• Agatha Christie Movie Collection, The



    Released by: Umbrella Entertainment
    Released on: January 2, 2017
    Directed by: Billy Wilder/George Pollock/Michael Winner
    Cast: Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Elsa Lanchester, John Williams, Henry Daniell, Ian Wolfe, Una O’Connor/Shirley Eaton, Hugh O’Brien, Stanley Holloway, Dennis Price, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Daliah Lavi, Leo Genn, Fabian, Christopher Lee/Peter Ustinov, Piper Laurie, Lauren Bacall, John Gielgud, Carrie Fisher, Hayley Mills, Jenny Seagrove, David Soul
    Year: 1957/1965/1988

    The Movies:

    Witness for the Prosecution: When Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) is charged with murder, Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton), believing him to be innocent, takes his case, despite the fact that Robarts has been advised to avoid difficult jobs because of his poor health. Making matters worse is the evidence against Vole: The woman (Norma Verden) he murdered had an obsession with him but willed everything to him; and his wife, Christine (Marlene Dietrich), testifies that he admitted his guilt to her (she is the witness for the prosecution to whom the title refers). But letters provided by a mysterious woman reveal that Christine was having an affair and thus had a reason to lie under oath. The jury finds Vole not guilty, but Robarts begins to have niggling doubts, which soon prove warranted when Christine reveals the truth about her testimony, the letters, and what really happened.

    Ten Little Indians: Ten people are invited by the mysterious Mr. U.N. Owen—whom none of them have met—to spend the weekend in an old mansion in the snowy mountains. They accept but find the placed decked out in a “Ten Little Indians” motif. After dinner on their first night, the head butler, Grohmann (Mario Adorf), plays a tape recording for them; the voice (Christopher Lee) on the recording announces that each of the ten guests has been involved in the death of an innocent person. Not long thereafter, the guests begin to die off in weird ways. Michael Raven (Fabian) chokes on his coffee, the cook (Marianne Hoppe) is killed when she tries to escape in a cable tram, General Mandrake (Leo Genn) is stabbed to death, the butler plunges to his death while trying to escape, and so on. It is soon determined that the guests are being murdered in the same way as the Indians in the nursery rhyme. To make matters worse, the mansion’s power is cut off, there’s no safe way down to the village below, and the guests begin to suspect that one of them is Mr. Owen, leading to suspicion and paranoia. Cabals can’t save them, and more guests are murdered by lethal inject, gunshots, and falling statues.

    Appointment with Death: Emily Boynton (Piper Laurie) is not your typical domineering mother; a former prison warden, she’s so much worse. After the death of her husband, she fears her waning power over her three stepchildren, Carol (Valerie Richards), Lennox (Nicholas Guest), and Raymond (John Terlesky), as well as her daughter Ginevra (Amber Bezer). As a result, she blackmails her husband’s lawyer (David Soul) into destroying her late husband’s last will and testament, thus ensuring that everyone remains firmly in her power. Afterward, she takes everyone on a tour of Jerusalem to visit the Holy Lands. While on the tour, Raymond meets and falls in love with Dr. Sarah King (Jenny Seagrove), who happens to be friends with famous Belgian investigator Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov). So when loud-mouthed Emily is finally murdered (you just knew it was coming, right?), the person in charge of the case, Colonel Cadbury (John Gielgud), asks for Poirot’s assistance. Of course, family members aren’t the only suspects: there’s Nadine Boynton (Carrie Fisher), who happens to be the daughter-in-law; Miss Quinton (Hayley Mills), the archaeologist in charge of a dig at a holy site; Lady Westholme (Lauren Bacall), an American obsessed with the English; and a host of others.

