brush-off given her appearance here; in spite of the fact that she was surrounded by a troupe of classic British supporting players and scene-stealers, she turns in perhaps the best performance of the film.
Christie's story has been adapted many other times for television and the movies, including no less than two other versions from prolific producer Harry Alan Towers. Ten Little Indians (1974), directed by Peter Collinson, was set in the middle of the Iranian desert and features Charles Aznavour, Herbert Lom, Elke Sommer and Oliver Reed. Fifteen years later Towers produced Ten Little Indians (1989), directed by Alan Birkinshaw. This time the unlucky strangers (played by such actors as Donald Pleasence, Frank Stallone, Brenda Vaccaro and Herbert Lom - again) find themselves being bumped off one by one while on an African safari!
Producer: Harry Alan Towers
Director: George Pollock
Screenplay: Peter Yeldham, Peter Welbeck (both screenplay); Agatha Christie (novel)
Cinematography: Ernest Steward
Art Direction: Frank White
Music: Malcolm Lockyer
Film Editing: Peter Boita
Cast: Hugh O'Brian (Hugh Lombard), Shirley Eaton (Ann Clyde), Fabian (Mike Raven), Leo Genn (General Mandrake), Stanley Holloway (William Blore), Wilfrid Hyde White (Judge Cannon), Daliah Lavi (Ilona Bergen), Dennis Price (Dr. Armstrong), Marianne Hoppe (Frau Grohmann), Mario Adorf (Herr Grohmann)
by John M. Miller