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Retro Review: ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE (1985)

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ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE 
(UK - 1985)

Directed by Desmond Davis. Written by Alexander Stuart. Cast: Donald Sutherland, Faye Dunaway, Sarah Miles, Christopher Plummer, Ian McShane, Diana Quick, Michael Elphick, Annette Crosbie, George Innes, Valerie Whittington, Phoebe Nichols, Michael Maloney, Cassie Stuart, Billy McColl, Ron Pember. (PG-13, 90 mins)

The critical and commercial success of 1974's MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS kickstarted a big-screen Agatha Christie revival that lasted into the early 1980s, with Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot in 1978's DEATH ON THE NILE and 1982's EVIL UNDER THE SUN, as well as Angela Lansbury as Miss Marple in 1980's THE MIRROR CRACK'D. The small screen also proved to be a popular venue, with Ustinov continuing to portray Poirot and Helen Hayes taking a few turns as Miss Marple in a series of TV-movies. It was after Christie mysteries seemed relegated to television that Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus belatedly brought Cannon into the act with a trio of mid-to-late '80s Christie projects that received little theatrical exposure, starting with 1985's ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE, based on the legendary mystery writer's 1958 novel. Like most Christie adaptations, it was a star-studded affair, but the end result is a dreary, ponderous misfire that's arguably the worst movie version of her work. The novel was a bit of a departure for Christie at the time, focusing less on any mystery and more on psychological drama, but it simply doesn't translate well to the screen. Much of this was due to a troubled production that saw director Desmond Davis (CLASH OF THE TITANS) being relieved of his duties after a disastrous rough cut screening at Cannes in 1984. He was replaced by New Zealand-born British exploitation hack Alan Birkinshaw (KILLER'S MOON, INVADERS OF THE LOST GOLD), who shot about 25 minutes worth of new footage and oversaw extensive re-editing into its finished 90-minute state, though Davis remains the sole credited director (this wasn't the first time Birkinshaw stepped in for a fired director; he also took over for Edmund Purdom on 1984's killer Santa movie DON'T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS, juicing it up with numerous splatter scenes and gratuitous T&A). Also jettisoned was a moody, atmospheric score by Pino Donaggio that Cannon and test audiences didn't like and would've had to be significantly reworked after Birkinshaw's new footage and subsequent restructuring. Donaggio had already moved on to another project and was no longer available to tweak the score to anyone's liking, prompting Golan and Globus, in search of a "name" composer, to make the ill-advised decision to sub in newly-recorded versions of existing pieces by Dave Brubeck and his quartet. Brubeck is one of the most important figures in the history of American music, but these compositions simply don't belong in this movie, with dark and somber scenes accompanied by bouncy jazz piano, noodling clarinet solos, and bombastic, pseudo-Buddy Rich drum histrionics that make the entire score sound like a temp track left in as a joke.






Just back in mid-1950s England after a two-year expedition to Antarctica, paleontologist Dr. Arthur Calgary (Donald Sutherland) finally gets around to delivering an address book left behind in his car by Jacko Argyle (Billy McColl), a stranger to whom he gave a lift en route to his departure by ship two years ago. They parted ways, but Calgary hung on to the address book, and when he delivers it to the Argyle mansion, he's informed by patriarch Leo (Christopher Plummer) that his son Jacko was hanged two years earlier for the murder of his mother, Leo's wife and Argyle matriarch Rachel (Faye Dunaway). Upon hearing the details of the murder and the time that it took place, Calgary is stunned to realize that Jacko had to be innocent, because he was in the passenger seat of his car when the murder occurred, making Calgary the perfect alibi, albeit two years too late. While Jacko apparently professed his innocence and insisted he was hitching a ride with a stranger at the time, the family sees fit to let sleeping dogs lie and not address the issue that there is a murderer among them. But the persistent Calgary becomes obsessed with exonerating Jacko, conducting his own investigation, much to the disapproval of the Argyles, who are only now beginning to recover from the scandal, and chief investigator Inspector Huish (Michael Elphick), who doesn't want his closed case reopened.


Most of ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE consists of an uncharacteristically bland Sutherland wandering from place to place to interview Argyle family members and ask each of them the same series of questions, which gives you a chance to see a parade of fine actors that are unfortunately not put to good use. Dunaway is wasted in a glorified cameo, seen only in black & white flashbacks, while 43-year-old Sarah Miles is improbably cast as the daughter of 55-year-old Plummer and 44-year-old Dunaway. Ian McShane has a couple of scenes as Miles' wheelchair-bound, Argyle-hating husband. There's also one weird bit where Jacko's widow (Cassie Stuart) attempts to seduce Calgary, with Stuart playing the entire scene topless, a move that has Birkinshaw's greasy fingerprints all over it. Screenwriter Alexander Stuart (who would fare much better by adapting his controversial 1989 novel The War Zone into Tim Roth's acclaimed 1999 directing debut) takes some liberties with the source novel, starting with Jacko being executed instead of dying in prison, but the finished film is so choppy, badly-paced, and obviously truncated (with scenes either cut or never filmed in the first place) that it never builds any sense of momentum, suspense, or urgency (not helped at all by Brubeck's completely inappropriate score), ending with a big reveal about the real killer and Sutherland's Calgary just shrugging and ambling away to the dock to take the boat back to the mainland, likely mirroring the reaction of the very few people who saw this when it was barely released in theaters in the spring of 1985. It's just out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead), which would've been a good opportunity to have an alternate audio track that played parts of the film with Donaggio's discarded score just for the sake of comparison (it was eventually released on cd), but there's no bonus features other than a couple of trailers, as ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE is met with the same ambivalence today as it was in 1985, seemingly doomed to its destiny as a justly-forgotten footnote to the careers of everyone involved.


Cannon went on to make two more Christie adaptations with 1988's Michael Winner-helmed APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH (with Ustinov returning as Hercule Poirot, accompanied by legends like Lauren Bacall, Piper Laurie, and John Gielgud), and 1989's South Africa-shot Harry Alan Towers production TEN LITTLE INDIANS, directed by Birkinshaw and starring Frank Stallone, Donald Pleasence, and Herbert Lom. Ordeal by Innocence was retrofitted as a 2007 episode of the ITV/PBS series MARPLE (with Geraldine McEwan in the title role), and was recently turned into an acclaimed three-part miniseries by BBC One and aired on Amazon Prime in 2018 with Luke Treadaway as Calgary and Bill Nighy as Leo Argyll (changed to "Argyle" in the Cannon film). While it was much better-received than the 1985 version, the miniseries encountered some controversy when co-star Ed Westwick (as another Argyll son) was accused of sexual assault by multiple women, prompting BBC execs to pull an ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD and completely reshoot his scenes with replacement Christian Cooke.


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