THE BOOTLEG FILES: DESYAT NEGRITYAT

BOOTLEG FILES 573: “Desyat Negrityat” (1987 Soviet film version of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None”).

LAST SEEN: The film is on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It is a little strange why this film never received a U.S. release.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: You can buy a Russian DVD of this title, but it looks unlikely that a U.S. version is coming.

Before I start this week’s column, I need to post a major spoiler alert. It is impossible to describe this film’s history and content without describing key elements of the plot’s mysterious twists and turns. If you are not familiar with this production and its celebrated source, you may not appreciate having the surprises revealed in advance.

And now, on with the show.

Back in 1939, Agatha Christie scored a major commercial success with a murder mystery that involved 10 people on an isolated island that were killed off one-by-one in a manner similar to a demented nursery rhyme. But when Christie’s American publisher wanted to bring her book across the Atlantic, there was a big problem: the title for the British edition of the book was “Ten Little Niggers.” And even by the egregious standards of that Jim Crow era, that title was not going to work. Instead, the new title “And Then There Were None” was put on the book, and the reference to “niggers” in the book – both in the nursery rhyme, the plot device of native figurines that are broken with each new murder and the name given to the island where the story takes place – was replaced with “Indians.”

In 1943, Christie adapted her book into a play that opened in London’s West End; a Broadway production followed two years later. But Christie made a radical switch to her work. In the book, all 10 people die under violent circumstances, but a post-script consisting of a letter written by the killer that explains how this seemingly inscrutable crime was committed. In the play, the last two victims of the killing spree not only survive the mayhem, but also become romantically linked.

Later in 1945, 20th Century Fox produced an all-star adaptation of “And Then There Was None,” but it opted to use Christie’s happy-ending play rather than the intellectually grisly novel. Two additional film remakes – one in 1965, the other in 1974 – also used the Christie play instead of the novel, and both went even further by changing other aspects of the story. These remakes also took the title “Ten Little Indians” instead of “And Then There Were None.”

In 1987, the Soviet film industry decided that it could one-up its rivals in Hollywood by creating its own version of “And Then There Were None.” Filmmaker Stanislav Govorukhin, who specialized in Russian-language versions of Western literary classics including Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and Jules Verne’s “In Search of the Castaways,” was tapped to direct this production. But rather than follow the lead of previous versions, Govorukhin opted to film Christie’s novel – complete with its decidedly unhappy ending. And even more startling, it kept the politically incorrect original title – which may explain why most people refer to it by the Russian language title “Desyat Negrityat.”

At first, “Desyat Negrityat” is a fairly startling production because it adheres religiously to its source material – the Russians kept it as a period piece rather than updating it to modern times in the manner of the 1965 and 1974 film versions. All of the characters retain their English names, and the production lavishly recreates the costumes, vehicles and designs of England in the late 1930s. The film’s opening section also follows all 10 of the characters as they come together at their mysterious location (incorrectly referred to as “Indian Island” in the English subtitles).

The beginning of the film is wonderfully eerie, with the grim-looking characters arriving for a boat ride across rocky waves to a spooky island. This sets the mood wonderfully, and it is made all the more impressive by Gennadi Engstrem’s brilliantly muted cinematography and Nikolai Korndorf’s slightly ominous music.

But then, almost abruptly, “Desyat Negrityat” derails during the dinner sequence a gramophone record marked “Swan Song” contains a harsh voice that accuses each of the 10 people – eight guests and a married couple working as house servants – of getting away with murders. Their reaction to this unlikely form of mass accusation is too calm and too serene to be believed, even among the stiff-upper-lip English. And when the first of the 10 abruptly dies minutes after the record is played, everyone around the victim reacts with stunning indifference to the death.

For the rest of its running time, “Desyat Negrityat” ping-pongs back and forth between slices of jolting and disturbing sequences – most notably the flashback scenes when the character Vera Claythorne recalls the manner in which she allowed a boy in her care to drown in the ocean – and stagnant segments of robotic behavior that are staged in a strangely theatrical manner. This flip-flop in style and substance creates a curious sensation – the viewer wants the film to stay in its dark and unpleasant environment, but Govorukhin is never able to maintain the level of suspense and malice that Christie intended.

And while “Desyat Negrityat” retains Christie’s original ending, it makes the mistake of letting the viewers see the culprit prior to Vera Claythorne’s guilt-ridden suicide by hanging. The film would have been much more effective if the killer was seen after Vera’s death, rather alerting the viewer of his identity before her demise – Govorukhin’s approach dilutes the power of this mystery before the action has fully run its course.

As far as I can determine, “Desyat Negrityat” was never theatrically released outside of the Soviet Union. This might have been due to copyright issues – the Soviets had a history of making films out of Western literary properties without securing the proper permission. And even if the production was authorized, its overseas commercial potential would have been compromised by having another American version of “And Then There Were None” in theaters in 1989. A Russian DVD with not-so-perfect English subtitles offered Western audiences their first chance to witness this effort – and that version can be found on YouTube in an unauthorized nine-part installment under the incorrectly translated title “Ten Little Indians.”

“Desyat Negrityat” is an interesting curio. But unless one has a deep passion for all things related to Agatha Christie, it is not a film that demands to be sought out.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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