Rene Clair’s final American film is among his best English-language films, and still ranks as one of the best Agatha Christie adaptations for its mix of mystery and light comedy, although screenwriter Dudley Nichols (Swamp Water [M], This Land is Mine [M], Prince Valiant) chose to follow Christie's play, which alters the fates of the final characters and avoids the novel’s more downbeat ending.
The addition of comedy seems unusual, but it does provide the already briskly paced film with a momentum that avoids a gloomy, if not clichéd whodunnit tone. Eight strangers are lured by boat to an isolated island for a supposed vacation, and with a cook and his wife, the ten discover they’re destined to die according to the fates in a children’s rhyme.
The first demise happens fast, and each day seems to yield another cadaver until a core group are left scrambling for an action plan when they realize one of them must be the killer. Clair cleverly works in light moments – often by allowing his superb cast to have fun with Nichols’ sharp dialogue, especially fuddy-duddy Roland Young (Topper, The Ghost Goes West) – but there is a key sequence where a game of pool between the judge (Barry Fitzgerald) and the good doctor (Walter Huston) is interrupted by a power failure, and the men’s suppressed suspicions bubble to the surface while the rest of the group race to the woodshed and repair a faulty generator.
Nichols also builds up a gradual yet subdued attraction between a nanny (June Duprez) and soldier of fortune (Louis Hayward), while gumshoe Young shows he’s not too swift in picking details and problem solving as fast as the good judge and doctor. Judith Anderson is unsurprisingly creepy as a cold-hearted woman, while Richard Haydn sports a nasal cockney accent for the butler / cook which he later repurposed in a Germanic variant for Young Frankenstein (1974).
A strong production in every detail, And Then There Were None is an early slasher film minus the sex & gore – Clair only shows scant details of demised characters later in the film – but it bears the firm structure where people die fast, suspicions and alliances shift between characters, and a twist completes the puzzle scenario.
Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s score is appropriately built around the nursery rhyme’s melody, and is oft-repeated for comedic and later ironic effect, while the set and California coast convincingly convey a remote lodge open to the every kind of adverse weather.
Although distributed by Twentieth Century-Fox, this indie production has drifted in and out of public domain, ensuring there’s no decent video version in circulation (or at least one derived from a clean print). VCI’s first DVD featured a VHS-grade transfer with massive DNR, plus a lengthy bonus short subject which no doubt robbed the film transfer of extra space in this single layer disc.
It’s strange no one’s bothered to release a definitive special edition, but few of Clair’s American and British films are in broad circulation right now. His output in English includes The Ghost Goes West (1935), Break the News (1938), The Flame of New Orleans (1941), I Married a Witch (1942), Forever and a Day (1943), It Happened Tomorrow (1944), and And Then There Were None (1945).
Although not the first film adaptation of an Agatha Christie work, And Then There Were None was remade in 1965, 1974, and 1987 by producer Harry Alan Towers, as well as a 1987 Soviet version.
British actress June Duprez had built up a string career by the time The Spy in Black (1939) and The Thief of Bagdad (1940) was released, but a move to the U.S. diluted her career, leaving a handful of film and TV appearances before she seemingly retired in the early sixties.
© 2013 Mark R. Hasan