Midnight Screening: And Then There Were None

>Rene Clair didn’t have it easy. Soundly trounced by the French New Wave and never really forgiven in the public consciousness, Clair was a hot button go-to guy in the early days of sound cinema, a born-and-bred scientist with tools in sound and space who saw cinema – like all the great early masters – as an expressive, flexible plaything more than a get-the-job-done tool. Play he did, although his somewhat overly-formed style admittedly hit a limit when it traded in the dangerous waters of experimentation for something a touch more gentle and composed. Clair enjoyed a good composition as much as the next director, but there was his compositions always ran the risk of boxing him in to a settled path, rather than letting him loose to ravenously tear down the walls and traverse new, unsettled regions of cinema. He had his limits, in other words, but the 2010s hardly even acknowledge him. Clair was a class act, and whatever his American films did to keep him away from true adventure and challenge, he never gave a film less than his full attention. The no man’s land that is his reputation today seldom takes into account his very real, if somewhat overly-rigid, talents as a filmmaker.

Now, And Then There Were None is an interesting tool with which to reveal Clair’s career precisely because it saw him in such dire straits, and it ought to play to all his weaknesses as a director, asking him to produce something grisly and suspenseful in lieu of his usual high-fluff style. In his early sound masterpiece, Le Million, he found a comfort in the niceties of the world, playing around in wondrous ebullience and unapologetic warmth. It isn’t as notable as, say, Fritz Lang’s M in the realm of utilizing sound as a transformative accompaniment to a visual skeletal structure without allowing sound to run away with the visuals, but it is a justifiably famed release for this reason anyway. His American pictures largely follow suit, subtly playing with sound in admittedly more quiet ways and somewhat hurting for a touch of the ol’ unmitigated grandness he brought to the table circa his time in France. It would be nice to look back on And Then There Were None as a reminder of his breadth as a filmmaker and his willingness to experiment with new genres, but that doesn’t seem honest. This Agatha Christie adaptation, although a decently-budgeted release at the time with some popular stars in Walter Huston and Barry Fitzgerald, has the distinct air of Clair searching for whatever film he could get, and even struggling to find opportunities to direct in the states. That he returned to France almost immediately upon releasing this film, if anything, leaves little doubt.

That’s neither here nor there though; for the subject of this 1945 release, what matters more than what it signifies for Clair’s unfortunate descent into slightly middlebrow, lightweight pics is how good the actual film is. As it turns out, And Then There Were None bears Clair’s customary moderate-invention and solidly flexible air, tackling Agatha Christie’s famously acerbic, mirthless writing with a slightly spry smirk and the air of, dare I say it, a laconic dinner party. Deaths happen, sure, but that’s all they do. The murder and mayhem barely seem a distraction to a weekend of light play and bemused, slightly on-the-nose dialogue that occasionally sparkles with whimsy and self-satire.

As per usual, the subject is ten guests at an island mansion being murdered for crimes they themselves have supposedly committed. The culprit? One of them, although, naturally, they do not know who, nor do we. Christie had a cruel moralism about her writing, and Clair’s greatest strength as a filmmaker was tempering blunt edges with frisky filigrees. The film isn’t much of a looker, but a few techniques standout. Clair has a way with doors and their handles, that much is for sure, and the deliberately slight, even sportive score adds to the aloof qualities of the film that persist until the very end. Clair plays with physical space in imaginative, if not revolutionary, ways, and the juxtaposition of physical flesh – the lanky heights of Walter Huston’s doctor and Barry Fitzgerald’s pudgy, even fluffy judge chiefly among them – is a consistent delight. Elsewhere, there’s an always fey sense of self-critique in the murderers’ row of stereotypical characters, primarily in the way Clair consistently overextends their “types” until it becomes self-mocking. The sardonic, morose butler is a consistent winner, and the cutesy Irish self-parody in Fitzgerald’s winking judge is another. Meanwhile, Clair pulls a fair amount of minor mileage out of poking fun at some of the archly British stuffiness of some of the characters, the way they announce their thought processes and indulge in over-zealous exposition for the sake of an invisible audience.

All of this playing in the dark, of course, sacrifices any real sense of urgency or mystery; there’s no due diligence for horror’s sake here, and that is its own form of limit. Clair is just too genteel, too literary, too detached a filmmaker to ever divulge in some of the naughtier airs of the material, or to use the macabre with any sort of gravity or pulsing danger. The strengths of his film – the unhurried, relaxed wit, the untouched dryness to the humor, and the almost self-critical way he plays with the stodgy formalism and stilted dialogue inherent in both Christie’s text and his own conservative, stage-play infused direction – come at a cost to anyone actually hoping for any legitimate fear or damaged goods. Ultimately, the most interesting thing that can be said about Clair’s final American work is that it betrays all his strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker. In playing to a genre he ought to falter in, he ends up not much playing to that genre at all; rather, he shifts the nature of the film to his personal whims in generally successful, if slightly perplexing ways, essentially creating a bored dinner-party film that fascinates precisely because it is such a bored dinner-party. Radiating a withered, wryly self-possessed charm, this is a quintessentially, cheekily British film in all but name, one that never erupts into a single bout of genuinely human hysterics. This is a murder mystery without an ounce of anxiety in its bones, almost as though it knows how casually dusty and sardonically, mirthfully amusing this plaything actually is.  That is Clair for you, failing to do something right and still creating a film that can’t but fascinate in the end. And Then There Were None is ultimately a work of pleasure, even when it seems to not be working at all.

Score: 8/10

 

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