By Craig Leask
Note: The racial terms used in this article are included solely as reference to their use in book titles and poem lyrics as they were used in Christie’s book in 1939.
The name Alfred Hitchcock became synonymous as the “Master of Suspense”, a well-earned title obtained through his direction of over 50 feature films. Similarly, the name of best-selling fiction writer Agatha Christie became synonymous as the “Mistress of Mystery”, earning her title having sold more than two billion copies of her novels while becoming the best-selling fiction writer of all time.
Her approach to plot and storyline development throughout her novels was methodical and often formulaic. Christie admitted that she followed a certain process for most of her writing projects, creating a cast of characters and writing the entire script to the final chapter, then deciding who the murderer is (often the most unlikely and least suspicious character in the book). At that point she would return to the first chapter and begin tweaking her manuscript, adjusting the text to provide motive and opportunity for that person to have committed the crime. In my opinion it is a brilliant approach to her craft.
Her standard approach was to collect a group of individuals, all apparently strangers to one another, and through various circumstances locate them in a situation where they find themselves isolated from authorities and from safety: a secluded resort (“Evil Under the Sun” published 1941); on a train (“Murder on the Orient Express” published 1934), or on a boat (“Death on the Nile” published 1937). The mystery is solved in dramatic fashion by a member of the troop who happens also to be a sleuth – professional or amateur, dramatically collecting the surviving suspects, each with motive and alibies, into one room. The events leading up to the murder are deciphered in excruciating detail, finally revealing the guilty party. Her best execution of this concept was her 1934 novel “Murder on The Orient Express”.
I strongly feel, though, that her brilliance is ultimately revealed in her novel, “And Then There Were None”. Originally published as “Ten Little Niggers” in 1939, the name changed to “And Then There Were None” when published in the United States in January 1940. The new title having been derived from the last five words of the children’s song on which the story is based. The novel is symbolic of her ability to maintain her proven formula, while brilliantly, completely and utterly discarding it. “And Then There Were None” follows her proven formula of collecting strangers on an isolated and remote location, then implicating them all in a complicated murder. But this is where the formula stops.
What differentiates “And Then There Were None” from Christie’s other, possibly more famous stories is also what makes this film so exceptional. The brilliance is what she eliminated from her story telling formula, taking motive out of the storyline. None of the characters has a motive, and as such they do not have, nor need, an alibi. And yet one by one each are being murdered by means and order outlined in the lines of a famous children’s nursery rhyme – which evolved from “Niggers” to “Indians” and finally to “Soldier Boys” as society grew more enlightened:
Ten little Soldier Boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were nine.
Nine little Soldier Boys sat up very late; One overslept himself and then there were eight.
Eight little Soldier Boys travelling in Devon; One said he’d stay there and then there were seven.
Seven little Soldier Boys chopping up sticks; One chopped himself in halves and then there were six.
Six little Soldier Boys playing with a hive; A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.
Five little Soldier Boys going in for law; One got in Chancery and then there were four.
Four little Soldier Boys going out to sea; A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.
Three little Soldier Boys walking in the zoo; A big bear hugged one and then there were two.
Two little Soldier Boys sitting in the sun; One got frizzled up and then there was one.
One little Soldier Boy left all alone; He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.
Agatha Christie herself described the novel as the most difficult of her books to pen, stating “10 people had to die without it becoming ridiculous or the murderer being obvious.” Clearly, she succeeded. The story has been dramatized numerous times on film, with the most famous and by my opinion, the most successful being the Twentieth Century Fox production of And Then There Were None (1945), set on a remote island.
The plot is similar for all the iterations. Eight people arrive at a solitary manor house on a small, isolated island off the Devon coast by motorboat, each person having received an unexpected personal invitation. The group is met on the island by a butler and cook, Thomas and Ethel Rogers, who reveal that their hosts, Ulick Norman Owen and Una Nancy Owen, have yet to arrive.
Directed by Rene Clair, And Then There Were None was filmed with an all-star cast including: Barry Fitzgerald (Judge Francis Quincannon), Walter Huston (Dr. Edward Armstrong), Louis Hayward (Philip Lombard), Judith Anderson (Emily Brent) and Richard Haydn (Thomas Rogers). The film has a perfect balance of suspense and humor which has not diminished over time. The black and white photography and carefully timed musical score strengthens the oppressive atmosphere of the remote island house.
The eerie atmosphere and uncomfortable relationship between the guests are evident immediately. The intrigue heightened with the revelation of a copy of a children’s rhyme “Ten Little Indians” shown hanging in each of the guest’s rooms, and a grouping of ten china figures of Indians positioned as a centerpiece in the mansion’s dining room. Following their first meal on the island a recorded voice booms over the group, accusing each member of the household of murders they had allegedly committed, ending with the promise of justice. Moments later, upon finishing his drink the first guest begins to choke and then dies, subtly following the first line of the rhyme, “Ten little Soldier Boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were nine.” The guests notice quickly that the first of the ten china Indians on the dining room table has been mysteriously broken. Immediately the film becomes a masterclass of mystery. The guests discover that none of them knows the Owens and make the realization that the host’s name, U. N. Owen, is a play on “Unknown.” As the invitees each meet a curious death, the remaining guests realize that Mr. Owen is in fact one of them, adding fear and suspicion to the small group.
The story was also remade under the title And Then There Were None (1956) set on a remote island produced by BBC West, a television mini-series in 2015 also by the BBC and also set on an island, in 2017set in the Mojave Desert and a another addition presently in development by 20th Century Studios. Under the Ten Little Indians title the film was made and remade in 1965 set in a remote mountain top mansion, in 1974 at a hotel in the Iranian Desert, in 1987 at a remote island and in 1989, this time set on an African safari. The plots and characters for all were similar, only the location and the quality of the productions differed.
In September 2015, celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday, And Then There Were None was named the “World’s Favorite Christie” in a vote sponsored by the author’s estate.
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.
Great article craig. Really enjoyed it.