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Ten Little Indians (1965)

Warner Bros. // PG // March 14, 2006
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted March 6, 2006 | E-mail the Author
On the heels of MGM's successful quartet of Miss Marple adaptations with Margaret Rutherford, notorious producer Harry Alan Towers secured that series' director, George Pollack, and snapped up the rights to Ten Little Indians, the classic Agatha Christie mystery that had been superbly adapted by Rene Clair in 1945 as And Then There Were None. The Towers-Pollack remake is no better than workmanlike but the story is so good that it overcomes the blandness of the adaptation and the somewhat odd casting. It certainly worked for Towers - he'd go on to remake Ten Little Indians twice more, each worse than the last.

The irresistible tale brings 10 strangers together at a remote mansion, in this case a veritable castle high atop an Austrian mountain, accessible only by cable car. Joseph (Mario Adorf) and Elsa Grohmann (Marianne Hoppe) have been hired through an agency as a butler and cook, while the remaining eight, all invited guests of a Mr. U.N. Owen, come from varied backgrounds: engineer Hugh Lombard (Hugh O'Brian), secretary Ann Clyde (Shirley Eaton), Elvis clone Mike Raven (Elvis clone Fabian), General Sir John Mandrake (Leo Genn), Detective William Blore (Stanley Holloway), Judge Arthur Cannon (Wilfred Hyde-White), movie star Ilona Bergen (Daliah Lavi), and alcoholic physician Dr. Edward Armstrong (Dennis Price).

As it turns out, none of the ten have ever met the mysterious Mr. Owen, nor do they have any idea why they were invited in the first place. At dinner, Joseph plays a tape in which a voice (an uncredited Christopher Lee) condemns all ten for having committed a violent crime in the past that had gone unpunished. In apparent retribution, the ten begin dying one-by-one according to the children's rhyme "Ten Little Indians" ("Ten little Indians went out to dine, one choked himself and then there were nine...." As the survivors begin to realize what's happening, they begin a frantic search for the murderous Mr. Owen, whom they believe is hiding somewhere in the mansion.

The Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple movies leaned heavily on that wonderfully dotty actress's charm and the basic appeal of Agatha Christie's mysteries, while adding a large dose of mild British humor rather than attempt any kind of cinematic stylishness. It's all very tasteful and a bit bland, but it worked for that series. Similarly, Ten Little Indians is professionally-produced (unlike many of the Towers-produced films that would soon follow) but likewise devoid of visual flair, quite unlike the dreamlike sweep of Clair's 1945 version. Instead, Towers and Pollock similarly rely on Christie's ingenious story and the cast to carry the production.

In a way Towers' casting is almost brilliant, a mix of cheap but recognizable talent, most of whom had recently been associated with big hits. Both Hyde-White and Holloway appeared side-by-side with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady (1964), while Shirley Eaton recently bedded James Bond in Goldfinger (1964). Lavi had just played the leading female role in Columbia's big-budget Lord Jim (1965), while Fabian had just appeared with James Stewart in Dear Brigitte, a high-profile comedy. Each was well-known or at least familiar to mainstream audiences, yet for various reasons weren't big enough to command an A-list paycheck and actually probably came fairly cheap. The movie finds time for Fabian to sing, and for Shirley Eaton to disrobe twice.

First published in 1939 under the less-than-politically correct title Ten Little Niggers, Christie's story is a model of mystery story construction, cleverly manipulating readers to make incorrect assumptions and reach inobservant conclusions. The film plays fair, though the story and its denouement aren't infallible to scrutiny.

Video & Audio

Ten Little Indians is presented in a 16:9 transfer at 1.77:1, approximating its original 1.66:1 release (titles are matted to 1.66:1). This is a great transfer of dog-eared elements. The black and white image is sharp with good contrast, but the film shows a lot of age-related (or maybe poor storage) wear. Some reels are worse than others, but most have negative scratches, some fairly severe, and there's a splice or two. More problematic is the absence of a component of its theatrical release (see below). The mono English soundtrack is accompanied by optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

Extra Features

Supplements include 16:9 Trailers for this and the four Miss Marple movies, which Warner Home Video is releasing simultaneously. Also included is a 4:3 letterboxed Whodunit, a three minute segment originally included with the theatrical release. At the climax the film originally paused for a three-minute "Whodunit Break," a William Castle-esque gimmick complete with ticking clock and hypnotically-printed highlights from the film. Assuming this was part of all theatrical prints, Warner Home Video should have included this with the film proper and not as an extra feature.

Parting Thoughts

Ten Little Indians definitely is not the film to see if you're new to the story; first-timers are infinitely better off starting with the Rene Clair And Then There Were None and then watching this for comparison's sake. It's okay as a bottom of the bill programmer, but misses a great chance to rise above the routine.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.

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