The Agatha Christie novel And Then There Were None was simultaneously one of my best and worst reading experiences of all time. I was thirteen and it was my first murder mystery—I had purchased it through my school’s book order, if I remember right. I settled in to read it before bed and ended up staying awake until 2 a.m. so I could finish it, completely out of my mind with terror. It was such an unnerving experience that I didn’t go near a murder mystery again for a couple of years. The premise is uniquely effective: ten people arrive at a mysterious house on a deserted island, and one by one they begin dying off. Now that it’s been twenty-plus years and I have somewhat recovered my wits since that night in seventh grade, I couldn’t wait to see how René Clair’s adaptation of this pivotal (for me) novel capitalizes on the book’s structure.
The film’s suspense has two threads: first and most obviously, who will be the last man (or woman) standing; and second, what do these ten people have in common? The second question gets answered, at least partially, by a record the butler (Richard Haydn) has been instructed to play on everyone’s arrival. It accuses each person present, including the butler and his wife, of a murder or murders they haven’t been punished for. There’s a doctor (Walter Huston) who operated while under the influence, a judge (Barry Fitzgerald) who sentenced an innocent man to death, an elderly woman (Judith Anderson, better known as Mrs. Danvers from Hitchcock’s excellent adaptation of Rebecca) who sent her nephew to a reformatory in which he later died—all crimes the law, as Judge Quinncannon puts it, “cannot touch.” The record was made by their mysterious host, a Mr. U. N. Owen (get it? Unknown?), whom none of the ten has ever met. The first two deaths are uneasily written off as accidents, but by the third—in which the victim gets stabbed in the back—the party realizes the deaths are all murders and that Mr. Owen must be among them.
The film employs a simple but exceedingly creepy visual trope that I love: on the dining room table is a circle of ten ceramic figurines, little boys in politically incorrect “Indian” headdresses. For each death, another figurine gets broken off from its base and shattered, but we never see this happen. Often the remaining characters find the figurine broken before they’re aware anything is wrong; as the tension ratchets up toward the end, sometimes the camera just pans down as the characters pass by, showing us that yet another figurine is missing. What’s great about this device is that it helps create suspense in a story that theoretically shouldn’t have much: the nursery rhyme lays out pretty clearly how each murder is going to happen, so the idea of waiting around for the next victim to drop dead doesn’t sound very interesting. The characters seem to be alone on the island—but are they really? After all, they keep getting killed off, and the remaining characters only get more desperate and agitated. At one point, the doctor reassures someone else that there’s nothing “supernatural” going on, and you wonder if maybe he’s wrong, if a ghost isn’t the most likely explanation after all.
Without spoiling anything for those of you who haven’t read or seen And Then There Were None (the surprise at the end really is worth preserving), the film grapples with the difference between murder and accidents in a surprisingly sophisticated way for a “popcorn” movie. Is there a difference between getting drunk and running over a pedestrian, and killing an enemy during combat? Our current judicial system recognizes these differences and many others, of course, but it’s far from perfect. “Mr. Owen,” whoever he or she is, has one goal: to mete out punishment to those who have so far escaped it, not unlike Dexter (from the eponymous TV series). But while Dexter is a hero we root for, here we sympathize with Mr. Owen’s victims. Maybe it’s because we’re spending time with them instead of with their killer, or maybe we still don’t approve of people taking the law into their own hands, even when it makes logical sense to do so—even when they are ostensibly doing something good by ridding the world of a handful of murderers.
The trope of the group of strangers gathered at a lonely estate and confronted with their past crimes is such a staple of murder mystery films that it moved into parody territory before many of us were born. If you, like me, grew up on movies like Clue and Murder By Death but never saw And Then There Were None, it’s fun to go back and experience the full terror of this premise, undiluted by the parodies that came later.