SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ Films on the Seat at the Back playlist right now: KIDS IN LOVE; JUNE; CURVE; WILD, BARELY LETHAL; GODDESS OF LOVE; THE VATICAN TAPES .. What a night in!

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

'Ten Little Indians' (1989) ~ Agatha Christie's Most Celebrated Novel Goes On Safari as Herbert Lom and Donald Pleasence Get Menaced By Lions and Tigers ... and Frank Stallone's trousers!

"Ten little Indian boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were nine..."

Agatha Christie's 'Ten Little Indians' (1989) has, on paper, the perfect birth mother in Agatha Christie and perfect surrogate father too - in exploitation producer Harry Alan Towers.

London-born Towers, by the time 1989's Ten Little Indians came around, had already produced two other film versions of the same story - in 1965 ('Ten Little Indians' with Shirley Eaton) and 1974 ('And Then There Were None' - a highly regarded adaptation that had a rather magnificent cast in Charles Aznavour, Oliver Reed, Maria Rohm, Herbert Lom, Elke Sommer - oh, and everyone else who was anyone in 1974).

Towers also had a productive producing tenure in the last stand of the 60's with Spanish director and exploitation king -Jess Franco, that had led to the sleazy spawning of the magnificently oversexed but eminently classy likes of 'Eugenie - The Story Of Her Journey Into Perversion' in 1970 (starring a suavely magnificent Christopher Lee and the lusciously equally magnificent Marie Liljedahl) and 'women in prison'-genre murky masterpiece; '99 Women' (1969 - with Herbert Lom and Maria Schell).

Name a horror or exploitation classic from the 60's, 70's, 80's or, hey - even the 90's and the name Harry Alan Towers may well be stamped in blood or curdled with the blackest of unravelling lace upon the end credits, so - to name just a few personal Towers-produced favourites, we have: The Brides of Fu Manchu; Dorian Gray; Blue Belle; Black Venus; Count Dracula; Gor; Edge of Sanity; The Mummy Lives, Night Terrors and Jess Franco's Venus in Furs.

It's easy - too easy - to roll off a list of great exploitation movies and then credit Harry Alan Towers like he's a production line beast, similar to the one seen in Stephen King's 'The Mangler' (a film that Towers also executive produced in 1995) and remark how wonderful all these films were. But they were, magnificent. How did one man produce so many genre classics? Even the lesser loved films, such as the salacious Anthony Perkins-starring, ultra-violent and depraved Dr Jekyll riff -'Edge of Sanity' (1989), was, for me, one of Perkins's best and most excitingly corruptable performances after the role of Norman Bates.

Even in Towers's pre-exploitation days there was gold being struck squarely in the rugged face of film, especially endearing was the more subdued (compared to later Towers classics) but no less enthralling; 'Twenty-Four Hours To Kill' (1965) that saw Mickey Rooney play against type as a man with a secret and an all-round sleazeball. 'Twenty Four Hours To Kill' is a forgotten classic, something of a masterpiece even; a film that played serious games with the idea of unwavering loyalty at any cost, then wallowed in the themes of entrapment and isolation and especially the fragile interplay and sexual politics between work colleagues (in this case an entire cabin crew) that, perhaps, has never been so well explored before - themes not far removed from Christie's own Ten Little Indians.

"Nine little Indian boys sat up very late; One overslept himself and then there were eight..."
The director of 'Ten Little Indians' - Alan Birkinshaw (a former rodeo rider and all round tough guy in big cowboy boots) is also high on the list of exploitation movie-making sheer (yes - the negligee kind of sheer) genius with the 'stranded schoolgirls under siege' muddy Brit thriller 'Killer's Moon' in 1978 alongside two Poe updates: 'The House of Usher' and 'Masque of the Red Death' (both from 1989, the same year he directed 'Ten Little Indians') showcasing an especially lurid kind of movie-making that perfectly seeded the great character acting of British troopers Oliver Reed and Donald Pleasence (both in 'Usher') and the perhaps less obvious pairing of Frank Stallone and Herbert Lom in  the vividly glorious 'Masque'.

