Posts tagged ‘Oliver Reed’

February 26, 2009

Oliver Missed: Sitting Target (1972) and the downward spiral of Oliver Reed.

by Dean Brandum

Where did it all go wrong for Oliver Reed? The 1960s had promised so much for the actor and the audience and his early turns in such Hammer fare as Brigand of Kandahar (1965), Curse of the Werewolf (1965) and Paranoiac (1963) had delivered a glimpse of a most assured screen presence. Perhaps brutish but undoubtedly handsome, his smouldering and slightly swarthy good looks kept in check the emotional anguish ready to explode from deep within his barrel-like burl. Among the cardboard contrivances of the Hammer romps, Reed, even in silly costume, provided a vitality to the material of an actor definitely a product of the present. Without the stage affectations of his peers and (at least in persona) neither a chinless chap nor a victim of early 60s kitchen-sink miserablism, Reed carried the swagger and cynicism of a young man who knew the game, who was on the up, who had the flash motor and the smashing birds. And yet, rather than revelling in his success, the Reed characters of the period find themselves poisoned by materialism, the artifice and emptiness of 1960s Britain. In only a matter of years Reed shuffled between the low rent of Hammer, the zeitgeist grabbing likes of Michael Winner and the restrained phase of Ken Russell when the director’s period adaptations and biopics were actually praised by the critical establishment.

 Generally, it is regarded that Reed’s best film of the 1960s is Russell’s Women in Love (1969) an adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novel in which the actor played the homosexual Gerald Critch. At his brooding, subdued best, Reed is a match for his highly trained co-stars, Alan Bates and Glenda Jackson (the latter winning an Academy Award for her performance). Arty it may have been but, along with a pair of earlier Russell TV projects, it was apparent that the actor could move effortlessly between the commercial and the marginal, although ironically Women in Love proved to be his most commercially successful endeavour of the period. The Winner period, on the whole, established his box-office clout, at least at home. The System (1964), I’ll Never Forget What’s-isname (1967) and The Jokers (1967) were all popular performers that exposed uglier side of swinging London. The Winner film’s also allowed Reed to show his flair for subtle comedy; the actor well aware that his physical appearance only required the mildest cheeky contrast to break any tonal tension.  However domestic success would no longer ensure a long career for a British film star. With British film finances so intrinsically linked to American backing and stateside release, the British star of the 1960s needed to find appeal abroad or else suffocate at home.

The American studios had a long-established presence in Britain, their most important foreign market. Yet as popular as Hollywood product was in the UK, the return flow was far from equal. In fact it was barely a trickle. If British films were screened at all in the United States during the heady days of 1930s-1950s they either filled the B-slots on double features or took root in art houses with occasional, but marginal, success. It took until the 1960s for genuine cross-over appeal to occur. In quick succession the Bonds, Tom Jones, the Beatles, Alfie and Georgy Girl were all breakout hits and it didn’t take long for the Hollywood executives to realise that these modestly produced, vibrant efforts had hit a chord with the American public. At this same time other national cinemas were making their presence felt in the American market as French, Italian and Swedish features captured critical acclaim and a widening box-office interest. Was it the quality of the these imports that accounted for their popularity or the fact that Hollywood productions looked decidedly tired and old-fashioned in comparison? Not to mention their escalating costs were seldom being recuperated at an indifferent box-office.

As a consequence, Hollywood upped its investment in foreign production, with an emphasis on British film. Of all the studios, MGM, by their very nature, were the most conservative in their production slate. Cheap but popular Miss Marples and dull but expensive Anthony Asquith-directed middlebrow nonsense. After an early presence at Denham studios in the late 1930s, MGM took over the lease of Borehamwood Studios in 1948 and a number of British-set films followed, generally of the costume variety. By the mid – 1960s when contemporary British productions were in vogue, MGM gave us The V.I.P.s (1963) and The Yellow Rolls Royce (1964). Hardly edgy stuff there. Thankfully, Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) was a superb film but barely scraped together an audience. Where Eagles Dare (1968) did, something also managed by a pair of productions too unusual to be associated with the studio – Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966) and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). But any revenue returned from those investments was quickly wiped with an ill-advised musical remake of Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969). With the parent company in near-financial ruin the doors to Borehamwood were shut and MGM quickly formed an alliance with EMI, subsidising the company with co-productions and distribution deals. The success rate was, to be kind, quite mixed.

