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And Then There Were None

And Then There Were None(1945)

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Agatha Christie's murder story And Then There Were None, aka Ten Little Indians, is by this point so well known -- and has been adapted, referenced and spoofed so many times on stage, screen, television, radio and even a video game -- that its return to DVD in its first, best and most famous film version, the 1945 edition directed by Rene Clair, is welcome indeed.

With so many iterations through the years, the story of ten people isolated on an island, with each murdered in a way that matches the lyrics of an old nursery rhyme, has also been presented with different endings and solutions -- not to mention various titles. Agatha Christie's tale was originally published as an English novel in 1939 under the title Ten Little Niggers (after the British version of the nursery rhyme). For the American publication in 1940 (following a Saturday Evening Post serialization in 1939), this was changed to And Then There Were None. In 1943, Christie adapted her yarn into a West End play and changed the ending to be slightly more upbeat. On Broadway, this was staged in 1944 under the title Ten Little Indians (the American title of the nursery jingle).

Hollywood came calling early. In 1941, RKO acquired the screen rights, eventually selling them to two theatrical producers, who in turn entered into a partnership with young independent producer Samuel Bronston (who later produced epics like King of Kings [1961] and El Cid [1961]). Bronston hired director Rene Clair and screenwriter Dudley Nichols, and arranged distribution through United Artists, but after a legal falling-out with his partners, he was off the project and replaced by another producer, Harry Popkin. Popkin retained Nichols' script and Clair as director, but arranged new distribution through 20th Century-Fox. A topnotch, multi-star cast was assembled -- including Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, Louie Hayward, Judith Anderson, June Duprez, Roland Young and C. Aubrey Smith -- and filming got underway. The result was a truly entertaining, lightly macabre, beautifully written and directed mystery, and it has held up well. The most impressive thing about And Then There Were None is how cinematic it feels. While it's true that the screen credits say the script is based on Christie's novel, the ending comes from her stage version, and the entire concept of ten people trapped in one space trying to puzzle through a mystery primarily via dialogue is at heart a theatrical conceit. Yet Nichols' script finds fluid ways of moving the action fairly constantly to different locations around the house or on the island, and director Clair uses ingenious methods of breaking up the space cinematically in scenes that do linger in one specific space. For example, if several people are gathered in a room or hallway for several minutes, talking, Clair will use deft editing to create tension or humor and make the scene feel anything but stagy. This is very tricky business, as Clair is not cutting on action so much as using editing to create action, and turning theatrical space into cinematic space. Even though the film is not technically adapted from a play, it is still a model of how to make such an adaptation and should be studied by any filmmaker doing so today.

And throughout, Clair brings his trademark lightness of touch to a story that is, on paper, rather gruesome. He's even unafraid to use direct address, a theatrical convention if there ever was one. But for the two or three scenes in which he does use it, it comes off as a wink to the audience, as if to remind us that this really is a theatrical-like experience and not to take it all too seriously and just enjoy ourselves. (It's also a reminder that we are being asked to try and solve this mystery ourselves.) It's a quality that meshes well with the overall tone of the picture.

In the years after its release, And Then There Were None fell into the public domain, and it has been released onto DVD by various distributors. It hasn't looked pristine in a very long time, and this new release, on DVD and Blu-ray from VCI Entertainment, is no exception. This is sad news, since VCI is touting this on its artwork as "Newly Restored!" It may be newly restored, but it certainly hasn't been restored to anything resembling immaculate condition. There is graininess, unsteadiness, and most of all a general softness to the image, which looks like it may have been sourced from a 16mm print. While not a terrible transfer, the hope created by the "newly restored" verbiage on the box cover makes this a disappointing one. VCI is generally a reliable company that puts out good versions of hard-to-see classics and public domain titles, so this is an anomaly for them. But all that being said, this version is still watchable, with decent sound, and the strength of the movie itself eventually outweighs the less-than-perfect print quality, so this release is still recommended.

By Jeremy Arnold