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Ordeal by Innocence

***
1984

‘…class conflict is used to protect the misbehaviour of an errant nobility from the prying eyes of ordinary people…’

Ordeal by Jazz would be a better title for this wintery Agatha Christie adaptation; it would be hard to think of a worse decision than to slather the music of Dave Brubeck over this tale of an Antarctic explorer unravelling the wrongful death of an old friend. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with Brubeck’s music in itself; it’s just that his jazz stylings don’t scream, or even vaguely suggest, the emotions of an Antarctic explorer unravelling the wrongful death of an old friend, and as a result, proves a constant, intense irritation. Brubeck didn’t even write these tunes for the film; he was given two weeks to re-record a few of his previous works and plonk them on the soundtrack. Putting a firm red line through the score, there’s plenty of other good things to enjoy in Ordeal by Innocence, one of the best films made under the Cannon imprint, to use the faintest of faint praise.

There’s more than a touch of Knives Out here, right down to the casting of Christopher Plummer as the Argyle family patriarch Leo, lording it over their remote Devon estate back in the 1950’s. Leo Argyle’s equilibrium is disturbed when Dr Arthur Calgary (Donald Sutherland) turns up at his door, returning from the snowy wastes with a diary left in his car by Leo’s son Jack two years before his trip commenced. This provides an alibi that gets Jack out of the murder of his own mother (played in flashbacks by Faye Dunaway), except Jack has already been given the death penalty and executed. Nevertheless, Calgary is determined to out the true culprit, and works his way through a lengthy manifest including Ian McShane, Diana Quick and Sarah Miles with a nice line in terse questioning.

Cinematic interpretations of Christie’s work have tended to double-down on exotic locations or other gimmicks; Ordeal by Innocence plays things straight, a good move when dealing with the author’s favourite of her own stories. Unlike the recent BBC version, which misguidedly changed the identity of the killer, Desmond Davis’s version captures the essence of the story; Calgary is seen by the family as something of an arriviste, and class conflict is used to protect the misbehaviour of an errant nobility from the prying eyes of ordinary people. This thematic strength is worth exhuming, and even if this films lacks momentum, it’s faithful to the mood of Christie’s intent.

There’s good support here from Michael Elphick, Annette Crosbie and Brian Glover, but the real selling point is Sutherland, who is well-cast as a man out of time and place. His big coat, bog-brush hair and steely gaze make him an empathetic detective; I found his amateurism easier to relate to than Christie’s super-sleuths. Like Benoit Blanc’s outsider investigation of the Thrombey family in Knives Out, Calgary proves himself a dogged, dour investigator who is prepared to dig deep into family secrets, and the lack of faddish 80’s style is a plus. If you can get past the jazz, and it’s no easy task, Ordeal by Innocence is rather better than it’s last-turkey-in-the-shop reputation suggests. Sure, this may be a little staid, but I’d rather see this kind of steely interrogation tha Branagh’s Poirot leaping around the underside of railway bridges like Super Mario in the most recent Orient Express adaptation.

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  1. This was the last film by a director who made very few and whose choices in this field were exotic to say the least. His penultimate movie was Clash of the Titans (1981), just to set the scene. But he had originally made a name for himself with The Girl with the Green Eyes (1964) which won a Golden Globe and for which he was named Best Director by the U.S. National Board of Review, prior to which he was a camera operator rather than a cinematographer. So it’s good to be reminded that he did some fine work. Sutherland is always great value especially when he’s not show-boating and this had an all-star-cast for its day. But I guess Davis must take the rap for the intrusive score.

  2. Not a Christie fan though did like the Poirot books when I was younger and less discerning, and jazz makes me want to commit murder, so even though it’s Donald Sutherland I’m afraid it’s a nope.

  3. I could not stand the book. I think I gave it 2 stars. So a movie version, no matter the praise, doesn’t stand a chance of ever getting watched by me. I think it boils down to me not being a fan of Christie’s overall. I liked several of her books but they were always the peaks in the waves while most of her stuff kept me down in the troughs…

      • Oh, you have got to be kidding? Her best? This doesn’t even come close to And Then There Were None. And as loathe as I am to say it, even Murder of the Orient Express with that disgusting little Poirot was better.

        Now, if you want to talk movie versions, I’ll let you dictate without question. I’ve seen one version of Murder On (and it was not the branaugh version). I know there is a miniseries for And Then but I’ve never gotten around to it. And I’ve obviously never seen this.

        • I’d be lying if I suggested I’d read most of Christie’s work; I can only judge her plotting through how well it makes the transition to the screen. This one was apparently her own favourite of her works; not that the artist is always the best judge. But I found the lack of a central location refreshing; the train/boat/house has become a cliche, and yet many of her works don’t feature that trope.

  4. Nice that they got a Canadian to play someone named Calgary. Haven’t seen this, or read the book, which is an omission for me since I usually like this kind of stuff. Thanks for the heads up!

    • Maybe I’m getting old, but I don’t need a gimmick to enjoy Christie. And Sutherland is ideal here…

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