Monday, July 30, 2012

And Then There Were Five

Just in case you don't read cyrillic, the movie on the right is called Desyat negrityat which is, like the movie on the left, another adaptation of And Then There Were None. It is the most faithful, most painstakingly detailed, best written adaptation of the five theatrical releases of Agatha Christie's story. So faithful, in fact, that it retains the wildly offensive (in modern day terms) original UK published title of Christie's novel which I won't bother mentioning here since A) it's been out of use for decades everywhere else B) did I mention it was offensive? There's absolutely no question, dispute or doubt among anyone who has seen all the adaptations, the Russian production wins the gold hands down. In my head, I know this to be true, and as much as I respect and admire the Russian version, I love the 1965 English mod adaptation even more. The remaining three major screen adaptations from 1945, 1974 and 1989 lag far behind these two. Here are five little reasons why...

1. Era  - Each of the five cinematic adaptations of Christie's novel, with the exception of the late-30's, period-piece, 1987 Russian production, was very much a product of its time. The first version, from 1945 entitled And Then There Were None, featured the quick, rapid fire delivery of dialogue that pegs a film to the 40's style of filmmaking. 

Shot in studio, the '45 version had a very stage-y feel to it, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but the code restrictions of the era prevented the darkness at the heart of Christie's novel from being played out on screen even implicitly. Thus the story changed into a near-romp with characters breaking the fourth wall, quipping back and forth, and at one point, performing a comical daisy chain of spying on one another. The story would have made for great film-noir, but alas, the studio went the opposite direction, changing the lead roles into hero and heroine - a change that would be repeated in every subsequent screenplay to some degree, except for the Russian one. 

The '74 version favors directorial stylistic risks like those found in most films of the time. Peter Collinson's wide shots were so far away, however, that it was often hard to tell which cast members were speaking. In addition, his close-ups were shot at ground level at an awkward, up-tilted angle which also served to distance the audience from the characters. But this was the 70's and Collinson probably felt the need for invention given that the script was almost a carbon copy of the previous two films'. Adding to the problem were the clothing and hairstyles of the characters which were the worst of all the productions. Even the greatest 70's films were saddled with the semi-long hair and turtleneck aesthetic, but when a movie didn't work, it only added to the misery. 

And the 80's Cannon version, well, let's just say it was made in the 80's, and yes, that's Frank Stallone, and yes, he's wearing a bushman's hat.

The '65 version fortuitously was made at the dawn of the mod era and near the end of the big studio picture era. The influence of both is readily apparent, and though it may not be to everyone's taste, the confluence of eras gives the film some stylish 60's panache especially in terms or hair, wardrobe and make-up but also some classic cinematic heft in the straightforward manner in which it is shot, edited and scored. The choice to use black and white film may have been for budgetary reasons, but it actually works and doesn't feel inappropriate for the time. In fact, one of the few critiques I'd have of the '87 Russian version is that it was shot in color despite being set in the 1930's. It easily could have dispensed with color without losing anything visually.

2. Setting The setting in the novel was an island, and this is retained in the '45 and '87 versions. The original adaptation obviously employs a stage set with studio fakery while the Russian version makes use of a great location that, although not an actual island, certainly appears to be one and is integrally employed throughout the production. The '74 version is set in a huge middle eastern hotel which may explain the director's decision to shoot its cavernous interior from a distance. The '89 Cannon production is set in a part of Africa that is supposedly so remote that, in the story, a one-person, hand-pulled basket has to be employed to get over a gorge to the encampment. In one of the films most illogical scenes (and there are many of these), when the group finally makes it to the encampment, there is a huge, fully furnished tent, complete with carpets, phonographs and a grand piano. One of the group wonders aloud how the piano was brought to the site, but does not get an adequate response. The rest of the film is shot mostly in and around tents making the whole African setting rather moot. With its alpine chalet, the '65 version clearly has the superior setting for a number of reasons. First, it's remote enough for the inherent plot restrictions to make sense. It provides elements of danger with its high altitude and precarious cable car transit. And most of all, it is an incredibly beautiful, snow covered landscape.

3. The Cast  On paper, the '74 cast appears to be the best with great character actors from all over Europe like Oliver Reed, Richard Attenborough, Adolfo Celi, Maria Rohm, Alberto de Mendoza, Gert Frobe, Stephan Audran, Elke Sommer and Herbert Lom. However, the solid cast in this version is virtually neutralized by the horrible direction, photography and lighting. The acting itself is also very tepid (it's downright frozen in Elke Sommer's case) with the performances literally muted by  master shots from the cheap-seats. From this distance, it really appears as if most of the cast, save for Attenborough, is merely going through the motions or rehearsing. 
The '45 cast is much more lively, a little too much so, considering people are getting killed off in the story. The glaring miscast of this version, in my opinion, was Barry Fitzgerald who always seemed to be impersonating someone Irish rather than an actual citizen from that isle. His performance just doesn't seem to fit the character and certainly didn't bring to mind a barrister. I had a similar problem with Walter Huston who couldn't have seemed less like a doctor.
The '87 Russian cast is quite good with standout performances by leads Tatyana Drubich and Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy who play Vera Claythorn and Philip Lombard respectively. Far from the heroine in other versions, Drubich plays Claythorn as a petty, self-entitled, young woman who is nevertheless haunted by an event in her past. Kaydanovskiy's Lombard is similarly narcissistic and guilt-ridden. My only problem with this version was that the actor playing the Blore character (Aleksei Zharkov) looked so much like Lombard I was often confused about which was which.

