by Dean Brandum
Following on from my post providing a brief history of the international co-production comes the first in a series turning the spotlight on the films tainted with this unsavoury brush. First up, the third version of Ten Little Indians (1974). Never even released on video in this country and long-unavailable on the tape format in either Britain or the United States, it has yet to appear anywhere on DVD (officially, at least) and remains a most difficult film to see. Having lingered (festered?) in my memory since a TV screening around 30 years ago, it became one of many films I have been determined to track down over the years in an obsession to place some order on the collected fragments cluttering my subconscious.
I finally found a copy and upon viewing Ten Little Indians, I was immediately gripped. No, not for reasons artistic as it is an inept and shoddy production, lacking credibility and logic and devoid of even the most basic of thrills. Instead, the film captures most beautifully the entire euro-pudding movement, not only in its production method, but (no doubt unintentionally) as its own subtext.
“”Ten Little Indians,” the latest remake of the Agatha Christie story, looks less like a movie than a movie deal…an international movie mess of the sort that damages the reputations of everyone connected with it” – (Vincent Canby – New York Times)
Before we get to that we have to trace the history of this forgotten, minor landmark. It is a long tale – too long for one post. What I must do is introduce you to the inimitable Mr. Harry Alan Towers…
“I can step off a plane in any country in the world and within 24 hours have a film in pre-production” – Harry Alan Towers.
The son of a theatrical agent, Harry Alan Towers was born in London in 1920. By his early twenties Towers was becoming known to the public as a radio personality and within the industry as a producer of scripted dramatic series for that medium (many of which he wrote himself). By the age of thirty he had established offices in several countries (including Australia and the United States) distributing these series. His success in radio and ability to produce vast quantities of high quality programming saw him drafted into television by Lew Grade at the ATV network. Towers’ commission was to produce television programs with the same efficiency as his radio business and he accomplished the task with relish. Although he was creating strong profits for the network, Towers was asked to resign due to conflict of interest concerns. In what acts as an indicator of his future unorthodox business practices, Towers was asked to create a nightly chat show and given a substantial production budget, Towers decided to host the show himself, be thrifty with the other costs and keep the rest of the allocated budget for himself, as a hosting fee.
After a brief foray into feature film production with a pair of B-films produced by his Towers of London banner, in 1963 Harry Alan Towers was on the run and hiding out in South Africa. Two years earlier, he had skipped bail after being arrested in New York on the charge of running a call-girl ring. Naturally, that ruled out any return to the United States, but due to a number of previous deceitful dealings in his native Britain, his creditors were eagerly awaiting his arrival home, meaning setting up a production base in Britain was also out of the question.
Undaunted, Towers teamed up with Oliver A. Unger, a producer who had made his name and fortune in the 1950s – the early years of television syndication – most notably through purchasing old cartoons from the major studios, editing them into half-hour programs and selling the packages to television networks and individual stations. Hoping to extend into theatrical film production and distribution he hooked up with the experienced Towers in 1963 and they planned a number of projects that contained exciting action, colourful backdrops and could be cheaply filmed. With Towers’ showmanship, Unger’s U.S. experience and the conditional agreement of several fading screen stars willing to perform in these productions, they managed to sell the North American distribution rights to the Canadian based Seven Arts Pictures (this was the company that pounced upon the troubled Warner Brothers Corporation in 1967 when they bought out founder Jack Warner’s controlling interest. However, Warner Brothers-Seven Arts lasted a mere two years before a financially disastrous 1969 saw that Seven Arts stake bought out by the Kinney Corporation).
With the Seven Arts distribution deal in place and the resultant funds from the rights’ sale in pocket, by 1965 they had completed an impressive slate of six feature films which they unveiled in the market section of that year’s Cannes film festival. Operating under the banner of UPI (Unger Productions Incorporated) a full page advertisement in Variety immodestly announced that these were pictures of “Major Importance”. With no mention of Towers’ involvement whatsoever (Unger was listed as sole producer of each film) the suspicions of creditors and law enforcers either side of the Atlantic would not be raised.
