Archive for October, 2008

October 9, 2008

Hotel Du Pud (part two): Harry Alan Towers and “Ten Little Indians” (1974)

by Dean Brandum

By 1973 the two-year partnership between the British EMI and Hollywood’s MGM had fractured to the point where the American organization decided to finalize its British production involvement and keep all of its dealings on its home side of the Atlantic. This was pleasing for EMI (the owners of the expansive and proficient Elstree Studios) as they had been suffering losses incurred by MGM’s disastrous losses in the USA. As a now single corporation, EMI company head Nat Cohen choose the 1973 Cannes film festival to announce a £5 million package of seven films, most of which would be American features with an EMI distribution interest. Of the domestically produced EMI features announced that year, it was an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s bestseller Murder on the Orient Express that garnered the most interest. It had taken a lot of strenuous negotiation between Christie and Cohen, but he eventually secured the rights to three of her Hercule Poirot novels, believing that such material would be the ideal screen antidote for Britain in what was a gloomy time of industrial, social and civil unrest.

Filming did not begin on Murder on the Orient Express until March of 1974, ten months after the announcement at Cannes. Yet in that time another Christie adaptation was conceived, financed, cast, prepared and already filming.

“Same Script different locations. You always kill off the most expensive stars first!” – Harry Alan Towers on his three versions of “Ten Little Indians”

In October that year, Variety‘s “international wrap” included a brief mention that Towers was producing a new version of Ten Little Indians. The news was from their correspondent in Madrid, so it seemed the film would either be shot there or at least based in that country. Towers, based at the time in Lichtenstein had attracted a strong cast for this project – Oliver Reed, James Mason, Elke Sommer and Herbert Lom were verified, with Adolfo Celi in talks and negotiations continuing with several international names.  Each week would bring new casting news with the November 7th column stating that the British-French-German-Italian-Spanish production was looking for two Spaniards to round out the cast and that James Mason had left the production. 20th Century Fox was expected to distribute the film in the USA.

Towers had arranged his most widespread production yet, involving five nations. It took some delicate work to make the arrangement as equitable as possible for each participating company to benefit from their local subsidies and rebates.

The companies and incentives involved were:

Oceania (French) who had previously worked with Towers on Call of the Wild and had a history of involvement in multi-national productions, especially genre-based films including westerns and crime thrillers. Tax rebates and no interest loans were available from the Centre du Cinema.

Talia (Spain) were a reasonably new company also in the co-production business. With Spain having equal partnership in this production they were eligible for a 15% rebate on ticket sales.

Coralta: (Italy) had, until this time restricted themselves to either local productions or partnerships with French companies. In those cases they were eligible for low-interest loans from the Film Credit Section of the Banca Nazionale (SACC) as a not majority participant on Towers’ film, the loan would be far smaller.

Corona (Germany), a well-established company that had previously funded several of Towers’ collaborations with Jess Franco. Germany offered State Aid, in which films German companies shared equal partnership were eligible. Companies could also offset.

The British component was Towers himself, through the aptly named Filibuster Films, a company created for this production only. Towers packaged the production and although Filibuster did not contribute any capital, it acted as a broker between the other companies. The creation of Filibuster was for the purposes of Eady levy rebate eligibility, yet although nominally British it was listed as located in elsewhere. This was due to these four companies had another, silent partner.

In the 1970s Tehran had an established film festival, one which showcased both Iranian and world cinema. Endorsed by the Shah or Iran, the festival spared no expense in attracting stars and directors to attend the festival, held late each year. The success of the festival led to the Iranian government believing that cinema was the ideal medium to promote the country internationally as a progressive nation. The Film Development Company of Iran was created and endowed with a large budget to attract international filmmakers. The 1974 Film Festival brought news of the first international film to be shot there – Ten Little Indians. The Film Development company offered the superb location of the Shah Abbas Hotel for filming (and five star accommodation for the cast and crew) there was also an added inducement that Towers could not resist – moving his company Filibuster to Iran which would act as a tax shelter for the entire budget and all of Tower’s personal fees. In this way, Towers took the money from his four partners and did not have to pay any tax on the amount until the film had grossed a certain percentage of the cost. Even then, this tax shelter offered minimal taxation rates.

