Monday, June 26, 2017

Retro Review: TEN LITTLE INDIANS (1974)

(Italy/West Germany/France/Spain - 1974)

Directed by Peter Collinson. Written by Peter Welbeck (Harry Alan Towers). Cast: Oliver Reed, Elke Sommer, Richard Attenborough, Charles Aznavour, Stephane Audran, Gert Frobe, Herbert Lom, Maria Rohm, Adolfo Celi, Alberto de Mendoza, voice of Orson Welles. (PG, 98 mins)

The second of three Harry Alan Towers adaptations of both Agatha Christie's 1939 novel And Then There Were None and her subsequent 1943 stage version, 1974's TEN LITTLE INDIANS has just resurfaced after decades of obscurity courtesy of Scorpion Releasing, and it's one of the more pleasantly surprising Blu-ray resurrections of the year. Like the 1965 and 1989 versions also produced by Towers, TLI '74 jettisons the bleak ending of Christie's novel in favor of the more relatively crowd-pleasing finale, and features an all-star cast of familiar faces being picked off one by one at an isolated location after a mysterious, unseen figure calling himself "U.N. Owen" (voiced here by Orson Welles) gathers them together and accuses each of a past crime they've successfully buried until now. The 1965 version, written by Towers under his screenwriting pseudonym "Peter Welbeck," was a box office success and Towers decided to remake it using the same script in 1974 after Paramount announced Sidney Lumet's glossy, star-powered MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, which gathered an amazing group of stars in support of Albert Finney as legendary detective Hercule Poirot. In response, Towers, one of the masters of the international co-production (TLI '74 was a deal brokered with Italian, German, French, and Spanish production companies), assembled a roster of the biggest names he could buy (and his wife Maria Rohm) in a cast headed by Oliver Reed and Elke Sommer that also boasted two iconic former Bond villains (GOLDFINGER's Gert Frobe and THUNDERBALL's Adolfo Celi), and beat ORIENT EXPRESS to European screens by two months in September 1974. As was the case with productions involving so many different countries, variant versions with were prepared for each market, with the Spanish version adding a prologue showing the characters at the airport as well as a subplot featuring Spanish actress Teresa Gimpera and Italian actor Rik Battaglia. The prologue as well as the subplot were cut from Avco Embassy's belated US release in April 1975 (the version on the Scorpion Blu-ray), though Gimpera and Battaglia inexplicably remain listed in the opening credits.

Towers (1920-2009) was known as an exploitation huckster and there's certainly no disputing that reputation, especially in the late '80 when he partnered with Cannon and produced a slew of films in apartheid-era South Africa for Golan-Globus and others (including the 1989 TEN LITTLE INDIANS as well as several late '80s B-movies with Reed, including SKELETON COAST, DRAGONARD, GOR, CAPTIVE RAGE, and THE HOUSE OF USHER). He later allied himself with some shady investors from the Russian mob on a pair of dire, simultaneously-shot Harry Palmer throwback thrillers (1995's BULLET TO BEIJING and 1996's MIDNIGHT IN ST. PETERSBURG) that left star Michael Caine in such a depressed state that he was seriously ready to give up acting altogether. In an amusing Towers anecdote recounted in his second memoir One Lucky Bastard, Roger Moore tells of frequent Towers star Herbert Lom (who's in both the 1974 and 1989 versions of TEN LITTLE INDIANS) declining an offer to appear in the two Russia-lensed Harry Palmer movies with Caine. According to Moore, Lom said Towers tried to woo him with the promise of an "exciting" chance to film in areas where no film crews had gone before. Towers was evasive about the exact location and Lom, probably knowing Towers all too well, kept pressing him and had to repeatedly ask "Well, where is it?" before Towers finally, hesitantly replied "Um...Chernobyl." In the early 2000s, in the profitable world of DTV, Towers was one of the first producers to set up shop in Eastern Europe and exploit the cost-cutting advantages of shooting in Romania and Bulgaria, practices that are still used to this day and provide homes-away-from-home for the likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme, Scott Adkins, and former movie star Steven Seagal.

Despite his well-documented penchant for ruses and chicanery, Tower$ had a knack for drawing big names to dubious projects and his 1967-1970 partnership with Jess Franco yielded some of the cult Spanish director's most ambitious and professional-looking work (1969's JUSTINE and VENUS IN FURS and 1970's COUNT DRACULA and THE BLOODY JUDGE being the standouts). Towers was capable of backing some fairly lavish, respectable productions like 1965's THE FACE OF FU MANCHU and its first two sequels and the 1965 version of TEN LITTLE INDIANS, directed by longtime David Lean assistant George Pollock, has an air of class to it, with a fine cast headed by Hugh O'Brian and doomed GOLDFINGER Bond girl Shirley Eaton, and Christopher Lee providing the voice of U.N. Owen. There's also a classier-than-usual--for Towers--aura surrounding the 1974 TEN LITTLE INDIANS as well. Directed by British filmmaker Peter Collinson (THE ITALIAN JOB, OPEN SEASON), TLI '74 benefits greatly from Towers' securing one of the most unusual and striking locations he could find: the Shah Abbas Hotel in Isfahan, Iran, just a few years prior to the Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution against the Shah. An isolated location is key to any adaptation of And Then There Were None, but the Shah Abbas (now known as the Abbasi Hotel, and not exactly located in the middle of nowhere; the desolate exteriors around the hotel were actually shot in the desert of Almeria, Spain, showcased prominently in many a spaghetti western), a luxury hotel built over 300 years ago, becomes a character itself as Collinson has the camera prowl the ornate and seemingly endless hallways and expansive lobbies and lounge areas and one of the most memorable movie staircases you'll ever see. It's almost like a Middle East Overlook Hotel (the cast and crew actually stayed at the Shah Abbas as the production more or less took over the hotel for the shoot), and while it frequently comes close to achieving that same feeling of tension and isolation in THE SHINING, it could've been even better had Garrett Brown's Steadicam been available in 1974.

A shot of the staircase from the film

A recent photo of the staircase from the Abbasi Hotel web site

Stylistically, TLI '74 is very much a product of its time, with Collinson staging the murders in a very giallo-style fashion, often taking full advantage of every bit of the widescreen frame. Two murders in particular--Elsa (Rohm) and General Salve (Celi)--are staged with an almost Dario Argento-like, logic-be-damned panache, with Salve's even foreshadowing the brutal stabbing death presented by Argento as a shadow on the wall in the opening scene of the following year's DEEP RED. Indeed, if Argento or Sergio Martino ever made a 1970s Agatha Christie adaptation, it would probably look a lot like what Collinson accomplished with TEN LITTLE INDIANS. The story yields little surprises if you've seen any other of Towers' takes on the project or Rene Clair's 1945 classic AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, but TLI '74 stands out with its stylish murders, a persistent, throbbing score by longtime Ennio Morricone associate Bruno Nicolai, and the visually stunning Shah Abbas Hotel, an expansive location that gives its ten victims nowhere to hide, yet still feels claustrophobic amidst its vastness. Even if you're familiar with the story, this well-crafted take on TEN LITTLE INDIANS is beautifully shot by cinematographer Fernando Arribas (DEATH WALKS AT MIDNIGHT, DEATH WALKS ON HIGH HEELS, COMIN' AT YA) and is a neglected and forgotten gem that's worthy of rediscovery. If you're intrigued by the idea of Agatha Christie gone giallo, you'll find this to be the best and most interesting version of Towers' three takes on the story.

A recent photo of the Abbasi Hotel lobby

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