As MGM were finding the going tough at Borehamwood, Oliver Reed had his first blockbuster hit with a supporting role in his Uncle Carol’s adaptation of the stage musical Oliver! (1968). Providing Reed with international exposure, the film was a roadshow smash and managed to win the Best Picture Academy Award. Yet in the year of Rosemary’s Baby, 2001, Faces, Bullitt, Rachel, Rachel, If…, Charge of the Light Brigade, The Boston Strangler and Poor Cow among the English language films eligible for nomination (let’s not even bother with listing the splendid foreign flicks on offer), that the rank throw-back to an earlier era should be voted by the establishment as the worthiest film of the year should have made Oliver Reed’s management extremely nervous. For an actor so of his present it seemed as if the Academy were hell-bent on turning back the clock. Indeed, one may think that Oliver! was an MGM production, with its determination to avoid any reference to concerns of the present, but the fact it was popular should dispel that notion. Oliver! was released by Columbia a company with thrifty origins that had survived the difficulties of the early 1950s and had thrived into the next decade. Of all the Hollywood studios it was probably Columbia that best utilised the foray into Britain. By tendering out its productions to independent producers they may have had less share of profits, but also negated much of the risk (not to mention the costly overheads). A number of expensive ‘prestige’ productions were made in this manner, including Lawrence of Arabia (1963) and A Man for All Seasons (1966) which were financial and critical triumphs. They also had a timeless, classical quality unlike some of Columbia’s attempts to embrace all things swinging in London – Casino Royale (1967), anyone? On the other hand, Columbia were responsible for two of the most audience-pleasing swinging London films, Georgy Girl and To Sir With Love (both 1966). Recent viewings of both films only confirm that for all their happening affectations, they were as artistically conservative as the company’s period pieces. Less celebrated but far more interesting to this viewer were several of Columbia’s smaller British productions, such as The Reckoning (1969) and Ten Rillington Place (1969), which stripped away any veneer of overt parochial identity to focus on character development and narrative tension. Nicol Williamson stars in The Reckoning as a ruthless executive forced to return to his dreary hometown of Liverpool when told his father has been bashed to death outside of a pub. Reconciling his past, reconnecting with his family and willed into the role of avenger, his regeneration does not lead to him forgoing his high-flying lifestyle. For he was well aware of its nihilistic nature to begin with. Instead, he returns to London rejuvenated. He committed a killing and now he was going to make a killing in business. It is the pragmatic, clear-headed cousin to I’ll Never Forget Whatsisname that is devoid of Winner’s trendiness and patronising redemption.

 In 1969 Oliver Reed should have been starring in something akin to The Reckoning to break from his swinging London ghetto and to prove he was capable of carrying a feature that had neither Winner nor Russell behind the camera. The story is apparently true that when Reed was later leaving to make a film in America, Richard Harris sent him a pair of crutches – on one was inscribed “Ken Russell” and on the other, “Glenda Jackson”. The accompanying note said “You are going to need these”. 1969 of course was the year of Women in Love but for strictly commercial purposes Reed was dicking about on the mildly amusing but inconsequential romp, The Assassination Bureau, a period comedy which may have been a better film than that year’s The Best House in London, but to those that have seen the David Hemmings bordello farce, such praise is thin indeed.

 By 1971 Hollywood had all but pulled out of Britain and with them went the foundations on which the British film industry had relied for the best part of a decade. Reed had two choices – firstly he could depart for America and reinvent himself as a Hollywood leading man. This would require skill, determination and good behaviour and sadly, Reed only possessed the first of those qualities. But what hope would he have had anyway? The British stars who had decamped over the previous decade were hardly faring well. Caine had endured almost nothing but flops since the last Harry Palmer thriller; Connery was struggling without a martini; Burton (and Taylor for that matter) were in box-office freefall; Harris was more notable for being a pain in the arse than for his actual work on screen and O’Toole’s career had obviously peaked with his first starring role. Britain was no longer flavour of the month and its performers were sliding off the A-list as a result. Indeed, after a decade in which its homegrown product appeared inert, old-fashioned and inordinately costly, American cinema was revitalised in the late 60s by a group of new filmmakers, the abolition of the Production Code and a generation of young stars. Hoffman, Beatty, Dunaway, Redford and a little later, Hackman, Pacino and De Niro pushed out those foreigners that had filled the void when the post WW2 stars’ appeal began to wane with audiences.

