And Then There Were None (1945)

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Aka Ten Little Indians. Are you quite sure that there’s no one else on the island? Eight people, all total strangers to each other, are invited to a small, isolated island off the coast of Devon by a Mr. and Mrs. Owen. Ferried over by a sailor called Narracott (Harry Thurston) they settle in at a mansion tended by two newly hired servants, Thomas (Richard Haydn) and Ethel Rogers (Queenie Leonard) but their hosts are absent. When the guests sit down to dinner, they notice ten figurines of Indians in a circle. Thomas Rogers puts on a record on the gramophone, from which a voice accuses them all of murder: General Sir John Mandrake (C. Aubrey Smith), of ordering his wife’s lover, a lieutenant, to his death; Emily Brent (Judith Anderson, of the death of her young nephew; Dr. Edward G. Armstrong (Walter Huston), of drunkenness which resulted in a patient dying; Prince Nikita Starloff (Mischa Auer) of killing a couple; Vera Claythorne  (June Duprez) of murdering her sister’s fiancé;  Judge Francis J. Quinncannon (Barry Fitzgerald) of being responsible for the hanging of an innocent man;Philip Lombard (Louis Hayward), of killing East African tribesmen; William H. Blore (Roland Young) of perjury, resulting in an innocent man’s death and the Rogers are accused of the death of their invalided employer … I slept very well, thank you. I have nothing on my conscience.  One of the great murder mysteries, this is a superb adaptation of one of Agatha Christie’s most ingeniously constructed novels by screenwriter Dudley Nichols permitting director René Clair to obtain marvellous performances from a well-chosen cast. Haydn is hilarious as the butler who takes to the drink when everyone suspects him. Enhanced by a witty score from Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, this is one of the most satisfying suspense films of its era. You cannot lock up the Devil

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Agatha Christie: A Life in Pictures (2004) (TVM)

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 It was such a time to be alive. You could be anything, and biology would do the rest. In 1962 an elderly Agatha Christie (Anna Massey) is attending a party at the theatre for a decade of The Mousetrap. Questions from journalists spur memories of 3 years ago when as a younger woman (Olivia Williams) attending a psychiatrist (Stephen Boxer) she is hypnotised into recalling why she disappeared four months earlier triggering a police search … Richard Curson Smith’s docudrama is based on the intriguing real-life case of the famous author’s apparent fugue state when she was located at a spa in Harrogate, having signed in under the name of the mother of her husband’s mistress. The title alludes to the means by which the doctor engages with Christie to start the story: as a young girl (Bonnie Wright) whose father’s death changes the family dynamic, particularly when her older sister marries. She has been haunted for years by a mysterious character whom she calls The Gunman and many men of her acquaintance transform into this figure when she is under stress. Her marriage to soldier Archie Christie (Raymond Coulthard) is met with disapproval by her mother, who encourages her to write. Her time nursing wounded soldiers introduces her to Belgian refugees, one of whom inspires Hercule Poirot and her first novel. She has few memories of times when she is happy, the catalysts for unhappiness make her focus on what may have occurred to prompt her flight – her discovery of her husband’s adultery with Nancy Neele, a secretary … The use of photos, pastiche photographic studios and fake home movies and newsreels gives this a patina of realism which is visually impressive. This is territory previously explored by the film Agatha and Kathleen Tynan’s book, and more recently in a faction novel by Andrew Wilson. Williams gets the lion’s share of the scenes, as a morose young woman who must confront her husband’s extra-marital liaison and his wish to end their union. Even her little daughter says it’s her mother that’s the problem. The older Christie is wiser and happier following a long marriage to a younger man, archaeologist Max Mallowan (Bertie Carvel) whose work on sites in Syria and Iraq literally takes Christie out of herself and England and also inspires some of her best books which she then produces annually. There’s a terrific scene when she comes up with the idea for The Murder of Roger Ackroyd which is the book that made her know she was good. There are some technical issues with the sound mixing (you can hardly hear Massey, and some dialogue is drowned out with incidental music) but it’s a thorough and thoughtful account of an episode that’s as mysterious as any of Christie’s novels, supplying psychology to the central character in a way that the Queen of Crime disdained.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

