It’s rare that Agatha Christie’s books have been given a break on the movie screen, but René Clair’s 1945 filming of And Then There Were None definitely did right by Dame Agatha. For that matter, it also did right by its splendid roster of great character actors, and it gave French filmmaker Clair one of his few wholly successful English-language films. While much of what makes the movie work stems from the screenplay by Dudley Nichols (best known for his work with John Ford), this is one of those rare movies where a great deal of the wit is conveyed visually. This is a film without a wasted shot or a careless composition. It’s a master class in how to shoot a movie.
Of course, it helps no end that the source novel—and Christie’s revamped stage version of the story—offers such rich material. I’d be surprised if there’s anyone out there not familiar with the story—not only is it Christie’s best-selling novel, but there are at least seven other film versions of it. But just in case, here’s the premise: Ten people are lured to an isolated island where they’re informed—via a phonograph record—that they’ve been assembled to be punished (executed) for crimes they’ve previously gotten away with. And sure enough, their unknown host— almost certainly one of them—starts making good on his or her threat, following the pattern of the “Ten Little Indians” nursery rhyme, as one victim after another meets his or her “deserved” end.
Christie’s novel came out in 1939—under a very politically incorrect title (even then)—and was an immediate hit, and this despite the fact that it wasn’t exactly original. The 1930 novel The Invisible Host by Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning is a virtual template for Christie’s novel, with its story of eight people confined to a booby-trapped penthouse by a murderous madman out for revenge. (This was itself filmed in 1934 as The Ninth Guest and incorporated into the Boris Karloff horror picture The Man They Could Not Hang in 1939.) However, Christie’s is more compelling story—not in the least because the characters are much more engaging, something that only the 1945 version gets just right.
Part of the trick, of course, lies in the film’s shrewd casting. Though not household names today, the film’s major stars—Barry Fitzgerald and Walter Huston—were immensely popular at the time, especially Fitzgerald, hot off his Oscar win for Going My Way (1944), and here cast very much against type. But every single actor is brilliantly suited to their role. No one but Mischa Auer, for example, could have pulled off the self-involved professional house guest, Prince Nikita Starloff, for whom having run over a couple of innocent people means nothing except that it resulted in having his driver’s license taken away. Similarly, Roland Young is perfect as the low-rent Cockney private investigator, and no one could better Richard Haydn’s drunken butler. Sir C. Aubrey Smith and Dame Judith Anderson are also fine. It might be argued, on the other hand, that Louis Hayward and June Duprez are a little out of their depth as the romantic leads, but they’re good enough in what are admittedly the least interesting roles.
In the end, however, it’s really a director’s film. There’s no doubt that René Clair was having the time of his life coming up with endlessly creative ways of presenting the material. There aren’t many movies where the best jokes are delivered by camera placement, but And Then There Were None is just such a film—even though some of the jokes are of a surprisingly dark nature. It’s all great fun, nicely suspenseful, atmospheric and built around one the best mystery plots ever. Pure entertainment is rarely better than this.
Playing for one show only at Carolina Asheville Cinema 14 at 7:30 P.M. on Wednesday, June 13. Admission $5 for AFS members, $7 general.