Agatha Christie’s novel Ten Little Indians is a slim, tightly-plotted mystery, notable for pulling off a very clever trick. Throughout the book, whenever a major event occurs, such as a murder, Christie instantly reveals the private thoughts of each suspect. This omniscient approach makes it nearly impossible for a reader to sort out just who the killer might be.
Naturally, the book’s popularity has led to numerous filmed adaptations, including this one from 1965. Sure, this version takes enormous liberties with the source material, such as new characters and a completely different setting, but Christie’s basic concept remains, and it’s the most potent element here. Viewers are not inside the characters’ minds as in the book, but instead there’s a cast of talented actors (and Fabian) to make up for it.
Ten strangers accept invitations to spend the weekend at a luxurious mountaintop mansion. Upon arriving, they get to know each other while waiting for their unknown host to arrive. Instead, the host, an individual known only as “Mr. Owen,” has left a tape recording in his place, accusing all 10 guests of murder. Each of our party guests, it seems, has a secret in his or her past. It’s Friday night, and the tram to pick up the guests from their snowed in accommodations won’t arrive until Monday. Then, one by one, the guests start dropping dead, each murdered based on the titular nursery rhyme. As bodies start piling up, the survivors conclude that the murderous Mr. Owen is really one of them.
And the suspects are:
• Hugh Lombard (Hugh O’Brien, TV’s Wyatt Earp), an engineer
• Ann Clyde (Shirley Eaton, Goldfinger), a secretary
• Sir John Mandrake (Leo Genn, Moby Dick), a general
• Ilona Bergen (Daliah Lavi, Casino Royale), an actress
• Dr. Edward Armstrong (Dennis Price, Murder Most Foul) a psychiatrist
• Arthur Cannon (Wilfrid Hyde-White, My Fair Lady), a judge
• William Blore (Stanely Holloway, also of My Fair Lady), a detective
• Michael Raven (teen heartthrob Fabian), a popular singer
• Joseph and Elsa Grohmann (Mario Adorf, Major Dundee, and Marianne Hoppe, The Wrong Move), housekeepers
Now, this is a classic, traditional murder mystery. Sure, there are plenty of mysteries in today’s movies and TV shows. Usually, though, the actual clue-finding shares space with horror or drama, and twists keep getting more and more elaborate in attempts to surprise savvy modern viewers. Ten Little Indians, meanwhile, makes no excuses for what it is. There’s a murder, there are suspects, and the movie dares viewers to figure it out before the characters on screen do.
That being said, there’s not a lot of tension, considering that these folks are trapped in a house with a killer. The cast is mostly upstanding British gentlemen, who don’t drop their manners even under these extreme circumstances. Life and death becomes an intellectual exercise. They’re watching their backs, sure, but they’re also not against a pleasant game of billiards while trying to sort out the clues. O’Brien, doing the hunky leading man routine, is more of a “take action” character. This puts him in the heroic leadership role, even at times when the others suspect him.
Although the characters get killed one by one, there’s still time for a romantic subplot, including a pretty steamy (for the time) bedroom scene with O’Brien and Eaton. Again, with suspicion running rampant among the survivors, it seems unlikely that these two would hook up. And no, it’s not just “act of desperation because we’re about to die anyway” sex. I know, movies must have romance, but this comes across as forced. Perhaps if the dialogue were tweaked to be a little more realistic, the creators could have improved this element of the film.
One more note about the cast: If I were trapped in a house with Fabian, I’d go on a killing spree too. Granted, I wasn’t around in 1965, but I still doubt that this guy could’ve been that popular. The movie screeches to a halt every time Fabian goes into his “swingin’ teen idol” shtick. Seeing a bunch of classy British actors sneer down on his antics has me thinking not all of that was acting. Fabian is the movie’s sore thumb. In another film, his antics might have been funny and charming, but I’m afraid he just doesn’t fit in with the rest of this cast.
The above criticisms, however, don’t mean the film doesn’t work. Once the suspense gets going, it really gets going. There’s a large, gloomy basement filled with catacomb-like hallways, a perfect spot for someone to wander off accidentally and never be seen again. At one point, the power goes out, and there’s—you guessed it—a shot in the dark. Throughout the film, we’re treated to shadowy hallways, mysterious footsteps, locked doors, and almost-noir visuals that add much-needed atmosphere to what is otherwise a dialogue-driven film.
As the plot builds to climax, and as the suspects dwindle down to a small few, the tension finally increases. There’s no madcap chase through the house like we’ve seen in Scream and all of its rip-offs, but the suspense is there. It’s suspenseful not because someone is chasing the survivors, but because we’re anticipating the big reveal. I won’t spoil it here, of course, but I’ll say the ending is well-handled. It’s not too ridiculous, unlike a few of today’s “surprise ending” movies, and it’s not clumsily over-explained either.
The picture quality varies throughout the film. I was impressed as it began, marveling at how so many black and white films look black and silver with their new DVD transfers. But that compliment only applies to about half the scenes in Ten Little Indians. At other times, there are enough scratches to distract viewers from the onscreen action. Some scenes have an odd flicker-like effect that also distracts. We’ve seen better restorations of older films, especially from Warner Brothers, so it’s disappointing to see portions of this one in such bad shape. As for the sound, the mono track shows no flaws, with all the dialogue and music coming through just fine. The subtitles here are a welcome addition for those of us not used to some of these thick British accents.
Aside from a collection of trailers for other Agatha Christie films, there’s only one other extra. But what an extra this is. Apparently, when Ten Little Indians debuted in theaters, it had its own special gimmick: the “Whodunit Break.” Mere seconds before the killer’s identity is revealed, the movie stopped, and a narrator invited viewers to debate among themselves who they think did it. After 60 seconds went by, counted down by a clock on screen, the movie resumed. That footage is viewable on this DVD as an extra, and not as part of the main film. Some film purists will likely want to experience the movie the way it was originally seen, through a branching option perhaps. Well, I’m telling you right now that the movie is better off without the gimmick. The ending is tightly paced and well acted, and the last thing it needs is someone interrupting it to say, “Now, discuss.” I’m guessing more than a few theater-goers threw their popcorn at the screen when this happened in 1965. That being said, this bit makes for a wonderful DVD extra. Other extras, such as commentaries and documentaries, would have enhanced the movie greatly, but are nowhere to be found.
What’s that, you say? Some people out there are upset over the use of the word “Indian” in this story? It’s true: Over the years, countless copies of Christie’s novel have been reprinted under the title And Then There Were None, all in the name of political correctness and cultural sensitivity. It’s not really my place here to open up a debate about this, but I can assure you that there are no racially offensive comments toward Native Americans in the movie. The use of “Indian” is a throwaway. It could be called Ten Little Maori or Ten Little Icelanders or Ten Little Klingons and it’d be the exact same film.
This is not a perfect movie. It has its flaws, and it’s not one you’ll still be thinking about weeks after seeing it. But the good outweighs the bad. Ten Little Indians manages to overcome its flaws, resulting in an enjoyable romp through murder mystery territory.