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I know what I like and don’t like.  When I like something, I like it enormously. When I don’t like something, I can’t abide it.  An avalanche stops the famous train the Orient Express in its tracks and one of the occupants, the very unlikable Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is murdered in his compartment. As the acclaimed detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) interrogates the passengers, his little grey cells working overtime to find the culprit, he discovers that each of them has a link with the victim … Agatha Christie’s classic novel gets another interpretation, this time adapted by Michael Green and directed by star Branagh who goes overboard with his facial decoration.  You can dream up your own cliché:  the plot runs out of steam or goes off the rails, as a remake it’s clueless (in consideration of the 1974 version directed by Sidney Lumet) and so on, but the real crime is by Branagh because he makes directing and staging choices which do not work. There are overhead shots depriving us of the detail and nuance of some performances (Hitchcock only did this when a deception was being carried out) while the 1974 version gave each of its superstarry cast a real opportunity to chew the sumptuous scenery in well thought out one-on-one scenes. Here, the interviews are cursory and underplayed with Branagh playing Poirot for laughs. The film opens on a scene in Jerusalem in which Poirot proves his detecting mettle. It’s unnecessary. It also gives him a romantic backstory. As if. Michelle Pfeiffer is a wonderfully vampy character, Judi Dench is a Princess, Penelope Cruz is a religious nut, while Daisy Ridley, Willem Defoe, Derek Jacobi, Olivia Colman and Josh Gad round out the ensemble. This feels as under-nourished as its cast. I once stood on a station platform waiting for the Reading train into London and the real Orient Express pulled up:  there was more drama peering in the windows at that glorious vehicle and its travellers in those five minutes than there is in this entire film’s running time.

Murder By Death (1976)

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Locked, from the inside. That can only mean one thing. And I don’t know what it is. Five famous literary private eyes, including Sam Diamond (Peter Falk), Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers), Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester), Milo Perrier (James Coco) and Dick and Dora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie Smith) are invited to the mysterious millionaire Lionel Twain’s (Truman Capote) castle for a dinner party despite none of them actually knowing him. There, they are told that Twain plans an unsolvable murder in the house at midnight and he will pay $1 million to the one who determines the killer. But when Twain’s blind butler, Bensonmum (Alec Guinness), dies long before the deadline, the stakes go up for the trapped sleuths and it takes a real detective to figure it out … The country house/locked room whodunnit gets a decent parody and a slew of stars indulge in high jinks and costumed fun. You may notice that certain names were altered for copyright reasons (Sam Spade, Charlie Chan, Miss Marple, Hercules Poirot, Nick and Nora et al) but otherwise the ‘satire’ from the pen of Neil Simon translates as smoothly to the screen as a whiskey down the gullet even with the famously incomprehensible ending and a one-off performance by Capote. There’s a built-in discourse on the tropes and flaws of the genre. An absurdist fun item that is now deserving of cult status with a ton of one-liners. Directed by Robert Moore.

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

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Bianchi, Doctor, has it occurred to you that there are too many clues in this room? Having concluded a case, fastidious Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) settles into what he expects will be a relaxing journey home from Istanbul via Calais aboard the Orient Express in December 1935 courtesy of the line’s director, Signor Bianchi (Martin Balsam). But when an unpopular and enigmatic American billionaire Ratchett (Richard Widmark) is murdered en route, Poirot takes up the case, and everyone on board the famous train is a suspect. The other passengers travelling on the Calais coach are: Mrs. Harriet Hubbard (Lauren Bacall), a fussy, talkative, multiple-widowed American;  Ratchett’s secretary and translator Hector McQueen (Anthony Perkins) and English manservant Beddoes (John Gielgud); elderly Russian Princess Natalia Dragomiroff (Wendy Hiller) and her German maid Hildegarde Schmidt (Rachel Roberts); Hungarian diplomat Count Rudolf Andrenyi (Michael York) and his wife Elena (Jacqueline Bisset); British Indian Army officer Col. John Arbuthnot (Sean Connery); Mary Debenham (Vanessa Redgrave), a teacher of English in Baghdad;  Greta Ohlsson (Ingrid Bergman), a timid Swedish missionary to Africa on a fund-raising trip; Italian-American car salesman Antonio Foscarelli (Denis Quilley); and Cyrus B. Hardman (Colin Blakely), an American theatrical agent;  and the conductor Pierre Paul Michel (Jean-Pierre Cassel).  Using an avalanche in Yugoslavia blocking the tracks to his advantage, Poirot gradually realizes that many of the passengers have revenge as a motive, and he begins to home in on the culprit as he discovers that everyone aboard is in some way connected with the kidnapping of a little girl which resulted in several deaths … Colourful, energetic pastiche of old train movies, the most surprising aspect of this is that the venerable street-savvy Sidney Lumet directed it.  Heading up the extraordinarily starry cast is Finney who is unrecognisable and plays the man with all those little grey cells to the manner born, achieving a brilliant comedic affect.  With all those famous actors it’s interesting to note how they use ‘business’ to get attention and the cunning score by Richard Rodney Bennett gives them each their own signature (guess what Perkins’ sounds like!) enlivening their vignettes.  There are no surprises in Paul Dehn’s screenplay and the dénouement when Poirot takes us through the murder is very satisfying even while most of the cast must keep quiet as Finney gives his masterclass.  Interesting to note all but two of them got a flat fee of $100,000 barring Finney (who has the lion’s share of the acting) and Connery who was big enough to garner points. Apparently life on the set was better for the actors than the crew, who were subjected to Redgrave’s lunchtime political lectures – the cast got to hear Gielgud’s theatrical anecdotes instead. It was one of just two Agatha Christie plots which the Queen of Crime based on real events. Great fun.