    Background: Agatha Christie’s career as a successful novelist began with the publication of her first Hercule Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in 1920. She followed it up with one popular novel after another, resulting in her being widely considered today the most successful novelist of all time, with her 1939 book And Then There Were None her best-selling effort, behind only the Bible and the works of Shakespeare in numbers of copies in print. The book was first published in Great Britain in 1939 as Ten Little Niggers, a title too hot to handle in the United States, where the "blackface" song on which it was predicated was replaced by the nursery rhyme “Ten Little Indians.” The book itself was retitled after that rhyme’s famous last line, “And then there were none.” It’s certainly a more suitable title, given the nature of the mystery, and one that has stuck for obvious reasons (though the book has also seen print as Ten Little Indians, also now considered politically incorrect). The first film adaptation came in 1945 and was titled And Then There Were None. Directed by French cineaste René Clair, it is considered the classic version of the tale and was relatively faithful, with most of its changes made to meet strict censorship standards in the United States. A television version followed in 1959, but the next theatrical adaptation didn’t come until 1965. That film takes many liberties with the source material, even changing many of the character names. Unlike past adaptations, murders take place on screen, and there’s an added puerile element, thanks to producer Harry Alan Towers. George Pollock’s direction is mostly pedestrian, with only an occasional flourish of creativity, but the actors acquit themselves well, particularly Shirley Eaton in the lead female role of Ann Clyde, Hugh O’Brien, Stanley Holloway, Dennis Price, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Daliah Lavi, Leo Genn, Fabian, and an uncredited Christopher Lee as the pre-recorded voice of Mr. Owen. Unfortunately, Ten Little Indians feels more like exploitation fare with horror elements than an adaptation of a book written in the upper-class British tradition.

    Witness for the Prosecution and Appointment with Death are both more successful adaptations, thanks to directors Billy Wilder and Michael Winner, respectively. “The Witness for the Prosecution” began life as a short story titled “Traitor Hands,” first published in Flynn’s Weekly in early 1925. The title was later changed, and when Christie adapted the story for the theater, she made important changes, particularly to the ending, that were later utilized for Wilder’s highly successful film adaptation in 1957. In some ways, the movie feels like Wilder’s attempt at outdoing Alfred Hitchcock, who had made something of a career in adapting mystery thrillers with surprising plot twists (though he wasn’t above changing some of those twists to surprise readers of the novels he adapted). Wilder’s film is recognized as a tour de force by an overwhelming majority of film historians and critics. Not only does it contain one of Laughton’s best performances (which he based, in part, on his own lawyer), but it was also the last completed work of Tyrone Power and the swan song for Una O’Connor. Wilder didn’t just cast his lead roles effectively; he used a bevy of character actors in minor roles as well, ensuring that each performance was perfectly played. For that and many other reasons, this remains the best film in the set, a true classic worthy of its status in cinematic history.

    Just a year before she wrote And Then There Were None, Christie published her 17th Poirot novel, Appointment with Death, though it was the character’s umpteeth appearance, given how many short stories he had graced. By 1945 Christie had adapted the book into play form. Surprisingly, it didn’t jump to the big screen until 1988, when it became the sixth vehicle for Peter Ustinov’s intrepid detective, a thinly veiled, occidental version of Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan (whom Ustinov had played, humorously, in Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen, 1981; see a review of the Scorpion Releasing Blu-ray here on this very site). The film falls closer to Witness for the Prosecution than it does to Ten Little Indians, though it met with mixed reviews at the time of its release. Perhaps part of the problem is that Piper Laurie is so good as the matriarchal villain that when she dies, the film becomes a little less interesting. Thankfully, there are plenty of other good performances, from Carrie Fisher to Lauren Bacall, to hold one’s interest, and Michael Winner’s direction is more than serviceable.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    Umbrella Entertainment has smartly decided to package these three Christie-based films together in a single unit, with each film placed on its own DVD. The results are as follows, in the order they are listed on the back of the case:

