And Then There Were None (Russian version)

Agatha Christie’s murder mystery “And Then There Were None” was the mother of all murder stories. Published in the late 1930’s, it is apparently one of the 10 best-selling novels in history (over 100 million copies sold). According to wikipedia, the novel has been adapted to film at least six times.

Out of all of them, none of them keep the original ending. In the novel, no one is left at the end (as one should expect from a book called “And Then There Were None”.) Yet every movie version saves two characters, the male and female leads, so they can live happily ever after.

Ten passengers set sail that day, for a three-hour tour...

Ten passengers set sail that day, for a three-hour tour…

…Except this one! The Russian cult movie “Desyat Negrityat” (Десять негритят) keeps almost every detail true to the book. Even the title in Russian is the same as the books original title (which was done away with years ago because it rhymed with ‘diggers’, if you know what I mean…)

Racist knick-knacks. Hey, don't throw them out! These things are collector's items!

Racist knick-knacks. Hey, don’t throw them out! These things are collector’s items!

If you don’t know the story already, It’s pretty straightforward:

1: Ten people are invited to an island.

2: The man who invited them is really a mad man who plans to kill them all one by one.

3: Why, you ask? Because each of the guests has committed a murder and gotten away with it.

4: The killer is pretending to be one of the guests, but they don’t know which one.

5: As bodies start to pile up, the characters try to unmask the killer while confronting their own dark pasts.

one down, nine to go...

one down, nine to go…

What makes the story so vicious is the fact that all the guests are killers already. Most of them had justification and make excuses for themselves, but in a twisted way they all deserve to be there. In this sort of story, everyone plays innocent; the question asked is “who could do such a thing??” But here, the better question is who wouldn‘t do such a thing? All of the men, at least, act hard-edged and capable of anything. The male lead, Philip Lombard, could be the poster child for Serial Killers Anonymous. The only reason we can trust him is because if he were the killer, it would be too obvious.

I wanted to post a picture of Lombard smiling, but it was too scary.

“Hello, my name is Lombard and I’m a serial killer.”… “Hi, Lombard!”

The Russian version gets just about every detail right. They chose the moodiest, loneliest island they could find. The ten suspect/victims are memorable and there’s not a weak actor in the bunch. Alexander Kaidanovsky is perfect as the disturbed misanthrope Philip Lombard. He could have easily played Quasimodo. And Tatyana Drubich, as the deceptively sweet murderess Vera Claythorn, has never looked more beautiful.

The lovely miss Vera.

The lovely miss Claythorn.

Most Russian movies were ‘low budget’ by American standards, and this one is even low budget for Russian standards. There are lots of editing errors I could mention. The mansion in question is slightly bigger on the inside then it is on the outside. The sound-dubbing isn’t smooth, so sometimes a voice of another character in the room will sound like it was spoken in another room with different acoustics. The music is good but they don’t have enough of it, so they reuse the same tracks. I’ll swear the same dramatic riff gets played three times in the first twenty minutes.

Hey, a gun! Gee, I wonder if it'll go off in the final act...

Hey, a gun! Gee, I wonder if it’ll go off in the final act…

The film tells a serious story using techniques which modern audiences don’t take seriously. For example, dramatic orchestral music blares whenever something remotely surprising happens. Flashbacks are shot in black-and-white. It reminds me of certain 1940’s Film Noir movies. Not the gritty, realistic ones that took place in the city. I mean the more baroque ones like The Spiral Staircase and Rebecca.

Some truly odd stuff happens when a Russian cinematographer tries to do Film Noir.

Some truly odd stuff happens when a Russian cinematographer likes Film Noir.

But the reason this movie succeeds is that it’s cynical enough to go through with its theme. The previous versions got the style and cleverness of the book (with varying degrees of success), but not the spirit. This is really a movie about murder and the psychology of the people about to be murdered. There’s a great scene where the oldest character explains the relief he feels, knowing that he’s about to die.

The old man is coincidentally named "General Macarthur". "Mister Rogers" is also among the first to be killed.

The old man is coincidentally named “General MacArthur”. “Mister Rogers” is also among the first to be killed.

The characters form pretend alliances with one another, but they’re really all cold-blooded. No one cares about anyone but themselves. Vera and Lombard’s relationship is wonderfully messed-up. It’s mutually destructive and completely unromantic, But it’s also honest and well-suited to the story. And I care a lot more for these bastards then most movie characters, who are born in a conference room, stream-lined and tailored to be liked by the highest percentage of people. How would mainstream audiences react to the tormented, borderline rapist Lombard? I shudder to think…

The Russians had speedboats in the 1930's, apparently...

The Russians had speedboats in the 1930’s, apparently…

CONCLUSION:

Looking through the half-dozen attempts to adapt Agatha Christie’s novel, you’ll see some big names… Christopher Lee, Walter Huston, Orson Welles, Rene Clair. For sure, big talents and big money have been spent making these movies.

But out of all of them, the one that succeeds is the one with the least money and the most technical errors. This movie showed me just how irrelevant refinement is in great art. We praise too many movies for being mechanically perfect: If the music plays at the right moment, if the camerawork is slick and modern. Here’s a movie that can’t afford perfection, but it does everything perfectly when it matters: It takes its subject seriously, and its characters seriously. Every time I watch it, I notice its good qualities more, and its mistakes less.

Screen shot 2013-01-30 at 5.39.48 PM

EPISODE PREVIEW

As World War II drew to a close, one famous funny man saw very little to laugh about. The great Charlie Chaplin will confront a world gone mad. Not as the little tramp, but as a cold-blooded murderer…

“REBORN BENEATH ANOTHER MOUSTACHE”

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3 Responses to “And Then There Were None (Russian version)”

    • It’s a surepb adaptation!
      I think that it would be appropriate to mention Stanislav Govorukhin, film director…

      Honestly, I don’t see any problems with the soundtrack or camera work in this movie. The only problem, I think, it is a poor visual coopy that wide-spread in Internet. I’d like to hope that some digital mastered company will restore the original tape.

      Alexander S.
      Russia
      Ekaterinburg, Ural

      • Thanks, and you got me there! I like the director, and really should have mentioned him.

        The reason I didn’t is because his work is so hard to find with English subtitles. (I’ve only seen what is available, although I’m learning Russian so that I can remedy this.)

        …but I thought, “what’s the use of recommending a director who most of the readers can’t watch?” really regret it now.

        I’m considering making a post for his “the Meeting Place Cannot be Changed”, though. That’s for another day…

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