Death on the Nile (1978)

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La grande ambition des femmes est d’inspirer l’amour. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot gets to flex his little grey cells on a luxury cruise through Egypt that is filled with eccentrics, madwomen and murderers.  Peter Ustinov plays the beloved Belgian for the first time in this plush, epic adaptation by Anthony Shaffer which is as much black comedy as murder mystery. Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles) is the heiress who steals Simon Doyle (Simon McCorkindale) from her best friend Jackie (Mia Farrow) and the jilted one turns up on their honeymoon everywhere they stop – including Egypt. Poirot meets up with Colonel Race (David Niven) and a right motley crew of passengers on a paddle steamer tour, including a drunken romance writer Salome Otterbourne (Angela Lansbury) with her long-suffering daughter Rosalie (Olivia Hussey); kleptomaniac socialite Marie von Schuyloer  (Bette Davis, in Baby Jane eyeliner) and her decidedly masculine assistant and travelling companion Miss Bowers (Maggie Smith); Linnet’s greedy lawyer Andrew Pennington (George Kennedy); Linnet’s decidedly frisky French maid Louise Bourget (Jane Birkin). Turns out everyone on board had a good reason for killing Linnet. There’s also Jon Finch, Jack Warden and Sam Wanamaker for good measure. While we see Aswan, the Pyramids, Karnak and the Sphinx, we enjoy the trials and tribulations as these people knock up against each other and what unspools when Linnet is eventually murdered. Seeing Lansbury strongarm Niven into a dance is a particular delight. This is a great cast playing with evident relish. Gorgeously costumed by Anthony Powell, beautifully lit and shot by Jack Cardiff,  typically well scored by Nino Rota and handled with pace and humour by director John Guillermin, this is a leisurely and colourful Sunday afternoon treat.

Murder Ahoy! (1964)

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The final of the four Miss Marple film series starring the legendary Margaret Rutherford as a most unlikely Agatha Christie heroine – but who wants anyone else in the role?! This is only vaguely Christie, with a superficial reminder of one plot component in They Do It With Mirrors – a bunch of teenage tearaways supposedly being rehabilitated in an institution but actually being trained in burglary. Here they’re on a former naval ship run by a charitable trust.  When one of her fellow trustees is murdered, Marple infiltrates the boat … and a whole slew of deaths follows! Great fun, with the usual gang – Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell is back as Chief Inspector Craddock, Stringer Davies (Rutherford’s real life husband) returns as Marple’s fellow sleuth and there’s Lionel Jeffries in a  highly amusing performance as Captain Rhumstone.  Derek Nimmo, Miles Malleson and Nicholas Parsons bring up the considerable rear. Directed by George Pollock from a screenplay by David Pursall and Jack Seddon. Word up for the amazing poster design by Tom Jung and that fabulous jaunty signature tune by Ron Goodwin.

