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And Then There Were None

And Then There Were None(1945)


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As Arthur Conan Doyle dominated crime fiction for the first decades of the 20th century, Agatha Christie ruled over the next few. The all-time best-selling writer of whodunits, Christie's 1939 And Then There Were None, to give it its American title, tops the list with more than 100 million copies sold. It was a play, too, and there have been seven film adaptations, including in Russian and Bollywood. The gold standard, however, remains the first, Rene Clair's And Then There Were None (1945). Absent entirely are Christie's two most famous sleuths - Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple. There's almost no detection in it, and yet it's incessantly gripping, in no small part because Clair is as deft at playing cat-and-mouse with his camera as Christie was with her typewriter.

The setting is classic. Ten guests are invited to a baronial fortress of a house on an island off the coast of Devon. As a motorized skiff bears them closer to their destination, we learn that none of the ten - eight invited guests and two servants - know each other, save for the married butler and maid. When they get there, their host is nowhere to be seen. He has left a phonograph record keyed to a song based on the nursery rhyme, Ten Little Indians (the book originally was published as Ten Little Niggers). The centerpiece on the dining room table is a ring on which ten ceramic Indians stand in a circle. Hardly has the first guest (Mischa Auer's self-styled Russian prince and sponger) sipped a cocktail and played a verse and chorus of Ten Little Indians on the piano, than he keels over, dead. And one of the ceramic Indians has been smashed.

Rough seas and no means of transport mean they're stuck there until the ferry returns several days later. Then the fun begins in earnest. One by one, the guests are picked off by an unseen hand, as power outages occur, flickering candles are blown out and we realize that the oppressive old house itself is one of the characters. Many of its pieces of dcor could serve as blunt instruments, and in fact one unlucky soul is dispatched when an ugly ornamental pyramid of bricks is dropped on his head from a second story window. The murder weapon of choice, however, is poison. (Christie served as a hospital volunteer during both World Wars and acquired an impressive knowledge of fatal elixirs.) Not that knives, guns and hatchets are neglected. Before long, the suspicion that their host, unseen, is the murderer shifts to the idea that one of them is the killer. Up shoots the anxiety. More ceramic Indians get shattered.

By whom, though? When Richard Haydn's butler comes under suspicion, he retaliates in cutting fashion, refusing to serve meals and letting the dwindling band of survivors shift for themselves. You'd hate to see C. Aubrey Smith's retired general bumped off too soon, if only because you want to gawp at his magnificently craggy face and film's most spectacular eyebrows as long as possible. Judith Anderson's cold-hearted dragon, on the other hand, is a character you want to see knocked off as soon as possible. And certainly it couldn't be either Louis Hayward or June Duprez, could it? They're obviously filling the love interest slot. Could it be Barry Fitzgerald, of the broguish charm, as a retired and loquacious judge? My favorite is Walter Huston, who alone among the other chess pieces in this game, brings a devilish gleam to the eye of his alcoholic surgeon. When we learn that each has a dark secret, he's the one whose guilty past surprises us least.

Christie was an ingenious plotter and puzzle-maker and Clair knows just where to go with her. He teases us to the end, when we think we finally see the killer at a billiards table, only to have the camera focus on a fringed lamp concealing his face. Before he wrote Dracula, Bram Stoker, while still a lowly drama critic, panned a failed thriller, astutely noting that suspense comes not from what happens, but from what is about to happen. Christie didn't need to be told this. They get all the mileage possible out of shadows, a hand reaching into a frame to grab a bedroom key, to say nothing of thunder and a bleak, rocky beach. The black and white photography feeds the ominous mood robustly, and the film also gains from being so clearly of its period. If you doubt it, check the 1974 color version, much vitiated. And Then There Were None was hardly the first old dark house thriller. But it represents the apex of this sub-genre. Watch it, and Colonel Mustard in the Library with the Candlestick will never be the same.

By Jay Carr

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