The cast was finalised with a not quite equal spread of actors – there were two Britons (Oliver Reed and Richard Attenborough), two Germans (Gert Frobe and Elke Sommer) and two French (Stephane Audran and Charles Aznavour). However there was only one Italian (Adolfo Celi) and a single Spaniard (Alberto de Mendoza). Rounding out the cast were Herbert Lom (Czech) and Maria Rohm (Towers’ Austrian wife). This problem was solved by providing extra credits for Spaniards and Italians on the film. Jess Franco has spoken of this as a regular practice on Towers’ films. In order to meet a country’s co-production guidelines they would invent roles or create ‘strawmen’. This would entail paying a small amount to a certain artist or technician to agree for his name to be used and, if asked by the authorities, to state he did work on the film. Although there is no official record of these ‘strawmen’ being used, two extra producers are listed alongside Towers. These men (Juan Estelrich and Tibor Reeves) had fulfilled minor production roles on previous Towers’ films. One may also wonder about the names credited alongside that of screenwriter Peter Wellbeck (actually Towers’ pseudonym), Erich Kronke and Enrique Llovet. Although screenwriters, it seems unlikely that they had any true input, for the screenplay is almost identical (to the very word) with the once Towers wrote for the 1965 film. The only changes were very minor, detailing characters commenting on the outside landscape (changed from snowy alps to sandy desert).

Briton Peter Collinson was hired to direct. In his short career he had worked in a number of countries across a variety of genres. He had one true hit film to his credit, the 1969 caper comedy The Italian Job. After that, with the British film industry in difficulties he had travelled the world making films in Greece – You Can’t Win ‘em All (1970), Hollywood – A Man Called Noon and Spain – Open Season. He joined Towers just before production began, having left pre-production on a project titled “Nights of the Moulin Rouge” which appears to have never been made. Filming in Iran started in late December and seems to have taken around 3-4 weeks. The Iranian backers had requested that two of their popular stars be given roles, so a short sequence where two detectives stumble across the bodies was also filmed. Although mentioned in the press material, these cameos were excised from English language market prints. Several cast members then returned to Spain to film some interior shots and the film was then taken to Teddington Studios in Britain for post-production work, including the dubbing of Celi, Frobe, de Mendoza and Aznavour into English. They had spoken their lines in their natural languages during shooting, not fluent enough to have mastered the dialogue in English.

It must be mentioned that Oliver Reed has commented only that he did “a movie in Iran for the money”, which was to pay the upkeep on his large English estate, not even mentioning its title in his autobiography. Attenborough has stated that after having retired from acting he spent so long trying to finance his long-cherished Gandhi project (which he eventually directed in 1981) that he took what work he could find for the money. James Mason (originally cast) had relocated to Switzerland for tax reasons and although his biography does not mention his involvement in this film, that year he worked on four films in Europe which he’d described as ‘rubbish’, yet once again, he needed the money. These were harsh times for British actors, with little work available at home and high tax rates meaning they had to find work where they could. This explains why so many British actors and American tax exiles seemed to spend much of the 1960s-1970s jetting from one European co-production to another. Arthur Kennedy, an American character actor who managed a prolific career in Europe has said that he generally read only his part of the script for those films and seldom saw the finished product.

A scan of the actors’ credits reveals that after working with Towers, most of the cast worked predominantly in international genre co-productions for the rest of their careers. It would seem that having chosen such work, it was difficult to return to cinema with a distinct national flavour.

Murder on the Orient Express exceeded the expectations of all involved. Running for over a year in both Britain and the USA, it amassed a splendid $19 million in US rentals alone and a similar amount again internationally. Praised by critics, the film was nominated for six Academy Awards, with Ingrid Bergman winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance in the film.