The Mirror Crack’d (1980)

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Oh joy! An Agatha Christie murder mystery set in the 1950s on location in England with … four of the era’s real-life stars in the leading roles! What a brilliant idea, at least. Elizabeth Taylor re-enacts a story Christie knew about Gene Tierney who was embraced by a fan at the Hollywood Canteen while Tierney was pregnant with her first child by husband Oleg Cassini. The fan had left quarantine where she was languishing with German measles. Tragically, Tierney’s daughter was born blind and deaf and severely retarded as a result of the woman’s selfishness. Christie took the idea and ran with it, bringing movie star Marina Rudd on location to film the story of the sisters Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots with old rival Lola Brewster (Kim Novak) a production being directed by her husband Jason (Rock Hudson) and produced by Lola’s husband Marty (Tony Curtis). This was Taylor and Hudson’s second film together twenty-five years after the epoch-defining Giant. A chance meeting at the launch party brings Marina into contact with the woman who she now realises had infected her at a theatre during WW2 and the woman is murdered then anonymous letters start arriving … Jonathan Hales and Barry Sandler adapted the novel, John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin produced and Guy Hamilton directed, with Angela Lansbury playing Miss Marple in what proved to be an audition for Murder, She Wrote. She is accompanied by her nephew at Scotland Yard Dermot Craddock (Edward Fox):  there’s a top-notch cast list with Pierce Brosnan to be spotted in a small role. And when was the last time you saw Anthony Steel?!  This isn’t the tense mystery that it should be, but it provides vast pleasures for those of us consumed with Hollywood in all its iterations. The cinematography by the great Christopher Challis doesn’t hurt but the final shot of the fabulous Ms Taylor is deeply unflattering and should have been rethought (Natalie Wood had been the first choice for the role).  On the other hand, there are close shots of her eyes that are not in any of her other films – and they are legendary!

Ten Little Indians (1974)

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Everyone knows the story of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Niggers, one of the most perfectly constructed of her mysteries and brought to the screen with the title And Then There Were None, by Rene Clair in 1945. It’s a classic. It was made again in the Sixites, set in an Alpine chalet. I didn’t much like the recent BBC mini-series which gave it a realistic colour scheme and took it very seriously which really isn’t the point, despite the casting (Aidan Turner, amongst others). It’s a rather nicely judged narrative experiment in human behaviour and as such has something of a scientific bent:  so this interpretation, which plays and looks like Antonioni took a hold of it, is a graphic and visual delight, all angles and space. It’s set in an Iranian hotel, the Shah Abbas, and  has a totally modernist scheme at odds with the historic location, which just enhances the concept. The cast of ten includes Richard Attenborough, Stephane Audran, Charles Aznavour, Adolfo Celi, Gert Frobe, Herbert Lom, Oliver Reed and Elke Sommer with a certain Orson Welles playing a rather cool cameo. Written and produced by Harry Alan Towers, who also made the 1965 version (with an uncredited contribution by Enrique Llovet) and directed by Peter Collinson.

Agatha (1979)

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In 1978 writer and notorious drama critic Kenneth Tynan’s wife Kathleen devised a speculative account of crime writer Agatha Christie’s mysterious 11-day disappearance in 1926. It was initially proposed as a documentary for the BBC.  Christie had died shortly beforehand and her representatives tried to get it stopped. This elegant and suspenseful big-screen account is daubed in an autumnal palette shot by Vittorio Storaro and effectively contained by Michael Apted.  Tynan’s story is a pastiche of Christie tropes in a screenplay she co-wrote with Arthur Hopcraft (and her novel came out to chime with the film’s release). Vanessa Redgrave is simply luminous as the shy, introverted writing genius whose husband Archie (Timothy Dalton, Redgrave’s real-life long-term boyfriend) has confronted her about his affair with a woman in his office and his desire to get a divorce in order to marry the other woman. Agatha takes off and arrives in Harrogate, the destination spa town where his mistress is heading with her aunt, in order to plan a ghastly revenge. All of Britain is searching for her. The police don’t like her husband’s reaction and suspect him of murder. In a story where practically everyone is pretending to be someone else, the only occasional downside is the effect of Dustin Hoffman’s pantomime as (fictional) US journalist Wally Stanton, obsessed with tracking down the world-famous woman who had just published The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Perhaps that’s what they call star power. This lies somewhere between mystery and romance, biography and faction. Christie notoriously refused to address this episode in her autobiography and it was officially attributed to amnaesia. We shall never really know. Now that’s REAL star power.