Action/Adventure Comedy Mystery/Noir

And Then There Were None

Agatha’s Christie’s tale of 10 strangers on a remote island who are mysteriously killed off one by one has been adapted countless times on stage, on television and on the big screen. But it will be hard to ever top the 1945 version that was the highlight of the otherwise forgettable English-language phase of French film director Rene Clair’s career: And Then There Were None.

The story opens with a wonderful extended non-verbal sequence in which a group of disparate people eye each other curiously on a rowboat that is making its way to a lonely island. They soon discover that they have been invited for a weekend trip from which they are not expected to return. The owner of the mansion in which they are staying had pledged to kill them all as vengeance for their past misdeeds. Who is the killer, and is he — or she — actually one of the guests?

Christie’s story is contrived beyond belief but is so much fun twist by twist that audiences have never cared. The mordant wit is a particular plus throughout, and keeps the audience smiling even as the bodies pile up. The film version uses the more upbeat ending from the stage version rather than the tenebrous wrap up from the book, which was probably a good decision given the wartime audience.

Clair turns in near-Hitchcock level direction in the comedy-romance-suspense vein, and the cast is roses. Barry Fitzgerald and Walter Huston sparkle as the leads, Judith Anderson is brilliant as always as one of the guest/victim/suspects, C. Aubrey Smith offers an agreeably demented take on his Commander McBragg routine, and Roland Young (who was hilarious in my friend Jean O’Reilly’s recommendation of Ruggles of Red Gap) is a hoot as a private detective whose brain works at half speed.

Last but not least among its virtues, this film appeals to a broad age range of audience. I know myself because I watched it twice with a gap of 30 years in between and loved it both times.

And Then There Were None is in the public domain so I embed it here for your viewing pleasure.


Ruggles of Red Gap (Guest Review)

This film recommendation comes from Dr. Jean O’Reilly, a friend and colleague of mine at the National Addiction Centre at King’s College London. I am indebted to Jean for introducing me to the gut-bustingly funny, wise and sweet film Ruggles of Red Gap, about which she has done serious scholarly work. She can describe the virtues of this 1935 movie gem much better than I can, so let me turn things over to Jean:

Fans of actor Charles Laughton and director Leo McCarey will probably look askance at this choice of film, often regarded as an early, minor success in each man’s career. But it’s a charming film, with Laughton rising to the challenge of a rare comic performance and McCarey settling into the easy style of filmmaking that typified his later career.

Ruggles of Red Gap tells the story of an English gentleman’s gentleman (Laughton) who in 1908 is transported against his will from service in the household of an English earl to the American frontier town of Red Gap, Washington. In his strange new surroundings, Marmaduke Ruggles works as a manservant and dogsbody to the nouveaux riches Egbert and Effie Floud. After living for a time in Red Gap, Ruggles becomes infused with the spirits of democracy and equality and begins to consider abandoning a life of servitude to become his own man.

I love this film because it features, in nascent form, one of the attributes that became a hallmark of McCarey’s mature directorial style: the improvised scene. McCarey’s easygoing, collaborative approach to filmmaking is well documented, including the piano kept on the set for sing-alongs, the jokes and stories he told to lead his cast toward new scenes, and his keen eye for showcasing actors’ skills. He thought nothing of rewriting the shooting script on a whim, or spending a day shooting a new scene that had nothing to do with the storyline but that he thought might surprise viewers. As a result, McCarey’s films tend to be episodic, loosely structured, and peppered with inspired moments not always closely connected to the storyline.