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delatorrel

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11 out of 21 people found the following review useful:
Lighthearted film, like serious book, partially succeeds and partially fails, 21 November 2003
7/10

Agatha Christie's 1939 story idea captures the imagination. Ten strangers who each, in his or her own way, have gotten away with murder gather by invitation at an isolated mansion. Then their unknown host U.N. Owen systematically and mockingly murders them one by one. The idea was adapted into a film in 1945, 1965, 1974, and 1989. Each adaptation is worth seeing as an attempt to bring the idea to life. Unfortunately, neither Christie nor the filmmakers succeed in turning this compelling but at the same time confining plot concept into a truly fulfilling story.

The book's premise is clever and fascinating. Careful attention is paid to plot detail. Compared to the films, the book's assortment of past crimes and depictions of the characters' attitudes toward them are more varied, subtle, and interesting. The book gives the highly contrived events a certain plausibility. It is the least sentimental about the characters, treating them vaguely and suspiciously. This helps, even if it does not entirely succeed, in making them convincing as people who have killed in the past and could do so again. The book maintains more of a sense of fear, dread, menace, suspense, and purpose than the film versions. It explains at some length why and how Owen carried out the scheme.

However, once the imaginative premise is established, the story becomes thin and formulaic. There is little plot or character development. The storytelling seems flat, frigid, and, at times, slow-paced. There is no lead character to care about. The characters and their past crimes are sketched in summary fashion. Those crimes vary widely in originality, depth, and genuineness. The best are Claythorne's, the general's, Brent's, and Rogers'. The past crimes of Blore, the doctor, the judge, and Lombard are trite, unexplored, and ineffective. There are only two real plot twists. The second creates a major logical problem, which the book acknowledges and tries to overcome by weakly suggesting that the ploy would trick or "rattle" the murderer. The guests' murders are designed to follow the nursery rhyme and little more. Some cosmetic frills aside, the killings show, in themselves, no special cunning, skill, strategic advantage, or plausibility. Owen strikes crudely without detection too effortlessly.

Worst of all, the book (and each film) has nothing serious to say about the powerful themes of survival, justice, and criminality that are at the heart of the story. The story is inherently an observation of human nature in a desperate situation. How do the characters behave? How do they try to reason? How do they try to survive? Also by its very nature -- as the book's last pages acknowledge -- this is a morality play. How is each character a "criminal"? How is each "beyond the law"? Does each get "justice"? Is justice the point, or simply a "lust" to torture and kill? Is the story about breaking the law or enforcing it, about mistakes or abuses in pursuing justice? None of this is meaningfully explored.

Overall, the films are worse in some respects and better in some respects than the book. The 1945 version develops the plot better in some ways. While as tightly written as the book, it is richer in deductive theories, in taking stock at each stage of the story, and in survival techniques. The dialogue seems sharper than in the book and provides some memorable lines. This adaptation pioneers the technique (repeated in 1965 and 1974 and omitted only from the 1989 version, to its detriment) of playing the Ten Little Indians nursery rhyme on the piano. This brings it to life and sets the stage for what is to come. The cast is mostly outstanding. Many characters -- Lombard, Claythorne, doctor, judge, Blore, Brent -- seem as smart, strong, or distinctive as in the book, or more so. They are more entertaining. Generally, the films do a better job of showing characters interact. Except in 1989, the films make more of an effort than the book to explain the relationship that develops between two characters.

However, the 1945 version handles the past crimes even less effectively than the book. The movie presents the general and his past crime in an obscure, lifeless way; even the weak 1989 adaptation does better. The 1945 version makes a ludicrous change to the judge's past crime. It waters down Brent's. In changing the story to allow characters to survive, it distorts their identities and/or past crimes in fundamental ways. In the process, it replaces the book's most complex, interesting past crime with one that is bland, superficial, and false. This confuses the meaning of the host's actions, although it does suggest, but not develop, a new theme of false accusation not present in the book.