To my mind, there was no place for Reed in the United States in 1970, his opportunity missed by about five years. His other choice was to stay in Britain and enjoy being the biggest fish in an ever-evaporating pond. And this was what he did, even proclaiming that “I am the British film industry”. To a degree this was true, as he was the only major star still based in his homeland, but he had to suffer increasing competition from the flood of expats returning home in search of a good script and the career boost that would go with it. O’Toole was home for Under Milkwood and was gearing up for The Ruling Class (1972) and Connery would soon cross the Atlantic for The Offence (1972). Yet it was the stripped-down British arm of MGM that managed to lure back two of the brightest names back from Hollywood for a most remarkable pair of films. In 1971 the company released Villain and Get Carter starring, respectively, Richard Burton and Michael Caine. Two of the finest crime films to ever be produced in Britain, it took a number of years for Get Carter to receive due acclaim and to find a well-deserved following. Popularity at the time of its release was never a problem for Villain which was a sizeable hit in Britain (although it did not capture an audience in the US). Unfortunately, as Get Carter’s classic status has been assured, Villian has drifted into a near obscurity in recent years, a critical oversight that really should be rectified.

With all this last-gasp activity in a British film industry that would soon be swamped with horror, sex-comedies and TV spinoffs, Oliver Reed was treading water – a couple of European-shot features (The Lady in the Car with the Glasses and the Gun and the western The Hunting Party) aroused little interest and the public only seemed to take notice when Russell came calling, casting him the notorious The Devils (1971). Yes, Russell again. Winner was off Bronsoning in Hollywood by this time and one can only conclude that Reed was floundering; his career only resuscitated by Ken Russell’s casting largesse.

In 1965 Reed made a film titled The Party’s Over, a prophetic title for the star’s career fortunes by the end of such a promising decade. Interestingly, many years later it was revealed that Reed was shortlisted to replace Sean Connery when he first quit as Bond but due to financial considerations they decided upon George Lazenby. I’m far from being a Bond aficionado so I’ll leave the ponderings on his suitability for the role to others, but suffice to say it would have brought the actor international exposure and may have provided the stability and he so desperately lacked in his professional life.

Instead of acting On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the on-screen Reed found himself serving at her Majesty’s pleasure. MGM’s success with their crime films of 1971 led the company to greenlight a script by Alexander Jacobs who had written Point Blank for the screen in 1967. Sitting Target (1972) told of a violent career criminal imprisoned for the killing of a security guard during a botched robbery. Facing many years alone, his long-suffering wife tells him their marriage is over and reveals she is pregnant to another man. Enraged, her husband escapes from prison, intent on killing her and her lover. It all sounds promising enough, but do not be fooled. John Boorman has said that when he and Lee Marvin were preparing to film Point Blank, the actor only agreed to make the film after throwing the script out of the hotel window. Boorman then brought in Jacobs and together they worked on the rewrite of what would become a modern classic. One can only presume that Boorman’s contribution was considerable, given the by-the-numbers formula of Sitting Target. Had Marvin been involved I would think this screenplay would have been hurled across the English Channel.

From the film's pressbook

 Naturally, Reed plays Harry, with Jill St. John (on a last feature stop before spending the rest of the decade in TV movie purgatory) as Pat. Ian McShane is along for the ride as the younger inmate who makes the break with Reed and Edward Woodward is rather thanklessly and pointlessly cast as Milton, the cop on the case. Frank Finlay, Freddie Jones, Tony Beckley and Robert Beatty round out the support cast as various neer-do-wells.

The performers in the film all do what is asked of them and rise to level of mere adequacy that the project requests. Similarly, the production values also meet such requirements and the director Douglas Hickox gets from the MGM logo to the closing credits without doing himself any disfavour…by hardly making his presence felt at all. It is hard to reconcile that this was the filmmaker responsible for the élan of Les Bicyclettes de Belsize, the black wit of Entertaining Mr. Sloane and the hilarious, high campery of Theatre of Blood. But when handed straight drama, Hickox was a barely a competent journeyman (see Brannigan and Zulu Dawn) and one could only wish that some of the vitality and deft lightness that the director was capable of employing could have been rationed Sitting Target’s way just to enliven the stodge of it all.

