Desyat Negrityat (1987)

vt Ten Little Niggers; vt Ten Little Indians
Russia / 130 minutes / color with some bw / Odessa Dir & Scr: Stanislav Govorukhin Story: Ten Little Niggers (1939; vt Ten Little Indians; vt And Then There Were None) by Agatha Christie Cine: Gennadi Engstrem Cast: Vladimir Zeldin, Tatyana Drubich, Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy, Aleksei Zharkov, Anatoli Romashin, Lyudmila Maksakova, Mikhail Gluzskiy, Aleksey Zolotnitskiy, Irina Tereshchenko, Aleksandr Abdulov.

Desyat - 1 the clifftop mansion that awaits the arrivals

This is vaunted as the only movie adaptation of Christie’s classic suspenser to be completely faithful to the original, with the character names retained exactly and the murders—both past and current—being precisely as depicted in the book. Unfortunately, this fidelity runs also to the book’s original title and to the precise wording of the nursery rhyme/music hall song upon which events are based; the figurines whose sinister removal one by one denotes the demises of the guests are definitely not “Indians” nor, as in the novel’s most recent incarnations, “Soldiers”. The N word is tossed around liberally; the setting is even identified as N Island.

All of which makes the movie pretty bloody hard to take, frankly. Even in 1939, when the novel was published, the rhyme was becoming offensive to mainstream society; by 1987, when this movie was made, the usage was completely reprehensible.

Leaving that elephant in the corner of the room for the moment, what about the movie itself? Obviously, if you’ve read the novel you’ll know the plot; although Christie cobbled on a happier ending for the stage version she wrote and although other movie adaptations have followed that lead, here we stay with the novel’s grim ending: all the “guests” are deemed (and are) culpable, and are murdered, with their killer at the end killing himself as punishment for having committed the nine murders. He declares himself innocent of other deaths—although, since we have only his own word for that . . .

Desyat - 3a a shadow on the window

A shadow passing across the window . . .

Desyat - 3b a shadow on the window reveals Vera

. . . reveals Vera (Tatyana Drubich) behind the glass.

In brief, then: Ten people are lured by a mysterious operating as U.N. Owen (geddit?) to an island somewhere off the English coast that’s deserted except for a grand clifftop mansion. Most of the ten believe they’ve come for a social encounter; others have accepted offers of work, including the butler Thomas Rogers (Zolotnitskiy) and, as maid, his wife Ethel (Tereshchenko). Others are:

  • the foppish Anthony Marston (Abdulov), who ran over and killed two children while speeding, and has no remorse;
  • the old-school-type militarist General John Gordon MacArthur (Gluzskiy), who deliberately sent his wife’s lover into a death-trap;
  • the sanctimonious Miss Emily Caroline Brent (Maksakova), who, on discovering her teenaged maid was pregnant, threw the girl out and accepts no responsibility for the girl later, in despair, drowning herself;
  • High Court judge Mr. Justice Lawrence John Wargrave (Zeldin), who, as “a matter of duty”, sentenced to death a man who was palpably innocent;
  • Dr. Edward George Armstrong (Romashin), who killed a man through operating on him while drunk;
  • ex-Scotland Yard detective now gumshoe William Henry Blore (Zharkov), whose false testimony sent a man to his death;
  • the obviously amoral Captain Philip Lombard (Kaydanovskiy), who, to save his own skin, left to a certain death twenty people in his charge (but “they were only Indians”); and
  • the pretty young Vera Elizabeth Claythorne (Drubich), who, as a governess, allowed her young charge to drown in an “accident” as a means of currying favor with the boy’s father, her lover.

Desyat - 4 the demise of Dr Armstrong

The demise of Dr Armstrong (Anatoli Romashin).

Except Lombard, each is in denial about either their crime or their responsibility for it; nonetheless, each is in turn, in some wise consonant with the next couplet of the rhyme, knocked off. The survivors soon realize what’s going on, and search the small rocky island; when they find no one, they assume it must be one of their number who’s responsible, although it becomes progressively harder to understand how this could be possible. Even so, when the cast has been pruned down to just Lombard and Claythorne, she has no compunction, despite their having become lovers the night before, in putting a couple of bullets into him on the grounds that he must be the killer. It’s only on returning to her room and discover a noose dangling from a beam above an appropriately placed chair that she realizes how wrong she was . . .

Desyat - 5 Vera meets her destiny

Vera (Tatyana Drubich) meets her destiny . . .

Desyat - 6 the killer metes out his final sentence

. . . after which the murderer kills for one last time.

It’s a credit to the skill of director Govorukhin and especially his cinematographer Engstrem that this long movie never really flags; when I got to the end of it I was startled to find that, yes, it really had run as long as the label said! There’s some very clever use of flashbacks, especially in connection with the crimes of Brent and Claythorne. The cast are by and large impeccable, although a certain facial resemblance between Zharkov and Kaydanovskiy can make it on occasion a tad hard to be sure immediately if it’s Blore or Lombard you’re looking at, while Maksakova, as the ultra-pious Miss Brent, has a certain jauntiness of demeanor that seems (perhaps deliberately) to subvert her character. It’s very much to the credit of the moviemakers that, while nowhere else—including when reading the novel—have I been able to get beyond the implausibility of the premise, here I was soon caught up in the fates of the characters and feeling quite acutely the claustrophobia of their trapped state.