Ten Little Indians opened late in 1974 in West Germany to “good” business and was rated as “popular” when it was released in Spain in December. Under the title of And Then There Were None (a late change as the pressbook still uses the original title), it was not released in the United States until August of 1975, (through Avco-Embassy, with Fox having passed) where it received unanimous negative reviews from the New York critics. It rose as high as eleventh on Variety’s Top 50 Box Office chart in its only week of wide release then quickly dropped away, grossing under a million dollars in the United States. Although it has been reported that the film never played theatrically in Britain, it was kept on the shelf for 16 months until it finally managed a solitary week in London in 1976 and was promptly withdrawn after a £1013 gross. There is no report of it playing provincially. Its poor British performance may be due to the fact it was distributed by EMI who had produced and distributed Murder on the Orient Express and did not want the rival film harming its business. There is also a theory that many of Towers films did not play in Britain due to his creditors there having the legal right to seize any returns from his films. France, the final official partner in the production, did not release the film until two years after it first screened in Europe.

Ten Little Indians has all the hallmarks that critics reviled of the international co-production: It rode on the coattails of a successful British/American production; it had performers chosen due to their passport rather then suitability for the role and a setting determined by investor demands. The film also is guilty of the most rank opportunism. Charles Aznavour, the first victim, is in the film for less then ten minutes and only has a couple of lines which are dubbed into English anyway, yet his one scene features him singing (in its entirety) his hit song “Dance the old fashion way”. The pressbook for Ten Little Indians even urges exhibitors to emphasise that point through radio and record store promotions. The film is also guilty of the criticism that such productions have their inspiration in antiquated and well-recycled narratives that lost their freshness early in the century. With such adherence to stock and stereotypes they ignore modern political realities and prefer to exist in a purely fictional temporal and spatial universe, one where the same narratives are repeated beyond exhaustion and invention and innovation are shunned in favour of formulae.

Rather than attempt to hide the fact, Towers’ film wore its international pedigree with pride. The American advertising stated it had an “international all star cast” and the pressbook contained several stories telling of the production and how various nations were ‘represented’ in the casting and how some performers were ‘obtained’ from countries, as if this was a film sanctioned by government.  Perhaps Charlton Heston closer to the truth then he knew when he had complained of Towers’ business practices amounting to ‘United Nations -style filmmaking’.

One can see the influences within the narrative. There is the obvious connection to the all-star casting aspect of Murder on the Orient Express (a film Ten Little Indians’ pressbook has no shame in continually referencing, even name-checking it on the film’s poster), yet this is an aspect both films share with the disaster movie cycle of the time. It has been theorized that audiences of the 1970s took great delight in watching luminaries of the screen being killed in gruesome ways. The advertising of Towers’ film also shares the ‘picture-box’ theme of several disaster movie posters in which the studio portraits of the cast are situated around the border, each identified by name. This method feeds the impression that it will be the performers we may pay to see die, rather then the characters they portry. But rather than a disaster movie, Ten Little Indians resembles an entry in the Italian giallo genre. One of the pioneers of that form of thriller, Mario Bava, has admitted that one of his films, Bay of Blood (1971) was inspired by the Christie story and that another, Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970) was a direct rip off. Ten Little Indians (1974) has a dour nature that is not evident in other versions of the story and, with its gloved hand seen dispatching victims, inventive manners of death and surprise revelation of the killer, it is clearly giallo-influenced. Cinematographer Fernando Arribas and composer Bruno Nicolai had previously worked on gialli, so their styles help in creating such an aesthetic. Yet it must be noted that of all the versions made of Ten Little Indians, not a single one has been filmed, or set, in England. With its lack of detective and misanthropic world-view, it does adhere to the European tradition of darker, rival variants of popular American and British culture. James Bond had Fantomas, Dr. No had Fu Manchu and John Wayne had ‘The Man with No Name’. With this theory in mind, Ten Little Indians is Christie’s anti-Murder on the Orient Express.

Note the Giallo-esque alterations to the advertising campaign

Note the Giallo-esque alterations to the advertising campaign

However, the most apt influence upon this international film is its own creation. With its financing and production methods Ten Little Indians manipulated the system to its fullest so it is only apt that the system is eulogized by the narrative. If the disaster influence valued stardom over character, then Towers’ film takes the theme a step further.