Harry Alan Towers, by 1989, was using South Africa as a base for a number of film shoots including 'Outlaw of Gor', 'House of Usher' and 'River of Death'. While the location was ideal for adventures such as 'River of Death', it was less obvious for a quaint Agatha Christie murder mystery set on an island off the coast of Devon (a location based on the real life favourite Christie holiday spot - Burgh Island). Towers's decision to relocate the Christie classic to the African wilderness and have the entire cast arrive for a safari was hated by some at the time (probably still!) but for me - ends up being the magical touch that sets this odd adaptation apart from the usual Christie-pleasing film productions already out there. The script of the film was also changed at the last minute to centre on Christie's stage play adaptation of her own novel, that was thought to have a more exciting and upbeat ending. The closing reel of 'Ten Little Indians' isn't exactly pumped-full of action, but does sign off with a slightly silly but wonderfully creepy flourish and a perfect showstopping moment for at least one member of the fine cast. 

"I had written the book ('And Then There Were None') because it was so difficult to do that the idea had fascinated me. Ten people had to die without it becoming ridiculous or the murderer being obvious" - Agatha Christie


It's well known that the original novel wasn't called 'And Then There Were None' and didn't have any 'Indians' in the title, instead it used a word that today perhaps only a white director - Quentin Tarantino, could get away with (just about!) and win awards for a script full of the usage of.  'Ten Little Niggers', the original title of Christie's book, actually derives from the second version of a nursery rhyme originally written by songwriter Septimus Winner in 1868 called 'Ten Little Injuns' (the alternative offending 'N' word version was penned the following year by Frank Green and the song used, like the original, in those minstrel shows of the time).

Many American Indians, of course, today find the use of the 'I' word - whether 'Indians' or 'Injuns', in reissues of the Christie novel or film versions to be  just as insulting as the 'N' word.  I was interested to read of an American Indian teacher who still uses the original rhyme in her class, but now "sings an enlightening variation of the song in which she adds verses for 'Ten Little Mexicans', 'Ten Little African-Americans' and so on". Oh Agatha - what had you done?

Christie's original novel didn't just have a contentious title, but  was also set on the fictional Devon location, of (yeah, as if!) - 'Nigger Island' (doubling for the real Burgh Island). Of course, this was later swiftly edited to (the only slightly more likely to be found in Devon) - 'Indian Island'. Following the retitling of Christie's terrific (regardless of title) 'Ten Little Niggers' novel to 'Ten Little Indians' for a US edition published in 1940, British editions of the book (and now most editions worldwide) would be published under the cleverly titled 'And Then There Were None'. Still - UK prints of the book complete with Christie's original 'N' word faux pas were still, surprisingly, being printed well into the 1980's.

While the book's original title is seen by most Christie fans to have had no choice but to have been changed, as it would - rightly - be considered offensive to modern readers, some devotees still consider the author's original title to be the best and most representative of the book, claiming that it conjures up a world that most of us no longer live in, where offensive names, and corrupted values still exist - on this island, there is only 'otherness'; no reality and certainly no sense of living within rules or respectability. It's Christie's version of a racially prejudiced Oz. Of course, the stage version later added some redemption, a get-out clause of a kind, for at least some of the characters; which perhaps unhinges the fragile defence of the book's original title as needing everyone to wallow in the absolute depths of old-fashioned British inhumanity when - in the stage play at least - not all of them do. The jury is perhaps still well and truly out on this one - if only for some Christie purists out there! 

"Eight little Indian boys travelling in Devon; One said he'd stay there, and then there were seven..."

For their own version of 'Ten Little Indians', producer Towers and director Birkenshaw gathered together a cast who they had already worked with or were, post-'Indians', to be carrying on working with: Donald Pleasence as the snivelly Mr Justice Lawrence Wargrave; Frank Stallone as the alpha male of the pack - Captain Philip Lombard; Yehuda Efroni as Dr. Hans Yokem Werner; Herbert Lom as the demented General Brancko Romensky; Sarah Maur Thorp (also seen in 'Edge of Sanity' that same year) as the sultry Vera Claythorne; Brenda Vaccaro (also star of 'Masque of the Red Death') as the conniving Marion Marshall, here oozing old-fashioned values; Warren Berlinger as Detective William Henry Blore, searching for clues in the shrubbery; Paul L Smith as the towering Elmo Rogers (with a less effective Moira Lister as his wife - Ethel Mae Rogers) - and Neil McCarthy as foppish Anthony Marston who even gets to sing Mad Dogs and Englishmen at the piano, for a thankfully brief moment. There - I think that makes ten!