Generally, the film's attempts to make the characters entertaining (a re-named Marston, Rogers, doctor, judge, Blore) come at the expense of their plausibility as villains and of the story's seriousness. Characters confess their secrets and treat the horror unfolding around them as if it were a parlor game. Mischa Auer's farcical, clownish performance is a disaster. The character was poorly drawn to begin with, and the 1945 film does a particularly poor job of presenting his past crime. This, and the changed ending, are only the most extreme examples of a general problem with taking such a lighthearted approach to a fundamentally serious story.

Worst of all, the climactic scene, which reveals Owen's identity, means, and motives, is short, sedate, droll, unsatisfying, and leaves a lot unexplained. In 1945, Owen has a weary, rational, amiable armchair chat with the final victim precisely when the character should come alive as someone triumphantly and credibly capable of inflicting such horror. It is left to the otherwise flawed 1974 version to capture more of the tone and intensity of the book and to the generally inept 1989 film to provide an ending that is dramatic, reflects that a deadly serious killer has been at work, conveys a sense of Owen's menace and lunacy, and most fully explains Owen's behavior.

27 out of 48 people found the following review useful:
Films, like the book, unable to fully realize idea as a story, 18 November 2003
6/10

The 1965 film is enjoyable and entertaining, but it is worse in some respects and better in some respects than the book and 1945 film. They are all best discussed together. Unfortunately, neither Christie nor the filmmakers succeeded in turning this captivating but confining plot idea into a truly fulfilling story.

Once the book establishes its clever, imaginative premise, the story becomes thin and formulaic. The characters are superficial, and there is no lead character to care about. There are only two real plot twists. One creates a major logical problem, which the book acknowledges and tries to overcome by weakly suggesting that the ploy would trick or "rattle" the murderer. Neither the book nor the films has anything serious to say about the powerful themes of survival, justice, and criminality that are at the heart of the story.

The 1945 film, and to a lesser extent the 1965 film, develop the plot better in some ways than the book. While as tightly written, the 1945 film is richer than the book in deductive theories, in taking stock at each stage of the story, and in survival techniques. Its dialogue seems sharper than the book's and provides some memorable lines. Both films play the Ten Little Indians nursery rhyme on the piano, which brings it to life and sets the stage for what is to come.

Both films have strong casts. In the 1945 version, many characters seem as smart, strong, or distinctive as in the book, or more so. They are more entertaining. Generally, the films do a better job than the book of showing the characters interact. Except for the 1989 movie, the films make more of an effort to explain the relationship that develops between two characters.

In the 1965 film, the characters are also well-cast, especially the doctor, judge, Blore, and general. Some are more feisty than in the book or other films, like the maid, butler, and conceited actress Ilona. Only in this film are the maid and butler convincingly menacing. Fabian is obnoxious as a re-named Marston, but he is supposed to be. The film places the character in a dissolute career, and he gives the best piano rendition of Ten Little Indians.

The 1965 film livens up the methods and depictions of the murders. It changes some words of the nursery rhyme, but it closely adheres to its own version, right down to a bear statute toppled onto one character. Interactions between the characters are more heated and less restrained than in 1945, and should be, given the events.

However, the 1965 film is not as tightly and richly told, nor as well-acted as the 1945 version. Hugh O'Brian and Shirley Eaton are appealing and have strong screen presence. But their Lombard and Vera seem relatively superficial and wooden. He does not give as smart and layered a performance as Louis Hayward, nor is she as strong as June Duprez. Dennis Price and

Wilfrid Hyde-White each strike a better balance between seriousness and playfulness in their roles than did Walter Huston and Barry Fitzgerald, but are not as vigorous, commanding, and entertaining. Ilona is amusing, but exaggerated, and displaces the spinster Brent, a distinctive character.

The 1965 film tries to show the killings on screen in a visually interesting way. This can be dramatic and vividly convey murderous host Owen's malice. But it can also make the murders seem implausible, as when Owen brandishes a hypodermic needle from across a room at one fully aware victim, who simply sits there, mouth gaping.

