Directed by Rene Clair, and based on one of Agatha Christie's most famous whodunnits, 'And Then There Were None' was a huge hit in its day, and continues to enthral audiences with its masterful construction, and wicked sense of humour.
Eight strangers arrive on Indian Island, a small rock off the coast of Devon, to spend the weekend at the invitation of Mr and Mrs Owen. Upon arrival, they find their hosts absent, but are made welcome by two hired servants. Immediately, cracks begin to show in the group.
General Sir John Mandrake (C. Aubrey Smith), is still mourning the loss of his wife, and seems far removed from normal sanity, often drifting into long periods of silence and reflection. Emily Brent (Judith Anderson) is content to knit and eye her fellow guests with glances infused with malice and suspicion. Dr Armstrong (Walter Huston) has a smile that seems to fade when eyes are not upon him. Prince Nikita Starloff (Mischa Auer) is a crass, boisterous drunk, who immediately makes himself at home, admitting that he has been invited as a "professional guest". Vera Claythorne (June Duprez) can sense that things aren't as they should be, and closes her defences. Judge Quincannon (Barry Fitzgerald) has a nasty habit of pointing out the oddities in the house. Phillip Lombard (Louis Hayward) is all smiles, but why does his luggage carry the monogram "C. M."? Blore (Roland Young) refuses to engage with the group at all, preferring to silently stick to the corners of rooms, and the edges of doorways. Even the servants, Thomas and Ethel Rogers (Richard Haydn and Queenie Leonard) seem to be overly nervous.
The group soon discover that no-one has ever actually met Mr or Mrs Owen, receiving their invitations in a variety of odd ways. With dinner over, Thomas follows written instructions left for him when he arrived on the island, and puts a record on the gramophone. The voice that plays is that of their host, accusing them all of committing murder at certain times in their lives, and escaping justice.
What follows is a masterclass of mystery, with each guest meeting a curious death, until the remaining survivors begin to realise that Mr Owen is in fact one of them, and intent on dealing punishment for their past crimes.
Although it strays wildly from the book towards the end, the movie does stick remarkably closely up till then. It could hardly have done otherwise. After all, the book is the best selling mystery of all time, with sales of over 100 million copies, so its fan-club is all-pervasive. But whereas the book ends on a sombre, macabre note, the film does inject a little bright hope into its climax, and even a little romance. Although fans of the book often complain of the movie's conclusion, it is worth noting that it's based on the stage adaptation, written by Dame Agatha herself, and that she saw the new take as her best piece of craftsmanship.
The movie is also wonderfully mischievous, with the feet of a corpse sticking up out of a bush, or the sight of four characters all spying on each other through keyholes and around corners. Rene Clair's direction is magnificent in these scenes, with a couple of dazzlingly inventive touches such as his keyhole-cam, and the "confessional" device, where each remaining survivor tells their story to you, the viewer.
The cast are exceptional. It's difficult to believe that this many genuine stars agreed to appear together in one film, but that's the power of Agatha Christie, one supposes. The casts of her film adaptations have always been glittering affairs, and this is certainly no exception, from Roland Young's cunning Blore, and Walter Huston's devious Dr Armstrong, to Judith Anderson's aloof, cold-hearted Emily Brent. Barry Fitzgerald's Judge is an amiable guide for the audience, but there are tricks up his sleeve, as well as the hidden agendas of both June Duprez and Louis Hayward. Even the minor role of Thomas is given full, hilarious due by Richard Haydn, who plays the sozzled, axe-waving man-servant consigned to the woodshed, with rollicking glee.
Give yourself over to it, and marvel at the water-tight plot, with its first-rate construct crowned by a breathtaking solution that'll be as perplexing to solve to seasoned mystery-hounds, as it will be to the casual puzzle fan.
Alternatively, simply enjoy it for the performances given by a collection of some of the finest faces that ever lit up a screen. Whatever your reasons for seeking it out, 'And Then There Were None' is movie magic, and I'm devastatingly jealous of anyone seeing it for the first time...