And Then There Were None

And Then There Were None (1945)
Magic Lantern (VCI)
Cast: Walter Huston, Barry Fitzgerald, Louis Hayward, June Duprez
Extras: Biographies, Classic Comedy Short “Twin Husbands”

When I was in my very early teens I literally devoured any novel by British writer Agatha Christie I could possibly lay my hands on. Unlike many people I never had a real preference towards either Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot as the protagonist, but somehow the novels that contained neither of them always seemed a little distanced to me. However there were a few exceptions and her 1939 novel "And Then There Were None", also known as "Ten Little Indians", was one of them. There have been a number of film versions of this murder mystery story, but to this date the 1945 film by Rene Clair of the same title stands out as the one that hit the novel’s original’s nerve the most, sensibly incorporating Agatha Christie’s dark sense of humor. Undoubtedly it has something to do with the fact that it is easier to tell a contemporary story during the given time period than it is 50 years later. VCI Home Video has now released this first film version of the novel on DVD, giving the movie some well-deserved new exposure among film aficionados.

Ten strangers are lured to an island mansion by a mysterious host they don’t know. Seemingly without anything in common they arrive at the mansion and slowly start settling in, wondering who their host may be. But not their unknown host greets them during dinner but a recorded message blasphemously accusing each one of them of murder, unveiling a dark secret from their past, promising justice for the crimes. Later that night Tony Marston dies, choking from a dose of cyanide and all of a sudden the assembled group realizes that this is not a game or practical joke at all as it first appeared. They had all been brought to the island so that justice can be served and in horror they realize that the killer is among them. Unable to leave the island, a story of mistrust and fear unfolds as the killer is striking again and again, following the age-old nursery rhyme of the "Ten Little Indians".

One of the appeals Agatha Christie’s novels have is the fact that they keep the reader dangling with clues as you go through the story. Slowly revealing information and details, the books are literary Clue-games throughout. Christie always managed to keep the reader thinking along, as she slowly unraveled the dark mysteries. Interestingly most of the time the ending is not at all what the reader has had in mind, as she always withholds the most vital information and by doing so slightly unbalances the reader’s chance to up her heroic detectives. The way she does it is masterful and never makes you feel cheated upon. It actually gives readers the chance to review the entire story in their minds to see where they missed the ultimate, the vital piece of information.
Very much like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes detective stories, which were undoubtely an influence on her own work, most of Agatha Christie’s work is timeless and ever refreshing.

"Ten Little Indians" was a murder-mystery par excellence in that respect, and so is Rene Clair’s film. Both have become templates for similar murder mystery stories over time, which all by itself is a good indication for the quality of the material. Clair has a great feel for the story and never reveals too much but always shows enough investigative material that keeps the viewer guessing. You will find yourself going through each of the survivors re-evaluating your position, trying to figure out who the real killer is all the way to the end. Although things become a little more predictable once the number of survivors has shrunk down to less than a handful, the film still keeps you on the edge with is dramatic and suspenseful images. Ultimately that is what murder mysteries are about. The fact that the viewer or reader is constantly attempting to outsmart the detective, and has the ability to claim "I knew it all the while!" once the mystery is solved. (Yes, I guess we all have a tendency to lie to ourselves every once in awhile)

Even with the most suspenseful camera work and atmospheric images, this story would not work without its characters and Rene Clair’s film is extraordinary in that respect. It boasts a remarkable cast of actors who manage to heighten the drama of the story through the portrayal of their individual, quirky personalities. Walter Huston, Barry Fitzgerald, Louis Hayward and June Duprez are giving this story its urgency and its credibility. While a murder mystery story in a huge mansion on a remote island always feels a bit romanticized, their performances make sure the viewer never feels too comfortable with the surroundings. Their portrayal of fear, desperation, agony and desolation is what ultimately drives the story home. They are all cold enough to be the killer and yet they are all human enough to sympathize with, while all the while delivering some incredibly well written lines.

VCI Home Video is a rather new publisher in the DVD arena, and I am always keen on taking a look how these independent publishers convert their assets to this new format. Their recent release of "Devil’s Rain" under their "Magic Lantern" label turned out to be a great looking disc, although the film itself is a little slow despite it’s 70s star-power. However, bringing an almost 55 years old film to DVD is a different story entirely. As such I wasn’t expecting too much really and found myself quite pleasantly surprised. The black and white film is presented in its original <$PS,fullframe> aspect ratio and although showing signs of aging it looks unexpectedly good. The transfer used for this DVD exhibits speckles and scratches, and in a number of scenes the sprocket holes seem to be completely worn out, but never to the extend that it would distract from the film. The transfer seems to reproduce highlights a little too emphasized but blacks are solid. The transfer itself is looking soft due to the application of noise reduction that has been applied to this transfer. It is always a tricky decision whether you want to have speckles and dust removed and lose some definition or have a highly detailed transfer that shows significant signs of wear. I personally feel the latter is usually more desirable but I can understand that for an overall more pleasing presentation noise reduction is applied. The compression of the disc is good throughout without noticeable artifacting.

"And Then There Were None" is presented in a mono <$DD,Dolby Digital> soundtrack that is presented in a 2.0 channel Dolby Digital soundtrack. It sounds aged and muffled but is understandable at any time. The noise floor is surprisingly low leaving much of the moody ambience intact. I had a great time watching "And Then There Were None" and it was great seeing it released on this DVD. It is one of those films you either luckily catch on TV and then watch it disgruntled by the commercial breaks, or you never get to see it at all. I am sure with the release on this DVD the film will be seen by many people who have never had the chance to watch it before and if they’re anything like me, I am sure they’ll have a great time with it. If you are a fan of stylish and cleverly written murder mysteries, you have to give this disc a look!