The book sketches the guests' past crimes in summary fashion. They vary widely in originality, depth, and genuineness. The films handle the crimes even less effectively. The 1945 movie presents the general and his past crime in an obscure, lifeless way; even the weak 1989 film does better. The 1945 version waters down Brent's past crime. It makes a ludicrous change to the judge's, which is fortunately changed back in 1965. The 1965 film changes Lombard's past crime, and even more harmfully the general's, to something trite and unexplained. To no effect, in 1965, Lombard is changed from explorer to engineer.

In changing the story to allow characters to survive, both the 1945 and 1965 films distort characters' identities and/or crimes in fundamental ways. In the process, they replace the book's most complex and interesting past crime with one that is bland, superficial, and false. This confuses the meaning of the host's actions, although it does suggest, but not develop, a new theme of false accusation not present in the book.

Generally, the attempts made in both early films to make the characters entertaining come at the expense of their plausibility as villains and of the story's seriousness. Characters confess their secrets and treat the horror unfolding around them as if it were a parlor game. Mischa Auer's farcical, clownish performance is a disaster. The character was poorly drawn to begin with, and the 1945 film does a particularly poor job of presenting his past crime. This is only the most extreme example of a general problem with taking such a lighthearted approach to a fundamentally serious story. Attempts to make characters comical or appealing also sap the suspense in the 1965 version.

Worst of all, in 1945, the climactic scene in which Owen's identity, means, and motives are revealed is short, sedate, droll, and unsatisfying. In 1965, the final scene has more explanation, but remains thin and undramatic. In both films, Owen has a weary, rational, amiable armchair chat with the final victim precisely when the character should come alive as someone triumphantly and credibly capable of inflicting such horror. It is left to the otherwise flawed 1974 version to capture more of the tone and intensity of the book and to the generally inept 1989 film to provide an ending that is dramatic, reflects that a deadly serious killer has been at work, conveys a sense of Owen's menace and lunacy, and most fully explains Owen's behavior.

26 out of 38 people found the following review useful:
The most competent film adaption of the story as a serious mystery, 18 November 2003
7/10

Agatha Christie's 1939 story idea captures the imagination. Ten strangers who each, in different ways, have gotten away with murder gather by invitation at an isolated mansion. Then their unknown host U.N. Owen systematically and mockingly murders them one by one. The idea was adapted into a film in 1945, 1965, 1974, and 1989. Unfortunately, neither Christie nor the filmmakers succeeded in turning this captivating but confining plot concept into a truly fulfilling story.

The book's premise is clever. Careful attention is paid to plot detail. Compared to the films, the book's assortment of past crimes and depictions of the characters' attitudes toward them are more varied, subtle, and interesting. The book is the least sentimental about the characters, treating them vaguely and suspiciously. It maintains more of a sense of intensity and purpose than the films. It details why and how Owen carried out the scheme.

However, once the book establishes its imaginative premise, the story becomes thin and formulaic. There is little plot or character development. The storytelling seems flat, frigid, and, at times, slow-paced. There is no lead character to care about. The characters and their past crimes are sketched in summary fashion, and vary widely in quality. There are only two real plot twists. The second creates a major logical problem, which the book acknowledges and tries to overcome by weakly suggesting that the ploy would trick or "rattle" the murderer. The guests' murders are designed to follow the nursery rhyme and little more. Some cosmetic frills aside, the killings show, in themselves, no special cunning, skill, strategic advantage, or plausibility. Owen strikes crudely without detection too effortlessly.

Worst of all, the book (and each film) has nothing serious to say about the powerful themes at the heart of the story. The story is inherently an observation of human nature in a desperate situation. How do the characters behave? How do they try to reason, to survive? Also by its very nature -- as the book's last pages show -- this is a morality play. How is each character a "criminal" and "beyond the law"? Does each get "justice"? Is justice the point, or simply a "lust" to torture and kill? Is the story about breaking the law or enforcing it, about mistakes or abuses in pursuing justice? None of this is meaningfully explored.