Finally, the '65 cast, which may not have had the biggest names or the most skills, certainly had the most style and screen presence of any of the incarnations. Hugh O'Brian was the prototypical 50's & 60's handsome, beefcake, hero-guy and was quite serviceable and charismatic in the lead role.

But it's the European actors like Mario Adorf and Daliah Lavi that gave this version a dose of spice that is so lacking in the others. Adorf's physically imposing and somewhat threatening butler, Grohmann, is a far cry from the milquetoasts from other versions who seem perfectly content to be accused, insulted and even abused.

Lavi's character, a beautiful starlet, replaces Christie's spinster from the novel and definitely adds enough nail-biting flavor and sex appeal for anyone.

Add to this, old pros like Wilfred Hyde-White, Dennis Price and Leo Genn who play the more seasoned characters and it makes for quite an eclectic, colorful and distinctive cast. Also, Christopher Lee makes a cameo as the voice of Mr Owen and easily beats all the others who have taken this role including Orson Welles in the '74 version.

4. Sexiness Probably not a word anyone would associate with Christie's work in general and Ten Little Indians in particular, but when you cast former Bond-girl Shirley Eaton and future Helm-girl Daliah Lavi, you're going to have a screenful of sexy. And for the ladies, there's Hugh "Huge" O'Brian and pop star Fabian to enjoy. Ironically, I think this is one of the main reasons people are put off by the '65 production, because it does shamelessly inject some unnecessary cheesecake and steaminess into what is a fairly chaste story. While it's true the Lombard and Claythorne characters do hook-up in one fashion or another in every telling, the coupling is anything but sexy. In fact in the '87 Russian version, it's a near rape-like bedding of the Claythorne character. But I think the added sexiness in the '65 version gives a little zing to an otherwise dry story. Plus, does anyone really object to seeing Shirley Eaton in her underwear?

5. The Look The B & W photography actually enhances, rather than detracts from, the snowy mountaintop setting. Ernest Steward, the cinematographer for the '65 version who photographed a lot of the "Carry On" films, easily does the best job shooting the story out of all the adaptations. His black and white photography was so well composed that even the well worn print that was transferred to the film's only official DVD release still looks remarkable good. The appearance of the other versions is a consistent problem that runs through each without exception. It was as if the filmmakers thought the story alone was good enough to carry the movie to the winner's circle and didn't need to look good as well. Even the Russian version, which is well directed on excellent sets with great costumes, looks as if it was photographed on cheap stock giving it a fuzzy, washed out look.

The '45 version is passable, at best, while the '89 version, having been shot partially in a jungle setting and should have had a stronger look also failed to measure up. The '74 version appears absolutely abysmal with the aforementioned poor lighting and a horrid, brownish/beige color palette.

Honorable Mention - Score Malcolm Lockyer is not a well known film composer nor does he have a large or even recognizable body of work. But the score to the '65 version of Ten Little Indians is a great, brass-heavy, orchestral arrangement that features sleigh bells in the background. It's audacious, but it works like gangbusters to emphasize the spectacular, winter time, alpine setting. All other versions of the film tone the music down substantially with the occasional sting when something suspenseful happens, but Lockyer goes big and it works for the most part especially in the opening credits.
Bruno Nicolai apparently re-composed the '74 version's music and it's one of the few components of the film that's quality. But it is quite understated in a film that is already wildly understated.

Near fatal flaw As much as I gush about the '65 version, it originally had a horrible, ill-conceived, William Castle-like gimmick in the initial release that nearly sunk the movie. Just prior to the climax, the story comes crashing to a halt by the insertion of a "Whodunnit Break" wherein a clock is superimposed on the screen while moments of the film are played back with voiceover narration asking who the killer is. 

Far from adding any suspense, this dopey break actually takes the viewer out of the movie by making him conscious of watching it. I actually saw this film in the theater and distinctly remember the audience groaning as this interruption occurred. Happily, this moronic stunt was subsequently excised at future showings and on its TV release but is a bonus outtake on the DVD for the curious.