Four of the titles were filmed in Africa. Mozambique was an adventure tale of diamond smugglers, 24 Hours to Kill fell into the espionage and intrigue genre that was highly popular in the wake of the successful James Bond franchise, Coast of Skeletons was a remake of the colonial drama Sanders of the River (1938) and Sandy the Seal hoped to capture the family audience. With the likes of Mickey Rooney, Steve Cochran, Dale Robertson and Richard Todd there was enough (fading) star wattage to fill out the lower half of double features in the English language markets. However the savvy Towers also peppered his cast with a number of actors popular in Germany, where Towers would later base many of his operations. The American sales had financed most of the productions but it was a silent partnership with the Munich-based Terra Filmkundst that completed the budgets. Their financing was conditional on the casting of German actors in each of the productions in order to increase their appeal in those markets. This accounts for the likes of Hildegarde Neff, Paul Hubschmid, Elga Anderson, Walter Slezak and Lex Barker in the films. The venture was a successful one with all of these titles having all territories sold by the end of the festival. However, although the rights to these titles were available individually, they were generally sold as a complete package at discounted rates when buyers paid the higher fees for the two gems in UPI’s slate – The Face of Fu Manchu and Ten Little Indians.
Towers had always known the value of a good story, especially one with an inbuilt audience familiarity. The Scarlet Pimpernel series was one of his early television productions and in the early 1970s he was to film versions of Black Beauty and White Fang. More recently he has produced Blood of the Mummy, a version of Phantom of the Opera and a series of Edgar Alan Poe adaptations. Apart from their marketability as known literary commodities, these properties were also public domain titles, meaning Towers did not have to pay screen rights to the authors, much less any later royalties. But the downside to this ploy was that these titles were overly familiar to audiences, having been filmed many times, both for the cinema and television. Towers needed exclusivity with some prize material so he purchased, for £25,000, the rights to a number of novelist Sax Rohmer’s books, including thirteen that featured Oriental criminal mastermind, Fu Manchu (although Towers also produced two films based on Rohmer’s less known other arch-villain, Sumuru).
The Face of Fu Manchu was the first of five Towers films to feature the character (played by Christopher Lee), with the first entries resembling Hammer Studios productions, but the final pair (as directed by Jess Franco in 1970) delving deeper into the territory of sleaze and sadism that would characterize many of Tower’s productions in the coming decade.
Ten Little Indians was the final film on UPI’s 1965 Cannes slate and the one with the most mainstream potential. Agatha Christie had written the novel Ten Little Niggers in 1939 and upon its release was hailed her masterwork and remained her personal favourite of all her writings. The novel tells the story of ten strangers who are invited to a weekend on ‘Indian Island’ as the guest of a Mr. and Mrs. U.N. Owen. Never having met their host the guests are under the impression they have been invited due to their fame and expertise in their various professions (judge, doctor, detective, entertainer etc).
Yet they never meet their host who only makes his presence felt via a gramophone recording in which he accuses each of the guests of being guilty of a serious crime (each involving the death of innocents) for which they have (so far) gone unpunished. Furious at the allegations but unable to leave the island, the guests endure a horror evening in which their party is reduced in number as one by one they are victims of an unseen killer. Central to the décor of the dining room is an ornate piece of china depicting ten Indians and with each death one is mysteriously broken from the display. The children’s nursery rhyme (from which the novel takes its title) in framed in each room, which each line seemingly foretelling the circumstances of each of the guests’ deaths. The invited party (who have admitted their guilt for the crimes of which they were accused) soon realize that, having searched the house and its grounds in vain, Mr. U.N. Owen does not exist and the killer is indeed one of them, implementing this elaborate plan in order to fulfill his or her insane scheme of social justice. Suspicions are raised and tempers flare but the killings continue. Eventually Vera Claythorne kills the last suspect, her love interest Phillip Lombard. She appears to be the only survivor but the judge – already believed killed – reappears to admit he is the mastermind of the scheme. Stating he is terminally ill, he drinks poison, leaving Vera alone with a noose hanging from the ceiling. Realising that the police will believe her the killer and seeing no way out of her predicament, she hangs herself – the final piece of the judge’s plan now complete and following the exact last lines of the nursery rhyme:
One little Indian left alone alone.
He went and hanged himself
And then there were none.
Ten Little Niggers differs from many of Christie’s more celebrated work in that it does not feature a sleuth (professional or amateur) solving the crime and detecting the identity of the villain. Yet it still remains a archetypal example of classical British crime fiction. Featuring prototypical aristocratic and upper-middle class gentlemen and ladies hiding dark pasts of violence and improper behavior, the plot convolutions throw up numerous red herrings until the dénouement unmasks the real criminal, an unexpected character with a once seemingly foolproof alibi. With its settings rarely straying from the confines of the mansion (a subsidiary character itself), Ten Little Niggers conforms to the ‘drawing room’ characteristic of the form, as does its preoccupation with manners and conduct (un)becoming.