    Umbrella has placed Appointment with Death on DVD in the PAL format in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 (with anamorphic enhancement). The transfer is certainly decent enough, with a moderate amount of detail given the limitations of standard definition. Winner shot the film on location, and clothes, faces, and rocky locales present ample detail for the format. Brightly lit shots fare better than those that aren’t, but that’s neither here nor there given how brightly lit most of the film is. Colors are nice but hardly vibrant, much of which has to do with the way Winner originally shot the film. Color schemes are intentionally toned down to give the film more of a ‘period’ look. Regardless, it’s a clean transfer from nice materials, with damage, dirt, and debris suitably cleaned up. Audio is presented in English Dolby Digital 2.0, but don’t be fooled by the 2.0 part. It’s actually mono, with the same track coming from both speakers. The sound is a little flat given that it’s the most recent of the three films, but dialogue is clear and easy to understand. The score is mixed a little too high in spots, but overall this isn’t a problem. There is no menu screen, and there are no extras.

    Witness for the Prosecution has by far the best visual and aural transfers and clearly utilized the best elements. This is fitting given that Witness for the Prosecution is the best—and most classic—film in the set. It is presented in NTSC in its original theatrical ratio of 1.66:1 with anamorphic enhancement. The black-and-white cinematography is crisp and clean, with a high level of detail in most scenes (just look at the suits or dresses worn by many of the actors, or the building in which much of the film takes place). Whether external or internal, shots look fantastic. Those that don’t are either transition shots or shots employing optical effects (these are fairly rare in the film). Crush is not a problem, and the darker areas of the frame contain a pleasing level of detail. There’s a mild level of grain, just enough for the film to retain its filmic look. One has to wonder what such a beautiful transfer would look like in the superior Blu-ray format. The soundtrack is supplied in English Dolby Digital 1.0, but it sounds quite good, with the score being robust when necessary and the dialogue clean and clear. The overall sound mix balances what should be balanced with no hint of pop or hiss.

    And that brings us to Ten Little Indians, which has the weakest transfer. The film is presented in the PAL format in its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio (with anamorphic enhancement). Umbrella clearly didn’t have access to the transfer used by Warner for their original pressed DVD release and now for their Archives MOD release. Original elements were clearly problematic, and the mastering company obviously didn’t have enough money to remove instances of dirt, debris, and occasional damage. Blacks are too dark; whites are too bright. The result is that detail is either washed away or crushed. The sound isn’t any better. As with Appointment with Death, Umbrella has opted for an English Dolby Digital 2.0 track that’s really a mono track in disguise, and there’s a high level of hiss and occasional pops. The sound is also mixed too low, resulting in one constantly having to turn it up to hear what’s being said. The score doesn’t sound remarkable, but that’s as much the problem of presentation as it is original scoring. Unlike the other films in this collection, this one does have a menu and features one extra: two trailers that run one after the after; the first is for Dragonwyck (1946), the other for The Innocents (1961). The former is a montage of scenes with video-generated titles, the other original. Neither is anamorphic.

    The Final Word:

    If we had to rate each individual film in this package, it would be as follows: Witness for the Prosecution is great; Appointment with Death is good; and Ten Little Indians is not so good. If we had to rate the transfers on each individual film, it would be as follows: Witness for the Prosecution is great; Appointment with Death is good; and Ten Little Indians is not so good. If we had to rate the sound on each individual film, it would be as follows: Witness for the Prosecution is great; Appointment with Death is good; and Ten Little Indians is not so good. Yep, it’s true: For whatever reason, the visual and aural quality seems to reflect the quality of the film itself. This is no doubt due to each film’s reputation. Considering that this collection is a repackaging of individual releases, those releases were given treatment commensurate to their reputations as classics; the most classic film got the best treatment before being placed on DVD, while the least classic film got the least amount of love before being placed on DVD. Regardless, if you don’t own any of these films already, this is a nice way to get them all at one time. If you do own them already, there’s really no need to ‘upgrade.’

    Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the Silent Era and Horror Films of the 1930s are currently available, with Horror Films of the 1940s due out later this year.