Thinking—as we often do—of our friend Maria Towers, Madame BOF and I recently unwound after a hectic evening with the 1965 version of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, produced by Maria’s late husband, Harry Alan Towers. Next to the Fu Manchu movies with Christopher Lee, this was Harry’s most durable property, which he remade in 1974, and again in 1989. Variously published as Ten Little Niggers and And Then There Were None, the title under which it was first adapted by René Clair in 1945, this ingeniously constructed 1939 whodunit is essentially bullet-proof, so that if you have a decent script (supplied in this case by Harry, under his Peter Welbeck nom d’écran, and Peter Yeldham), a good cast, and a competent crew, you can hardly go wrong.
That was certainly so here and in Peter Collinson’s ’74 version with Oliver Reed, Elke Sommer, Richard Attenborough, Charles Aznavour, Herbert Lom, former Bond villains Adolfo Celi and Gert Fröbe, and Maria herself. I can’t vouch for the widely panned 1989 version, shot in Africa by Alan Birkinshaw—who made two low-rent Edgar Allan Poe films during the same period—with its limited star power provided by Lom (in a different role this time) and Donald Pleasence. Interestingly, according to the IMDb, the ’89 version was originally supposed to have utilized the ending of the novel, which is downbeat but intellectually satisfying, yet ultimately opted, as did all earlier films, for the happier outcome Christie herself had devised for her 1943 stage version.
’65 director George Pollock was certainly no stranger to this territory, having helmed all four of the films in which Margaret Rutherford played Christie’s Miss Marple. Television vet Yeldham was a frequent collaborator of Harry’s, as was cinematographer Ernest Steward, who worked on the first two Fu Manchu films, as well as the cult favorite The Avengers and innumerable entries in the “Doctor” and “Carry On” comedy series. The jaunty score by Malcolm Lockyer—another Towers regular, who also contributed to Peter Cushing’s Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965), Island of Terror (1966), and Island of the Burning Damned (1967)—takes a very different tack than the tingling 1974 music by Ennio Morricone protégé Bruno Nicolai, keeping things light and breezy.
Soon-to-be love interests Hugh O’Brian and Shirley Eaton arrive at an Austrian house accessible only by cable car—subbing for Christie’s remote island, inaccessibility being essential—with six other guests and married housekeepers Mario Adorf and Marianne Hoppe. We learn that none of them have met their host/employer, “U.N. Owen” (get it?), and most were lured there under false pretenses, also largely strangers to one another. An audiotape in the uncredited but unmistakable voice of Towers mainstay Lee (succeeded by Orson Welles in ’74) accuses each one of causing a death that is beyond the reach of the law, and it soon becomes clear that the elusive “Mr. Owen” has brought them there to administer his own brand of justice by executing them for their crimes.
In each guest’s room is a copy of the titular nursery rhyme (“Ten little Indian boys went out to dine; one choked his little self and then there were nine,” etc.), forming a template for the m.o. of each killing, after which another Indian figurine is removed from the centerpiece on the dining-room table. The cable car is wrecked, taking the fleeing Hoppe with it, which renders escape or rescue impossible for the moment, and forces the guests to fall back on their own devices. When a search of the house proves fruitless, the survivors are obliged to conclude that Mr. Owen is one of them, and various stratagems are attempted to identify him (or her) while the guests weigh the veracity of the accusations against them, and the possibility that ’fessing up may save their lives.
Of the likable leads, O’Brian was television’s Wyatt Earp, later starring in Richard Matheson’s Alfred Hitchcock Hour adaptation of his novel Ride the Nightmare, and the gorgeous Eaton, best known as the iconic “golden girl” from Goldfinger (1964), was reunited with Towers to play Su-Muru (like Fu Manchu a creation of Sax Rohmer). Fabian stretched himself to play a teen idol, while the exotic Daliah Lavi looms large in the BOF universe for Mario Bava’s The Whip and the Body (1963), the Matt Helm film The Silencers (1966), and the Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967). Also featured were Stanley Holloway and Wilfrid Hyde-White, both of My Fair Lady (1964); the latter appeared in multiple Towers productions, as did Leo Genn and Dennis Price.
As usual, Christie’s Swiss-watch plotting is as much the star as any member of that name cast, even with the upbeat ending, and I won’t spoil the fun by either enumerating the various deaths or revealing the solution. Although it was not included in the print recently shown by TCM, the film originally included a device similar to the “Fright Break” from William Castle’s Homicidal (1961) or the “Werewolf Break” from The Beast Must Die (1974), in which the story pauses at the climax and a clock appears on the screen, ticking away to give the audience one last chance to guess the killer’s identity. But this well-produced mystery needs no such gimmick to make it work, succeeding on the merits of its premise and ensemble to offer a fine evening’s entertainment.