Remember the 1985 comedy-mystery film Clue? Based on the classic board game, the movie perfectly captured the mystery films that were made during the golden age of Hollywood. Unfortunately, Clue ended up being a commercial failure and the 80s pretty much saw the end of the classic whodunit mystery genre. I say all this because And Then There Were None is the patriarch of the whodunit movie and helped establish the rules of the genre for which Clue is indebted.

And Then There Were None is based on an Agatha Christie novel of the same name. Its about a group of 8 individuals who have been invited by a mysterious man they do not know to a mansion on a secluded island for the weekend. None of these people know each other, but they all share 1 thing in common: they have all been accused of committing a murder. They soon discover that they have been brought to the mansion to die one by one for their crimes.

The film was directed by Rene Clair, who is widely regarded as one of France’s greatest filmmakers. Clair escaped France during World War II and came to the U.S. where he continued to direct movies, including And Then There Were None. He was best known for a controversial film he made called A Nous la Liberte, which I urge all of you to see. Clair does a wonderful job in creating the proper atmosphere for And Then There Were None. The island is a rocky, cold sort of place and it contains no people or buildings other than the lone mansion. The inside of the mansion is fancy, but not too fancy. You can tell no one permanently lives in the house, which adds to grimness of the characters’ situation. Of course, no mystery movie is a true mystery without a rainstorm and Claire dutifully provides this.

A nice aspect of And Then There Were None is Claire’s use of dark comedy and his breaking the 4th wall with the audience. Most of the mystery films of this time period were heavy-handed, dark, and somber narratives that treated the subject matter as seriously as their characters approached the solving of the story’s murder. Here, however, Clair infuses the story with a welcome dose of dark comedy. Despite their deadly predicament, the characters make light of their situation, which results in some great dialogue and one-liners. Another nice and rarely seen innovation Claire uses is having his characters break the 4th wall with the audience. There are moments in the film where the characters will speak directly to the audience, most notably in a scene where the characters admit to us what their crime is. This was an innovative and effective technique that helps the audience feel more involved in the movie. You rarely see this in movies, but its pretty cool when you do.

The success of And Then There Were None or any mystery film of this kind depends largely on the strength of the characters. If the characters are boring, cardboard figures, you won’t be able to get past 5 minutes of watching a film like this. The characters here are richly drawn and engaging. True, they fit all the stereotypical character types (the general, the detective, the doctor, the judge, the butler, etc.) you see in these kinds of films, but each is developed enough to be engaging and to hold your interest throughout. It also helps that the film was perfectly cast with an amazing group of actors.

All the actors in this film are fun to watch, especially Walter Huston (Angelica Huston’s grandfather) and Barry Fitzgerald. Huston plays the alcoholic doctor who once killed a patient while performing surgery on him drunk. Fitzgerald plays the judge, who if I remember correctly sent an innocent man to prison. The two actors play off each other beautifully as one suspects the other of being the mysterious and unknown person who is killing everyone off. Huston The two characters end up sort of running the show in trying to find the killer’s identity. I particularly enjoyed the reasoning they employ to figure out their killer. Unlike many thrillers today, the characters here actually use sound logic and tactics to solve the mystery. Half the fun of watching this film is watching these characters try to figure everything out.

The film is not without its problems. The reveal at the ending smacks a bit of Scooby Doo and I was expecting something different. Then again, the book and the film came out way before there was a Scooby Doo so I guess you can say that it helped set the standard for Scooby Doo. I was also disappointed in how underdeveloped the women characters were in the film. One barely says anything and spends all her time knitting. The other plays the typical pretty girl who needs protection by the men. It was typical of the times to have women relegated to weaker roles and you certainly see that here.

And Then There Were None is a smart film that will keep you guessing to the very end (unless you happen to be smarter than I am and can figure out the identity of the killer before then). Its a film I recommend watching on a rainy night with a group of friends. The film has entered the public domain so there are multiple versions of the movie on DVD. If you’re going to buy it, make sure you double check you’re getting the best transfer as the quality of the transfers may vary.

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