The novel may have been a hit in Britain but its title caused obvious discomfort American publishers. She agreed for it to be released there as And Then There Were None and subsequent edition in Britain and the Commonwealth were retitled Ten Little Indians. Christie also had the problem that the novel’s downbeat conclusion proved problematic for adaptations into other media. Christie herself rectified the situation by writing a version for the stage, with a reworked ending that had not only Vera and Lombard surviving, but actually innocent of their supposed crimes. The judge was not as infallible as he (and the audience) believed, realizing the last act of his grand plan was in ruins only after he had sipped his fatal drop of poison. Certainly this adhered to the most popular aspect of melodrama in which villainy is quashed in the final moments by the virtuous, restoring a moral order to the universe and offering a catharsis for the audience (with the promise of a romantic future thrown in for good measure). However, it could be argued that for those with a more cynical bent, the original narrative restored its own order, with the judge’s virtue and sense of righteousness (albeit with a brutal bluntness) righting the moral unbalance that social norms have been unable to correct. For the needs of a potentially wide audience though, the proposal that society’s conventions of law and justice are inherently flawed was a notion too impalpable to contemplate.
Christie was correct. Her stage adaptation opened in November 1943 to capacity crowds London and replicated that success in New York the following year. The film industry was immediately interested and independent producer Leo V. Popkin purchased the screen rights from Christie and the resultant 20th Century Fox production marked the first time a Christie property had been filmed by Hollywood (five previous Christie works had been filmed in her native Britain and another in Germany). Directed by Frenchman Rene Clair with celebrated screenwriter Dudley Nicholls opening it up for the cinematic approach, And Then There Were None was cast with a gallery of fine character actors including the likes of Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, Louis Hayward, C. Aubrey Smith and Dame Judith Anderson. Released in 1947 the film was expectedly acclaimed as an outstanding mystery-thriller but was tellingly praised for its casting, period atmosphere, stylish design and musical score – the hallmarks of a well budgeted studio system production of the day. It is the care (or lack thereof) taken with the material that would mark the versions filmed by Harry Alan Towers in the decades to come.
Towers’ purchased the screen rights from Harry M. Popkin in the early 1960s, with Popkin believing that the story’s surprise ending was too well-known by audiences for another film version to succeed. However, although he sold the property for a low sum he took a production credit on the film and a cut of any profits as part of the deal. The reason Towers was interested in the material was due to the success MGM had enjoyed with a series of Miss Marple adaptations filmed at their Borehamwood Studios in Britain. Starring the inimitable Margaret Rutherford as the amateur village sleuth, dotted with a cast of eccentric English stereotypes and a bright comedic sensibility, these inexpensive productions were very popular as mainstream releases in Britain and on the American arthouse circuit. However, after four films in as many years MGM discontinued the series as they were hoping for more than a cult following in the United States. MGM owned the rights to a large proportion of Christie’s other work, except for those stories that featured Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. A notoriously difficult person to deal with, Towers never considered negotiating for her unsold stories and instead sought out this one, already purchased property. In order to replicate the feel of the MGM Marple films he hired George Pollock, the director of that series to film his version of Ten Little Indians and filled the cast with a number of well-known English Character actors such as Leo Genn, Stanley Holloway, Dennis Price and Wilfred Hyde-White. The leads were Shirley Eaton who had memorably been a victim of ‘Goldfinger’ in the James Bond film of 1964 and the imported American actor Hugh O’Brian who had starred as television’s Wyatt Earp for six successful seasons and was now attempting a career as a leading man in the cinema. As with the rest of the Terra Filmkundst financed films, three roles were given to German actors – Daliah Lavi, Mario Adorf and Marianne Hoppe which also enabled the film to be eligible for German subsidies and tax concessions. Finally, in casting calculated for the youth market, American pop singer Fabian played the first of the murder victims.