Finally, here are the five major screen releases ranked from best to worst with final scores by me:

Ten Little Indians                 (1965)  7.75/10    DVD (oop)
Desyat Negrityat                  (1987)  7.75/10    Youtube
And The There Were None  (1945)  6.25/10    Youtube
Ten Little Indians                 (1974)  5.75/10    Youtube
Ten Little Indians                 (1989)  3.25/10    Youtube

Monday, July 9, 2012

Les deux Messieurs

In 1946, after returning to France from the US, Julien Duvivier, director of such cinematic gems as Pépé le Moko and Un carnet de Bal made what is arguably his darkest and most daring film, Panique. Based on a story from prolific Belgian author Georges Simenon, Panique is a condemnation of mob mentality, xenophobia and anti-sematism wrapped in a noir-ish blanket in literally a carnival atmosphere. A scathing indictment of what had certainly transpired during the recently concluded war in France, it's no wonder both critics and French audiences rejected the film upon its initial release. Looking back though, it is much easier to appreciate what a bold, if somewhat nihilistic statement, about humanity Duvivier made in post-war France. 33 years later, in 1989, another French director, Patrice Laconte who was known only for his lightweight comedies at the time, would remake the film and actually improve on it.

Synopsis: A young local woman is found murdered. Both police and neighbors suspect the eccentric and misanthropic Monsieur Hire.

The knock on much of French cinema, especially art house, is the escargot-like pacing. That complaint is immediately neutralized by Laconte's Monsieur Hire which dives head first, and somewhat conventionally, into the mystery by showing the victim and investigating detective straight away. Next, the film focuses on Monsieur Hire himself followed closely by the object of his desire (and possible next victim?) Alice. It's obvious from the start, Laconte's remake differs from Duvivier's original in character, structure and ultimately theme. Instead of deconstructing the story in Panique or even updating it for our modern sensibilities, Laconte has reconstructed it into a quite fascinating mystery/character study that concentrates much more on the Hire character than the first film did. This comes at the expense of the neighborhood's characters, save for Alice, who were much more prominent and threatening in Panique. However, Laconte is aiming for a different target than Duvivier, so the lynch mob aspect of the original takes much more of a subtle, uneasy, subtextual tone in the remake.  

The character of Hire is quite different in his newer incarnation. Played by pale, diminutive actor Michel Blanc, Hire is a near obsessive compulsive with strict routines that govern his life right down to the music he plays when he spies on his beautiful neighbor Alice (Sandrine Bonnaire) who lives in the apartment across from his. In Panique, Hire is played by burly, bearded, ex-boxer Michel Simon who, although he's suppose to be a misanthrope, appears nearly gregarious and jovial at times. It's one of the few problems I had with the original, Hire/Simon appears very likable thus making it tough to buy into neighborhood's dislike of him. Such is not the case with Blanc's Hire. Although he can be sympathetic when playing with his mice or bowling blindfolded, he seems truly self-loathing and uncomfortable in his own skin, while at the same time, putting on an appropriate air of haughtiness and superiority to his neighbors.

While the story in Monsieur Hire is nearly identical to that of Panique, Laconte and co-screenwriter Patrick DeWolf change the structure and focus just enough to set up a mystery that contains no less than three plot twists that play out in the last half hour of the film. This change in structure to the original adds a whole new dimension for the viewer and helps maintain a believable unpredictability to characters and events. Panique is much more of a traditional noir that lays its cards on the table at the outset and whose ultimate outcome is fairly certain early on. Duvivier's version does contain an ending twist that packs a punch, but Laconte's, in its underplayed, subtle way, is much more surprising and rewarding especially with no foreknowledge of either film or story.

As I've said, the theme in Panique deals much more with xenophobic paranoia than does its remake. By changing the character focus to almost exclusively Hire, Alice, her boyfriend and the detective, Laconte has nearly, but not quite, excised the original's message in favor of a more relevant, modern day theme. That theme is encapsulated in a story Hire relates to one of the prostitutes he regularly visits and concerns a supposed sweet old lady who feeds birds. The point of the story is that you can never truly know anyone and this message gets struck on again and again with each plot twist. Panique's message was very bold and brave for its time and place, and is certainly still relevant, but it just doesn't resonate near as much in our modern day culture. Monsieur Hire's theme, however, somehow managed to be prescient given the proliferation of the voyeurism, the internet, false identities and the like.

Maybe it's film purist's sacrilege to pick Laconte's remake over Duvivier's original but that was a relatively easy choice for me. Duvivier's is a great story adaptation with good acting and atmosphere but technically it's just a bit above average, even for the time, as far as cinematography, sound, wardrobe and music are concerned. LaConte's remake is near perfect in every respect with two fantastic performances by Blanc and Bonnaire, exceptional cinematography, music, sound, wardobe - in short, everything. But it's the rewriting of the story that really makes it transcendent.
As of this post, Monsieur Hire is currently available on Netflix Instant and I'd strongly recommend watching it first and "on the blind" as it can be easily spoiled just by reading the synopsis of Panique.

Final scores:
Panique 8/10
Monsieur Hire 9/10