This group of mostly mismatched strangers all end up on safari together and eventually become stranded at a clifftop campsite following an invitation for a freebie holiday in the sun, from a mysterious "Mr Owen". That's a "Mr U.N.Owen", get it? It's soon obvious that no such person exists, or if they do, they sure ain't coming to the party to be friendly as one by one the guests get bumped off - in the same order as the poor unfortunates do in the nursery rhyme "Ten Little ... (insert word as appropriate)". Every time one of the cast is killed off in a fairly gruesome way, a sculpted figure in a bowl also vanishes; representing one of the "little indians" being no more. This is punishment, it seems, for things this group of murderous misfits may have done wrong in the past. So, whodunnit? I'll tell you this - it's not the butler, as there isn't one. Before the tigers get them or Mr Owen gets them, the whole cast have to rely on uber:hero in ridiculously big hunting chaps - Frank Stallone (brother of Sylvester) to save them with his probably pretend rifle. In other words: PANIC CHAPS!

"Seven little Indian boys chopping up sticks; One chopped himself in halves, and then there were six..."

The setting of 'Ten Little Indians' takes a little getting used to -far different to the more familiar setting of a Devon island found in the original, starting off here on on a train heading out across the African terrain, topless locals waving the beaming cast (and you would be beaming too if a topless local was waving you goodbye on a freebie holiday) on their way and some beautiful, but un-Christie-ish location photography adding a touch of sublime charm, even some class to proceedings. There's a shot at the start of the film with a grinning little white girl staring in through the train window at Dr. Hans while the old man glares back, that seems especially random, but nicely creepy. I'm not sure if the stare is significant, but I don't think even the director is at this point. Come on - this is Christie in the jungle, anything could happen!

"Six little Indian boys playing with a hive; A bumblebee stung one and then there were five ..."

Of the cast, Pleasence is the strongest presence - suitably sinister as Judge Wargrave, if a little subdued and restrained at first, this steely-eyed man eventually gets his moment to shine and do what he does best; creep everyone else out with that wistfully controlled voice of his while also being just about the most creeped-out of everyone. Pleasence is at his best putting in a bravura turn in a suitably red herringed-ringed setpiece later in the movie. It's the duality about this actor that I love most; a combination of utter hopelessness with a tendency to survive on wits alone, despite being the 'man least likely' - a kind of sinister survival mechanism. The timidness of the man deserves a decent payoff - if he meets his maker in this film, you just know it won't be by the usual blade through the heart or the shot to the head; it will have to be something suitably nasty and off-the-wall, or up-the-tent!

Herbert Lom as General Romensky goes into familiar twitch-mode with little pause for relief; he's a man unstable of sanity and clearly on another safari altogether - one that's heading straight for the lunar surface in terms of down-to-earthness (but the man still has a sorrowful tale to tell about why he is like he is - a crime, literally, of some real passion, in a rare moment of wonderful clarity).

"Five little Indian boys going in for law; One got in Chancery and then there were four..."

Lom and Pleasence then are the standouts among the cast, as expected, but I also enjoyed Frank Stallone's big-crotched, hip-jutting performance as merciless mercenary Captain Lombard - playing the role straight, but still fully-stoked with a knowing heap of macho cheese. It's a fun role to watch and no man in a Christie movie has ever sat on the edge of antique furniture with legs splayed quite as wide as Frank has his positioned here! Of course, he has to have a love interest to go with the posturing - and that's the sweet and seductive Sarah Maur Thorp as Vera Claythorne, a governess with a guilty secret; she's quite adorable here, especially in a makeshift shower on the top of this mountain retreat - no wonder Captain Lombard soon hands the girl the smallest towel he can find!

"Four little Indian boys going out to sea; a red herring swallowed one and then there were three..."