But as much as the viewer begs for some shade to the characters, some zest to the narrative and some purposeful visual aesthetic, Sitting Target refuses to deliver. It does not want to, it does not need to. For this is a film made purely to boil pots to. A slate filler, an identifiable, paid up genre member, a one-dimensional programmer for a one-dimensional demographic; unwilling to offer the slightest variation to a tired and worn generic staple, its only compensation for the market is to ensure a requisite number of breasts and moments of quite nasty violence. So calculated and so cynical, Sitting Target’s grim determination to adhere strictly to formula and to employ actors to function as little more than props that are moved about, shaken around and dismissed as the conventions of that formula dictate, causes Sitting Target to be seen today as one of the most depressing examples of British cinema of the 1970s. This is especially so when one considers how the film uses Oliver Reed.

How does it use its star? As a marketing tool. I have nothing against actors playing to type – careers and genres have been built on the backs of such casting and career management. But in those cases it has been a gradual accumulation of an on-screen persona with the baggage past built into the roles and the audiences’ expectations. But in Sitting Target Reed is cast as a one-dimensional thug who is allowed but the briefest moments in which to show any emotion other than rage, a colour-by-numbers characterisation in which any alteration to the single dimension only exists to explain an action about to occur in the most literal definition of narrative cause and effect. If any past baggage was a requirement, the producers of Sitting Target have gone back to the Reed of The Angry Silence and The Bulldog Breed (both 1960) – his early bit parts as stock thugs in which he would menace and brawl.

What happened to the years in-between? Winner, Russell and Bill Sykes all forgotten. It was as if London had ever swung. Hell, even Hammer offered a greater range than what was on offer in Sitting Target. Where is the insouciance, the wry, knowing cynicsm and the voice that delivered even the most inconsequential line with a near-Burton like resonance? All those qualities that had made Reed a star and that carried the essence of a certain strain of British cinema ignored in the effort to cast a barrel-chested hulk driven by the basest of instinct to kill without remorse and consequence. Perhaps his character (and the actor’s screen persona) could be compensated by at least having him feared by his enemies but instead the only fear is of his brutality, otherwise he is played for a fool.

What a worthless role for a fine and talented actor, but even more tragic is the damage done to his professional standing. Having not been asked to carry a British film for several years, Sitting Target, made on the cusp of an industry collapse, needed to be a renewed calling card for the actor to let the industry know that he could cross into the new decade and redefine his persona for a less auspicious period while remaining relevant and commercial. Instead he is reduced to his lowest common denominator – 190lbs of sneer, shooting guns, smashing cars and punching heads. He is lucky he ws male, otherwise it would have been ‘tits out for the lads’ time. 

In spite of unanimously poor reviews, Sitting Target  did manage a successful four week run at the ABC 1 cinema in Shaftsbury Avenue when released in London on May 5th 1972. Oddly, when it reached here – Melbourne, Australia – on June 8th its title had been changed and only those when the keenest eyes could scan through the credits to find Reed mentioned at all.


Playing at the Metro Collins Street, a once grand palace whose fall from favour mirrored that of the studio whose product it (at the time) played exclusively, Screaming Target lastd one desulutory week.







One June 20th it New York admatmade it to New York where it was shunted to the bottom of the bill on a double feature with One is a Lonely Number, a story of a divorcee trying to get her life back together. The mix of testosterone and estrogen proved disastrous and the combo was yanked from its showcase run after a dismal week.

Mild success at home and failure abroad. Playing almost concurrently as Sitting Target in Britain was Z.P.G. a futuristic tale in which Reed and Geraldine Chaplin play a couple who defy the state’s ban on children and decide to have one of their own, risking all their lives in the process. At least here Reed gets the chance to attempt a performance, but some shoddy effects work and an overbearing glumness compelled audiences to stay away.

Four of Reed’s next five films were barely (if at all) released in Britain, with the exception being the popular Three Musketeers (1973) which finally gave the actor a chance to unleash some charisma and dash. It is not co-incidental that the swashbuckler’s director was Richard Lester who had made is mark in swinging London features. Similar, showy character roles were provided by Russell (again!) with Tommy (1975) and Lester (again!) with Royal Flash (1975). But in terms of leading man material the decent parts were over. Other actors could return to the stage or take on television but for Reed who had no experience of the former and no temperament for the latter, th international co-production ghetto was his only route and by the end of the 1970s his star cache was spent. 

I have no doubt that the booze and general unruliness also played their parts in derailing Reed’s career, but frankly I am sick of reading such stories which turn a formidible talent into a lad’s mag laughing stock. The waste of Reed’s talent is one of cinema’s minor tragedies and although we cannot blame the likes of Sitting Target,  its total disregard for the actor’s capabilities leaves a sour taste in my mouth every time I stumble across it on television.


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.