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Retro Review: ENDLESS NIGHT (1972)

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ENDLESS NIGHT
(UK - 1972)

Written and directed by Sidney Gilliat. Cast: Hayley Mills, Hywel Bennett, Britt Ekland, George Sanders, Per Oscarsson, Patience Collier, Aubrey Richards, Peter Bowles, Lois Maxwell, Madge Ryan, David Bower, Helen Horton, Walter Gotell, David Healy, Leo Genn. (Unrated, 99 mins)

Along with the many versions of her 1939 novel And Then There Were None, usually under the title TEN LITTLE INDIANS, the overwhelming majority of Agatha Christie film and TV adaptations have been her mysteries featuring either Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple. With WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, Billy Wilder's 1957 version of her 1925 courtroom drama short story, being tops among the exceptions, the film versions of her literary departures have proven mostly unsuccessful, particularly 1985's ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE, possibly the worst big-screen take on her work. 1972's ENDLESS NIGHT has been held in low regard for nearly 50 years, and its response was so unfavorable in its native UK that it was never even released in American theaters. It's not exactly obscure--between TV airings and its availability on VHS in the '80s and on DVD in the early '00s, it hasn't been all that difficult to see--but it's rarely-discussed and it's been generally dismissed, if not outright forgotten. Based on Christie's 1967 novel, ENDLESS NIGHT definitely falls into the ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE category in that it's a more inward psychological drama rather than a standard mystery, and the film is much more Hitchcockian than Christie in style and execution. And the connection is there, as writer/director Sidney Gilliat (1908-1994), whose career as a screenwriter dated back to the advent of talkies, first found success scripting Alfred Hitchcock films like 1938's THE LADY VANISHES and 1939's JAMAICA INN. ENDLESS NIGHT is generally faithful to Christie's novel, but like ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE, its story structure doesn't lend itself to a visual medium. As a result, unlike ensemble pieces featuring Poirot, Marple, or a group of strangers summoned to an isolated house where they're picked off one by one, Endless Night is one of Christie's works that's better-served on the page.






That doesn't mean it isn't interesting. In fact, it's unusual in the way that it's virtually impossible for it to work on a first viewing. It almost requires a second watch just to make sense of the plot. Its finale throws out twists and turns with such wild abandon that even if the intent is some kind of ambiguity, it will only result in frustration unless you have an opportunity to go back and rewatch key scenes, including a stilted, confusing opening that only makes sense on a second run-through. This is probably a big reason for its chilly reception, plus Christie mysteries just weren't a big draw at the time, with a lull of interest between the mid-1960s and the success of 1974's Oscar-winning MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, which kickstarted a Christie renaissance just before her death in 1976. I don't mean to imply that ENDLESS NIGHT is some kind of innovative, misunderstood trailblazer, because at the end of the day, it really doesn't work. But it deserves some credit for being a little ahead of its time with the kind of smack-you-upside-the-head twists and kick-in-the-balls reveals that you'd start seeing regularly in the '90s, especially after THE USUAL SUSPECTS.


Recently released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead), ENDLESS NIGHT was also notable for reuniting the stars of Roy Boulting's acclaimed 1968 chiller TWISTED NERVE: grown-up Disney child star and POLLYANNA herself, Hayley Mills, and cherubic David Hemmings-alike Hywel Bennett. Bennett, then coming off of 1971's penis-transplant sex farce PERCY, is Michael Rogers, an aimless, irresponsible, and immature young man who drifts from job to job with no real drive or sense of responsibility. He's a self-described "idle dreamer" obsessed with a large swath of land in the countryside called Gipsy's Acre, where he has a pie-in-the-sky notion of building a beautiful dream house. He loses a limo driving job over his attitude and is able to leave his new part-time job at a gas station after a chance encounter with free-spirited Ellie Thomsen (Mills). He soon discovers that she's an orphaned heiress--"the sixth-richest heiress in the world," in fact--and they marry after a whirlwind courtship where she surprises him by purchasing Gipsy's Acre. The marriage is frowned upon by her relatives who live on an allowance she doles out, including her bitter stepmother (Lois Maxwell, the Bond series' Miss Moneypenny seen here in rare bitch-on-wheels form). Ellie's cynical, condescending attorney Lippincott (an enjoyably snide performance by George Sanders, in his next-to-last film; he committed suicide six months before its release) even offers Michael a huge payout to divorce her and walk away, subtly implying that this isn't Ellie's first impulsive marriage. Things get strange, combative, and uncomfortable with the arrival of Ellie's friend Greta (Britt Ekland, Bennett's PERCY co-star), who seems familiar to Santonix (Per Oscarsson), an acquaintance of Michael's from his days as a limo driver and also a highly-regarded, terminally ill architect who designs the high-tech, state-of-the-art mansion that Michael and Ellie build at Gipsy's Acre, with Michael quickly coming to the realization that things aren't what they seem to be.


George Sanders (1906-1972)
Nothing is what it seems to be, and that becomes--I hesitate to use the word "clear"--the longer ENDLESS NIGHT goes on. Gilliat was better known as a writer than a director, though he was no slouch in that department, having helmed the great 1946 British mystery GREEN FOR DANGER. One can see why found this story appealing, with all of its Hitchcockian elements, plus the subterfuge, the misdirection, threats, secrets, and blackmail, all set to a score by Bernard Herrmann, whose contributions to Hitchcock classics like VERTIGO, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, and PSYCHO were inestimable. There's also the possibility that Michael is an unreliable narrator whose general shiftlessness, fleeting flashbacks to a tragedy from his childhood, and the fact that his own mother (Madge Ryan) doesn't seem to like him very much, all work together to imply that he's got his own secrets and ulterior motives. But the resolution happens so fast that it's almost too much to take in without going back and looking at parts of the movie again. Only then do things appear to begin coming together, and even then it's a shaky foundation. ENDLESS NIGHT is a film that's easier to appreciate than actually enjoy. It's not really a thriller, and despite some classifying it as "horror," it doesn't really fall into that category either, aside from a couple of creepy moments where Michael imagines Ellie as a faceless figure. Christie's novel was a journey into the mind of its main character, and that isn't easy to pull off as an "Agatha Christie" movie. For her part, Christie saw the film and expressed displeasure with the end result, though her biggest complaints stemmed from the concessions made to the era, primarily some Ekland nudity (Bennett also drops an F-bomb at one point, which isn't something you can imagine hearing from Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple). ENDLESS NIGHT also marked the end of the road for Gilliat, who called it a career and never wrote or directed another film.



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