Film Review: Ordeal by Innocence (1985)

 with Donald Sutherland (Dr. Arthur Calgary), Christopher Plummer (Leo Argyle), Annette Crosbie (Kirsten Lindstrom) and Faye Dunaway (Rachel Argyle)

 written by Alexander Stuart

directed by Desmond Davis

Ordeal by Innocence is one of the last big-screen Christie adaptations to date; indeed, it’s been about twenty years since an English-language Christie film hit cinemas. (So the announced film of Crooked House can’t come soon enough!) It seems that – after the Christie glut that was the early ’80s – her works would be relegated to television afterward (awesome television, though). But it’s not hard to see why this melancholy, ruminative novel was ripe for adaptation.

Donald Sutherland is the wry Dr. Arthur Calgary, who shows up on the doorstep of gruff Leo Argyle (Christopher Plummer, in a wonderfully boorish role, reminding us why he hated The Sound of Music) with an unexpected alibi for Leo’s son Jacko (Billy McColl), who was charged with the murder of his mother Rachel (Faye Dunaway) when no-one believed his story about the stranger who gave him a lift that night. Sadly, it’s too late: Jacko has already been executed for the murder. To Calgary, this is important news: not only is Jacko innocent, however little good it will do him now, but someone else – presumably someone close to the family – is a killer. Yet Calgary begins to feel like he’s stumbled into a remake of The Wicker Man (not another one!); not only are the family cold and repressed, but they – along with the police and village locals – would all rather Jacko have just been guilty. As it turns out, he was a bit of a cad, his mother was a cold-hearted harridan, and the idea that someone else is a killer is too much to deal with. Not only is there the fear, but also the stubborn pride which prevents them from retracting all the horrible thoughts they’ve had about Jacko since he was put away, partly because even his own family refused to believe his claims of innocence.

The film is a far cry from the recent Marple adaptation, which decided to centre around the family unit, telling the tale from the inside. Instead, Calgary becomes more of a film noir style detective, who struggles to break through the closed-off barriers of this family. The Wicker Man analogy above is actually quite apt, as the idea looms – unsubstantiated though it may be – that this is all some vast conspiracy to protect Rachel’s real killer. (Dunaway, incidentally, gets second billing as the deceased, which is quite impressive seeing as she only appears in momentary flashbacks. I want her agent!)

By and large, I think Ordeal by Innocence is quite a success. The film has that very ’70s independent film palette of slightly washed-out colours, and a direction which seems meandering but is in fact quite pointful and reflective. As Calgary, Donald Sutherland gives a perfectly pitched performance: he’s a fish out of water, unwanted even by the local police, but there’s a strong morality that compels him on to investigate. The film’s cleverest technique is to layer snippets of audio from previous suspects’ statements over him during his solitary investigative sequences. It’s a very effective way of ascribing meaning to each of his day-to-day actions, both when he’s actively investigating, and in the moments when he’s just sitting in his hotel room. We come to understand how the case is filtering in his mind, while the clues can also be played back to us. Perhaps best of all, Calgary – although dynamic and with initiative – never becomes a cliche, as he’s still an “Everyman”. While he’s thwarted at every turn, it never feels as if he’s “a man… being THWARTED AT EVERY TURN”.

By and large the cast, too, are  in top form. Particularly notable turns from Cassie Stuart, who gives an earthy, seductive turn as Jacko’s widow, an usherette with designs on Calgary, and Ian McShane, as Jacko’s crippled brother-in-law. It’s a joy to see McShane play the grotesque, as he’s here a misanthrope whose only true love is his orchids. The film, however, truly belongs to Sutherland, Plummer, and the marvelous Annette Crosbie as Kirsten Lindstrom, the over-protective housekeeper and ‘den mother’ of the Argyle clan. Unlike the Marple version – which I liked, but which made sure to give us all the family logistics in the opening – it’s only in dribs and drabs that we learn of Rachel’s cold-hearted nature, and the inter-relationships of her adopted children. Thankfully, this film lacks the melodrama added into the Marple film, and – with Crosbie’s stern but compassionate presence hovering throughout – the home feels like a complex-but-understandable place.

Indeed, the film – with a few very minor shortcomings, outlined below – is a psychological tale with the trappings of a murder mystery. There’s a great sense of connecting one thought to another – I love when Calgary goes to put on gloves while his mind plays over the idea of disposing of gloves – and the ending is tragic in its bleakness, and makes a wonderful thematic link to the earlier crimes.

Some of the musical choices are unusual, unfortunately, particularly the over-exaggerated music during the flashbacks, and the unfortunately ’80s saxophone that plays over the otherwise crushing final sequence (something that also badly affected Ustinov’s enjoyable final Poirot film, Appointment with Death). And – although it’s not the film’s fault – the modern viewer in me couldn’t take the lilting oboe seriously during the flashback to Jacko’s execution. Unfortunately, the viewer who grew up in the ’90s, knows “lilting oboe” means ‘change of mood’ on a FOX dramedy. There ain’t no stopping my Pavlovian instincts. And finally, I have to admit that Diana Quick is simply not great as Calgary’s secretary Gwenda Vaughan. Quick has proved herself worthy in a slew of classic roles, but she seems to be out-of-tone here for some reason, a little too overpowering and occasionally melodramatic.

Other than those minor flaws, however, I very much enjoyed Ordeal by Innocence, and its slightly mournful, ’70s avant-garde vibe. What a shame that this effectively heralded the end of Christie on the big screen. I understand that Poirot and Marple are too ‘quaint’ for a modern film audience, and given how well they’ve been served on television, I can’t complain. But Christie’s non-series books have always made good films, and some of them – the spy dramas, notably – have not yet been filmed. I’m surprised that a film studio wouldn’t just do a major rewrite and use Christie’s name for publicity’s sake. Ah well, I’ll savour what we got, and happily.