In some respects, the films are worse and better than the book. The lighthearted approach of the 1945 and 1965 adaptations is entertaining, but comes at the expense of the story's plausibility and seriousness. Characters confess their secrets and treat the horror unfolding around them as if it were a parlor game. The 1974 film took a decidedly different tone, for good and ill. Gone from both 1945 and 1965 is the comical opening sequence and its catchy, upbeat music. The 1974 film has no opening music, just simple credits and silence invaded by the sound of an approaching helicopter. Its storytelling is cold and clinical. This matches its setting -- a palatial, ornate, immaculate hotel, shuttered and alone amid ruins in the Iranian desert.

The 1974 movie captures more of a sense of fear, menace, and suspense. This includes the selection of Orson Welles to narrate the tape recording charging the guests with past crimes and also the way in which the killings are depicted. The characters are more serious. They are played, with authority, more like real people than caricatures. Richard Attenborough's judge is more stern, less folksy, than in prior versions. Stephane Audran is excellent as actress Ilona, radiant and charming on the surface but troubled and lonely at the core. The maid and butler are believable as hard, smooth con artists. In this important sense, the 1974 version is truest to the book and to those who want to see it presented as a serious mystery (the 1989 adaptation ends well but is low-budget and generally inept).

Overall, however, the 1974 film is less substantial and entertaining than prior versions. The storytelling is so spare and unartful it can feel sterile and uninvolving, lacking in wit, ingenuity, eloquence, and energy. The only moment of real charm comes early and abruptly, when Charles Aznavour performs a song, "Dance in the old-fashioned way," with Audran looking on, enchanted and lovely. By contrast, Aznavour's rendition of Ten Little Indians is disappointing. At "six little Indians," he starts pounding the piano keys and shouting the words, only to let the music die out in anticlimax before "one little Indian."

The outstanding cast is unable to breathe much life into the characters or interactions. Herbert Lom lends an air of authority, reserve, and intelligence (perhaps too much) to the doctor. But his restrained, stiff performance lacks any truly memorable quality, like Walter Huston's buffoonery and charm in 1945 or Dennis Price's vanity and arrogance in 1965, and he is unconvincing as a drunkard. Adolfo Celi can do nothing much with his role, and Gert Froebe little more with his. Elke Sommer, unflatteringly filmed, makes no impression as Vera and has no chemistry with Oliver Reed. Reed gives an impenetrable, impish performance as Lombard.

The 1974 film copies from the imperfect 1965 script, and loses some memorable lines in the translation. Also, by 1974, Lombard has no career. The 1974 film is least faithful to the nursery rhyme. Events are out of Owen's control, as when a snake is let loose, an uncertain murder weapon; one character simply wanders off into the desert; and another screams when a candle blows out, in prior adaptations a diversion engineered by Owen. The location is so faraway and desolate it raises questions about why the guests would be willing to go there, without at least investigating, and how Owen could have made the arrangements. The film lapses back to 1945's short final exposition scene. Re-writes to reflect the end of hanging as a form of capital punishment, and to make Owen choke out incoherent last words, rob that crucial scene of even the inadequate dramatic effect of its predecessors.

11 out of 17 people found the following review useful:
More distinctive for its bad qualities than its good, 18 November 2003
3/10

The 1989 film has some good points, but, unlike the 1945, 1965, and 1974 versions, it grows less enjoyable with each viewing. Everything about it seems low-budget. The cast and script are undistinguished. The set is drab. The clothes look like cheap costumes. The plot takes too long to get going. Once it does, it unfolds well at first, with the early deaths resembling accidents. And, bettering all prior versions, the ending is dramatic, conveys murderous host Owen's menace and lunacy, and most fully explains Owen's behavior.

Overall, however, the storytelling is inept. Too much is out of Owen's control, such as natives cutting down the basket that carries people down from the cliff and Lombard repairing the radio. After the third death, someone abruptly announces without any discussion or reasoning that "Mr. Owen is one of us." Unlike the other versions, the characters engage in no deductive reasoning or survival techniques.

The story drags. Only making matters worse are cheap, forced attempts to gin up suspense. These include the camera suddenly coming up short on characters; a character acting "awfully nervous" for no reason; and pratfall-type death scenes, with a body tumbling down from on top of a tent, another toppling out of a closet, mouth gaping, and another slumping forward with an ax in the back of the head.