All the actors get a chance to shine. Warren Berlinger is suitably shuffly as the hopeless case private eye (less 'hard'-boiled, more 'semi') but it's Paul L Rogers as the giant beast of a man - Mr Rogers, who perhaps steals the show. This man-beast is one cross bunny in the jungle and nearly flattens the entire cast when he has a fit of sudden dramatic rage and sends the contents of a table flying through the air in what seems to be an over-enthusiastic spot of method acting that sends everyone else diving for cover from assorted flying kitchen utensils - a scene that probably gave producer Harry Alan Towers an on-set heart attack.

"I don't say it is the play or book of mine that I like best, or even that I think it is my best, but I do think in some ways that it is a better piece of craftsmanship than anything else I have written" - Agatha Christie

While this version of 'Ten Little Indians' may not at first seem to be a film entirely Christie-like, should you be a Dame Agatha purist, it utilises one of the Queen of Crime's greatest plots - one that I'm certain you will never guess the denouement of - to good effect and is faithful enough, often achingly so. This mix of exotic location, roaming tigers, gramaphone players, a spot of Noel Coward and polite breakfast in the jungle before a session of brutal murder in the afternoon - I reckon Christie would have applauded and really quite loved. The scenes at the start of the movie with the cast swinging down into camp in a wooden box between clifftops are stunning and certainly original. Even better is the moment when this group of strangers realises there is no way back - trapped in a strange little make-believe world miles from civilisation; a place that's less 'holiday in the sun', more 'courtroom with a waiting noose'. Panic quickly sets in.

"Three little Indian boys walking in the zoo; A big bear hugged one and then there were two ..."


Other scenes stand out; the open air breakfast being especially memorable - vast and beautiful open terrain behind the cast as they pour coffee and butter the toast but it's an out-of-reach freedom from this islolated plateau and its claustrophobic entrapment. The prowling tiger that frames many of the scenes is used to good effect and the murders are suitably gruesome - one, involving an axe, especially lurid and more suited perhaps to a cheap and cheerful horror movie, of the kind Harry Alan Towers did so well. The use of Noel Coward's  song 'Mad Dogs and Englishmen' throughout, is a nice unexpected touch, and a great contrast to the dangerous, wild setting. The ending of the film too, is terrific - the twist played to perfection and the upbeat ending, the right decision here. Isolation, desperation, death, salvation - what more can you hope for in a movie, let alone an Agatha Christie adaptation that's been filmed, staged and copied, perhaps, a thousand times before?

"Two little Indian boys sitting in the sun; One got frizzled up and then there was one..."

At times the cast are a little too subdued, the static shots linger too long, there's a sense that more could have been done with the location, and a couple of the deaths aren't very dramatic, maybe a bit too fake for their own gory good. But this is Christie filmed with an undeniable sense of exploitation sensibilty that, while never reaching seedy or shocking heights and stays sometimes annoyingly low key, still allows for plenty of fun and games all directed with certain hard-edged sensibility and grit from hardened, rodeo-riding director Alan Birkinshaw who knew that guns, girls and exotic adventure (see also: Invaders of the Lost Gold from 1982) was his kind of thing and a producer, Harry Alan Towers, who always gave the audience what he knew they wanted most - an occasional axe in the back of the head, killer tigers and a famous actor strung up from a tent! There's also a creepy gramaphone recording (a blood-red, old-fashioned, antique gramaphone taking centre stage in suitably leery close-up - the 11th member of the cast, 12th if you count the tiger) that spouts wild accusations and promises of death at the touch of a stylus to our traumatised group of holiday-makers (instead of playing the expected Noel Coward dancefloor classic).

A couple more reasons this film deserves cult attention include the playful script from the legendary Gerry O'Hara (director of perhaps one of my favourite films; 'The Brute' as well as Joan Collins's uber:sleaze tease 'The Bitch', the monster mash-up 'The Mummy Lives' and, err - an episode of kids TV show 'Press Gang') and, best of all - the film's fab final credits, where (with pretty much everyone now dead and buried) we get one of those wonderful freeze-frame sequences of the entire cast in a crowd-pleasing rollcall set to another outing of Noel Coward's 'Mad Dogs and Englishmen' - a jolly silly ditty. Now come on - if that isn't in the spirit of the late, great Agatha Christie, I don't know what is!

"One little Indian boy left all alone; he went and hanged himself AND THEN THERE WERE NONE ..."

Words: Mark Gordon Palmer/ 2013

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