Set in a Scandinavian chateau, but filmed at one of Ireland’s stately homes (some footage shot in the Austrian mountains was spliced in for establishing shots), the 1965 version of Ten Little Indians was one of several British-German co-productions during the 1960s. Apart from the German subsidies available to Towers (via his ‘Tenlit’ company, established just for this film and delisted shortly afterwards) the film’s quotient of British talent allowed it to be eligible to take advantage of the Eady Levy. Instigated in 1949, this was a tax placed on all cinema tickets sold in Britain for foreign films. The pooled revenue was then shared amongst the British films screened that year, proportional to their box office (a percentage also went to the National Film Finance Corporation and the Children’s Film Foundation). The more a British film earned, the more it could claim. This fund rewarded successful films and promoted further filmmaking ventures. However, not matter how well intentioned, the system was ripe for exploitation. American films shot in British studios were often eligible, no matter if that was the extent of their ‘Britishness’. In the late 1970s the worst abuse of the system occurred when distributors of the American blockbuster Grease purchased a £25,000 20 minute British short film about skateboarding and paired it on programs with Travolta musical. This provided enough British content for not only Grease being able to avoid paying the Eady Levy, but qualifying for £200,000 of the Eady share and virtually draining the pool in a very quiet year for the British film industry. The system was finally abandoned in 1985 in favour subsidies granted on individual proposals.
When it played it cinemas during 1965, Ten Little Indians was targeted towards a youth audience. Taking a cue from American producer-director William Castle who marketed his films with various gimmicks, Towers included a 60-second ‘Fright Break’. This entailed the screen turning black shortly before the dénouement and a narrator explaining to the audience they have one minute to guess the twist ending. Each murder is replayed on screen as a clock ticks by in the corner. The minute over, the film resumes. Receiving mixed reviews but healthy boxoffice, the major release of UPI’s slate was its most successful. Towers and Unger parted ways and the Englishman entered the second period of his international co-production, known as his ‘blue phase’, teaming with Spanish director Jess Francofor a series of sex and sadism shockers aimed at the growing adult film market.
After Eugenie…The Story of Her Journey into Perversion (1970), Harry Alan Towers realised that the darker environs of the sadistic sex film were losing their boxoffice appeal as they became increasingly ghettoised into grind-house cinemas and smaller drive-in chains. He and Jess Franco parted ways, with the Spanish director happily prospering in that field for several further decades. In late 1969 Towers arrived in London trying to gain financial backing for a version of Anne Sewell’s “Black Beauty”. Unfortunately he arrived too late. A couple of years earlier the British-based Hollywood companies would have shown strong interest in a children’s film set in the English countryside but as the decade closed they were moving their investments out of Britain. With the respectable production companies interested in neither Towers nor the oft-filmed story, he found unlikely backing through Tigon, a company associated with low budget horror and erotic films. They had previously distributed his Sandy the Seal and were intrigued by the idea of a foray into the family market. Tigon supplied part of the budget and Towers spent the next few months raising the rest of the funds in Spain and Germany. Shot in Ireland and Spain and featuring the usual assortment of international stars, Black Beauty (1970: James Hill) was well received by critics but failed to make much of an impression with audiences. Undeterred (and having made a nice personal profit from presales), he embarked on a series of further family films, each based on established, public domain, classics.
Although the Spanish-French-Italian White Fang (1973: Lucio Fulci) was a well-reviewed success, two other productions were beset by difficulties. Treasure Island (1972: John Hough) starring Orson Welles as Long John Silver and using the star’s own, pseudonymous screenplay (with other names also attached for the purpose of national contribution) ran short on finances and filming was shut down on several occasions. Tower’s showmanship had lured Charlton Heston to star in Call of the Wild (1972: Ken Annakin) but the star detested the experience, describing Towers as ‘shadowy’ and ‘untrustworthy’. Once again finances did not flow smoothly and Heston has said that working with a West German, French, Italian and Spanish crew was just like ‘the United Nations’ with lots of yelling, no-one understanding each other and nothing getting done. Heston was so incensed at the quality of the finished product that he persuaded Paramount, who owned the U.S. distribution rights, to not release the film. It eventually received a few brief screenings in 1975, after it was on-sold by Paramount to the exploitation distributor Intercontinental Releasing Corporation for a pittance. Costly and requiring much arduous location work for a market offering only slim returns, Towers never truly conquered the family film market. In 1973 he was looking for a new opportunity the on that would arise was a return to an old success, but relaunched with a decade of new skills acquired on in the fierce market of international film finance.
And now, an intermission….