Ten Little Indians opens with a helicopter landing at a grand hotel in an unnamed country. Ten jet-lagged people step out and try to gain their bearings. Strangers to each other but with some acquainted by reputation, they have been invited there to a party by a mysterious host, ostensibly because he admires their professional capabilities. Instead, he wishes to sentence them for crimes they have committed (mostly) in the course of those very professions. There is no escape from the location and he kills them off, one by one, the only survivors being the two who he falsely accused.

One can read such a synopsis as a metaphor for the international film, perhaps this very film. Ten jetlagged actors arrive at a grand hotel in an unknown country, having been invited by a mysterious producer to participate in a film, believing it was their talents that have brought them there. The producer never appears, yet via the recorded voice of Orson Welles, who scoured the world for film work, he tells them they had each long sold out their integrity for financial gain. Their punishment will be to never escape the international film system, as represented by the hotel in the non-specific nation. They are destined to re-enact these roles, killed off for the audience’s delight, for the remainder of their careers. It is the two youngest stars who escape the punishment and they have the opportunity to return to careers with integrity and substance.

However, like so many co-productions, this is the imposed and unrealistic happy conclusion. Had Christie’s original ending remained then the truth would have been preserved, for there was no salvation for either Oliver Reed or Elke Sommer, both seldom found film work outside of international co-productions and their stars faded as the 1970s drew to a close. It is Attenborough who plays the judge and is revealed as Ten Little Indians‘ killer. Ironically, Attenborough  extricated himself from the international film roundabout and he barely acted again, realizing his dream of directing grand and respectable, middlebrow entertainments. The other members of the cast (and the director) spent their careers jetsetting from one unidentifiable country to the next and in that regard they never left the Shah Abbas hotel.

Ten Little Indians is a rare form of self-reflexive cinema, in that such self commentary is probably unintentional. Had the European co-production never existed, and had Harry Alan Towers and his ilk been restricted from practice then the film, as we see it today would be little more than a curio. Yet, it is impossible to see it existing anyway, had such productions and producers never occurred. It remains a film of a time, a place and a method and a film whose method creates its own time and a place.

As for Harry Alan Towers, well you can’t keep a cunning old rogue down. From Ten Little Indians he returned to his blue territory, producing efforts for Italo sleazers Joe D’Amato and Massimo Dallamano and failing to make much of a star of Annie Belle in the process. It was then back to the public domain classics for a while, raiding H. Rider Haggard, Jack London and H.G. Wells and giving work to Jack Palance, David McCallum and Rod Steiger while taking advantage of tax breaks in Canada and South Africa. More soft porn kept him busy in the 1980s along with forays into the sword n’ sandal epics that were briefly popular at the time (the Gor movies, for example). Michael Dudikoff was his star for a while and Towers took to buying up the fag-ends of spent series for Howling IV – The Original Nightmare (1988), American Ninja 3 (1989), Delta Force 3 – The Killing Game (1991) and a pair of Michael Caine Harry Palmer spy flicks – Bullet to Beijing (1995) and Midnight in St. Petersburg (1996). A slew of South African filmed Edgar Allan Poe adaptations from Towers gathered dust on video store shelves in the late 80s -early 90s, wringing whatever marquee value was left from Donald Pleasance, Oliver Reed and um, Ginger Lynn Allen.

But if you thought he was done with Christie well another decade, another Ten Little Indians. In 1989 he produced what was originally to be titled Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, but was forced to abbreviate the title when the novelist’s estate complained. This time his then regular director Alan Birkinshaw took duties behind the camera and the cast included Brenda Vaccaro, Herbert Lom, Donald Pleasance and (yes!) Frank Stallone. Shot in South Africa it went directly to video in most territories.

Towers, now back in Britain having settled his legal difficulties is still in action today. For 2009 he has announced a version of Moll Flanders, with none other than Ken Russell as director. At 88 years of age there appears to be no stopping this great vagabond of the international co-production.

Harry, here’s to you.

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