Touches that made earlier versions entertaining are botched in 1989. The other films recite the full nursery rhyme up front, creatively playing it on the piano. But this script dribbles the rhyme out line by line upon each murder. Instead, it chooses to play "Mad Dogs and Englishmen," an annoying, madcap, out-of-place Noel Coward song with no apparent connection to Christie or appropriateness to this adaptation, which has so few British characters. This film makes an embarrassing hash of the scene in which the phonograph record is played accusing each person of a past crime. Repeatedly, the person whose name is unexpectedly about to be called next happens to pipe up with some exaggerated utterance, on cue, right before being named.

The 1989 film fails to discuss some past crimes at all (doctor, judge, Lombard). It distorts others (Blore, Marshall), to no good effect. In place of Christie's subtle crime of withheld care, Rodgers merely refers to an old lady in his care who "died of a massive stroke." In the film, Marston refers to a "couple running out in front of his car," without any mention of them being newlyweds or of him driving fast and drunk. The film dumbs down the book's most complex, interesting past crime to a bland reference to a child in Vera's care drowning.

All the good lines from other versions are gone in 1989, like "a feeling that some sort of macabre joke is being played on us," "game of the mind." In 1989, other than Owen's line "My own private big game hunt," there are just limp banalities ("The devil is among us"; Our duty, that's all any of us can hope to do"; "I never bet"; "When we get out of here, I'm going to teach you to shoot straight") or lines memorable only for making you cringe (judge, "I left immediately...to relieve myself"; Lombard to Vera, "Feel it, smell it," about gun).

In 1989, the casting and acting, strong points in past adaptations, go badly awry. An exception is Herbert Lom's delightfully dotty performance as the general, better than 1945, including a touching scene with Vera explaining his past. But Donald Pleasance is adrift, mostly acting detached and insipid, then suddenly erupting in a panic outburst or frantically pawing in a snuff box. Not until his final moments on screen does he play his character coherently and effectively.

Sarah Maur Thorp brings youthful energy and emotion to the role of Vera. But her acting becomes erratic and mechanical as she turns increasingly into a mere screaming hysteric, unlike June Duprez, who keeps a strong, intelligent presence during the 1945 film.

Brenda Vaccaro's uninspired, formless performance as actress Marshall consists of sighing, huffing, lounging around, and boozing. It is unbelievable that this plump, pampered lush would go on an African safari. Her only explanation? "I was invited. I received a letter in the post."

Blore's character has always been well-defined and well-acted before. But here, played by a bit-part TV character actor, he is just roly-poly, rough, loud, and sulky. His mumbled confession of his past crime is confused and miserably ineffective.

Marston, who rushes through a 2-second singing bit, the worst musical performance of any version, is a caricature of a fop. The film fails to place him in the context of a dissolute career or even mention his penchant for liquor and fast sportscars.

Paul Smith as Rodgers tries to let his hulking body do his acting for him, as Moira Lister, the wife, does with her shrill voice. He lumbers around scowling and bellowing laconically. She overacts as a loud, whiny motormouth. Their characters and relationship are not remotely believable.

Apparently, Frank Stallone's only qualification for Lombard was being a "hunk." His weak, vacant expressions and flat delivery are evident from his very first line. His acting is exemplified by the scene in which he shoves a pistol in Vera's face and cocks the trigger, oblivious that he has already started mouthing the line, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you." Stallone's constant, supposedly sly, cocky grins destroy any sense of suspense. His only explanation for being there: "Owen had already paid [a friend's] way out, so I came instead."

Worst of all, Yehuda Efroni ruins the important character of the doctor. His bizarre, introverted, bug-eyed portrayal lacks any air of authority, intellect, charm, or even social skills. Through a heavy accent, he either stammers or, like a snapping turtle, spits out snippets of inarticulate dialogue. At one point, he cackles, at another acts befuddled, for no reason at all. Unlike any prior version, the doctor has no rapport with any other character.