Desyat - 2 it can be hard to tell Lombard (left) and Blore apart

Lombard (Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy, left) and Blore (Aleksei Zharkov).

What we have, then, is a very fine movie ineradicably marred by the racism (or insensitivity to racism) at its core. Whether you think it’s worth making the effort to look past that is very much, I’d think, an individual matter.

Desyat - classy photography a (soft focus is from original)

There’s some exquisite cinematography. Here, the soft focus is from the original. A couple of other examples below . . .

Desyat - classy photography c the island in the storm

Desyat - classy photography d even the birds are leaving (we look down on waves)

 

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On Amazon.com: Desyat Negrityat / Ten Little Niggers / Ten Little Indians” NTSC DVD with English subtitles

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9 thoughts on “Desyat Negrityat (1987)

  1. I am not sure how I missed this film when released as the 80’s more than any other time in my life were the most ‘cinematically fanatical’ and this includes foreign language cinema. I am also a lifelong Agatha Christie junkie, and have read every single novel, short story, and play she has ever written. TEN LITTLE INDIANS is one of her most celebrated -justifiably so- works, and as you note in this riveting, comprehensive review, was made a number of times over the years. I’m especially intrigued that it is faithful to the novel, and maintains the uncompromising finale. I’ll definitely have to investigate this! Definitely. I am much too big a fan of this novel (taught it to eighth graders on two occasions) and the author not to. My favorite version remains the American version directed by Frenchman Rene Clair in 1945 that stars Barry Fitzgerald, and a number of other notable players. That soft-focus photography evident in your screen cap display is a further intrigue for me, though it is warranted for the island setting methinks. Good show listing all the characters from the book.

    • Thanks, Sam, for the kind comments. I, too, am very fond of the Rene Clair version . . . but then I’m a fan of his movies in general. What Clair did, though, was take a pretty grim original and make out of it a genial comedy. It’s a great movie, but it’s also a travesty of the original.

      The reason this Russian movie might not have had too much attention over here at the time might have been, outside any political considerations, the title.

      I’ve never been a huge Christie fan, I’m afraid. Back in the days when I read a lot of mysteries (as opposed to the kind of crime novels I read now), Christie was, as it were, the slices of bread I used to bump out the sandwich fillings that were the writings of people like Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, Michael Innes, Edmund Crispin, John Dickson Carr and most especially the wonderful, magnificent Margery Allingham. Once I’d read the latter’s The Tiger in the Smoke, it was a bit difficult for me to take Christie seriously.

      If you’re a true Christie buff, you should attend Kerrie’s comment below: The Mysteries in Paradise site is holding a Agatha Christie Reading Challenge all through August.

  2. very interesting and so glad you wrote this so I can add to my knowledge on the adaptations. I’m not a big Christie fan either, as a reader, I prefer the adaptations and many of those other writers you name in the above comment. (…off to explore your blog further)

    • Glad to hear there’s another non-Christie fan around! It wasn’t that I disliked “the classic form” or whatever, because I devoured plenty of them (and still sometimes pick one up, sometimes even a Christie); it was just that I thought/think she wasn’t nearly such a good writer as many of her contemporaries.

      My wife, on the other hand, disagrees.

  3. The political correctness problem is caused plainly by a dissonance. In Russian, the word “negr” is just as neutral as “Indian”. There are other words with pejorative racist meaning, but not this one. Unfortunately, even if you translate the title with some change, you can’t translate the black porcelain figurines. But, I repeat, it was never intentional racism.

    • An interesting point — many thanks!

      In Russian, the word “negr” is just as neutral as “Indian”

      The problem here is that “Indian” is likewise no longer a neutral term in this context; the original nursery rhyme (which, shameful though it is to acknowledge, I was taught in my childhood, an era when a standard UK nursery toy was the golliwog!) is every bit as racially vile even after the “improvement” of changing “nigger” to “Indian”. To try to explain what I’m getting at: In English we can talk about blacks, people of color or African-Americans without causing offense but, if you renamed the rhyme “Ten Little Blacks”, it’d still be obnoxious.

      I think, as you say, there’s a problem in the translation of the term itself — it took me some fortitude to sit through the movie, reading the subtitles as I was. I did wonder why the subtitlers hadn’t thought to cater a little to western sensibilities. There was also, I’d suggest, a lack of sensitivity on the part of the moviemakers, who could have removed the offensive nursery rhyme from the heart of their movie. Why not Ten Green Bottles, another popular Brit nursery rhyme that could have substituted equally well?

      Christie herself, although product of a racist society, Learned Better: later in life she recognized that the nursery rhyme, and the title based on it, was vile; I haven’t got references to hand, but I gather that she said the final title used in her lifetime, And Then There Were None, was the one she preferred. I think the Russian moviemakers might have taken note of that, and themselves striven for something genuinely a bit more neutral.

  4. Pingback: Ninth Guest, The (1934) | Noirish

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