This post is for the Beyond the Cover Blogathon hosted by Liz of Now Voyaging and Kristina of Speakasy (two blogs you need to check out right after you read this post).
A good story speaks to many people on multiple levels, so naturally it would seem fair that a good novel would make a good film. While this is not always the case, and some would argue that there are novels which are unfilmable, it has been the consensus that one genre in particular is easily adapted into film. This genre is crime or mystery. From Sherlock Holmes to pulps of the 30’s, these types of stories fit easily into the standard three act structure of film narrative. And who better to be adapted than one of the most popular mystery writers of the 20th century, Agatha Christie. Having penned upwards of 78 books, her work changed the way we look at the mystery novel. Her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was groundbreaking in its ability to conceal the perpetrator of the crime even to the most ardent mystery reader. So naturally, many of her works were adapted into films. The novel I will be looking at will be 1939’s And Then There Were None. First published in England originally under a different title, the title was changed to And Then There Were None when reprinted in the U.S., alternatively titled Ten Little Indians in some English language publications and play adaptations.
Many film adaptations have been made, from Rene Clair’s 1945 film of the same name to M. Night Shyamalan’s Devil (2010). And as recently as 2015, a mini-series was produced by the BBC. The adaptation I will be looking at is the 1970 Mario Bava thriller Five Dolls for An August Moon. An adaptation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None by Mario Bava, based purely on the title of the book, would be Bay of Blood (1971). This post, however, is not about that film, and while Bava may have used the same novel as a reference when making Bay of Blood, we must remain focused. Adapted isn’t a word I would generally use to describe Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970), more like loosely based. And to say that Five Dolls is mod is an understatement. It is as if Bava took the Danger Diabolik (1968) visual style, along with that rotating bed, and applied to Blood and Black Lace (1964). Eliminating the color palette of Blood and Black Lace , but giving us Edwige Fenech to make up for it.
Before we turn the pages of this story, let's take a moment to look at the word giallo. Italian for yellow, this word became synonymous with crime or mystery novel published from the late 1920’s and onward in Italy. Many of which were translations of English novels by authors like Cain, Hammett, Conan-Doyle, and of course Agatha Christie.The publisher Mondadori signified this genre by the color yellow, and this color scheme quickly caught on with other publishers as crime novels gained in popularity. When these types of stories were adapted for film in the late 1960’s beginning with Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963), the name signifying that genre stuck. And the giallo film cycle was born. At its height,during the first half of the 1970’s numerous films were produced in Italy each year. Characterized by their stylized violence, inventive camera angles, and jazzy musical scores these films made famous by auteurs like Dario Argento, and Sergio Martino. By this time though, it's pioneer, Mario Bava, was already progressing to the next cycle, the body count movie. Films like Bava’s Bay of Blood would influence filmmakers in Canada and the U.S., like John Carpenter, in ushering of the age of the slasher film in the late 1970’s.
Five Dolls, like the Christie novel, is set on an island. A rich man has invited a number of guest to stay with him on the island. While in the novel,U.N. Owen is a mysterious figure to the guests, all of the guests of Mr. George Stark know him. They are all there because of one man, or rather one piece of paper. Professor Gerry Ferrell has come up with a new type of resin and three of the men are there to buy it from him. They’ve combined forces, offering him 3 million dollars, and maybe a wife or two. Whatever he wants. All the food, J&B whiskey, and sun he can handle. All he wants is to rest.
Marie doesn't want rest. Her husband needs her help in seducing the Prof into giving him the formula. Too bad she's more into the houseboy, Charles. I mean he can drive a boat with his feet, without looking ahead, while laying on the deck. Amazing young man. It's too bad someone stuck a knife in him. It is also unfortunate that Mr. Stark sent away the yacht for a few days, so no one will be bothering them. Not even the police. So like any normal group, they wrap up Charlie and hang him in the walk in freezer next to a slab of beef Rocky would use to train.
After the first victim, it becomes apparent that someone is trying to cause trouble for those on the island. The telephone/radio has been broken. Tempers are beginning to rise, and J&B whiskey is flowing readily. The men must still keep their eye on the prize. So Nick decides to bring his check to the Prof hoping to persuade him to do business with him alone. The Prof won't have it, so he returns the check, or does he. Maybe it's caught in someone's clothing.
Before this mystery can be solved, the professor is shot and dragged into the water. Oddly enough, we know who shot him. It was Mary-Ann, I mean Isabelle. Why she did this is unknown. Unlike the novel, the characters for the most part, while some visibly shaken, don't seem to be affected by these murders. Nick wants to know about his check, Stark wants to buy the formula from Trudy, the Prof Farrell's wife. While Jack and Peggy want to play footsie.
It's not long before more bodies turn up. This time it's Marie, wearing that red bra, perhaps the check is in it? She's been stabbed in the chest, exactly as she was in the opening seen, only this time it wasn't a joke. So the meat locker gets another body.
Stark's wife Jill can't take it anymore. So she kills herself. This is only revealed after a fight between Nick and George over the missing check. Peggy is shot while enjoying the morning sun. And I've lost count of who is left. With only a few people left alive they decide to wait it out together. The yacht should be there soon. No one has inquired where Isabelle is at all by the way. Trudy begins to record a message on a reel to reel tape player detailing the men she is left alone with and that one of them is in fact the killer. Just as in the book, a recording holds some importance. Not in detailing the supposed murderous deeds of the individuals. But to indicate that someone has been playing a trick on them. And that person is, no I won't give it away. I will say this, much like the novel, without the "epilogue", the film would not make any sense. There is a sort of twist at the end.
While it may seem that this film is dull due to Bava chosing to use primarily off screen violence, rather than a typical giallo. It fits in with the structure of And Then There Were None. In the novel the murders are mostly happened upon by the group. This gives the reader a further sense of confusion as to who is the killer. There must be someone else on the island committing these murders outside of the group. We are put in the same place as the characters. Unfortunately in the case of Five Dolls, we are just confused. But if confusing plots stopped us from watching films, we would never have the pleasure of such gems as The Big Sleep (1946). And let's be honest, much like reading Playboy for the articles, the real reason we came to Five Dolls is for the visual pleasure.
Apart from a typical 70's overuse, in my opinion, of zoom. Bava creates visual pieces that are beautiful. His famous painted mattes are in full effect here. These visuals, along with the jazzy score by Umiliani make for some great scenes. And while it may seem that Bava is less concerned with the Christie story he's pulling from, there are themes such as isolation, distrust, depression, and greed that are present in both. This film is an example of how literary works do not need direct adaptation in order to convey the same message. While we always say "the book was better" it is important to remember that the film is a vision or interpretation of text. And a good story has the ability to evoke thought through more that one medium.
If you are a fan of Bava's work I would recommend checking this film out. (All photos from this film are screen shots taken from the 2007 Anchor Bay release of the film).
Also, here is the trailer for the film care of Arrow Video. And don't forget to check out my Tumblr page
The Distracted Blogger
I watch movies. I write about them here. I watch more movies. I get nothing else done.
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