Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence

Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence is the kind of movie you visit without high expectations for cinematic subtlety—what the heck, just a good, juicy cat-and-mouse whodunit will do.

After all, the formula has worked well before. Murder on the Orient Express took a gallery of stars and set them up as bowling pins for Christie’s sleuth, Hercule Poirot. Ditto for Death on the Nile. But as the Christie adaptations continue, the stars get less stellar and the screenplays less inspired.

The form hits its nadir with Ordeal by Innocence, which is being quietly released (read: it’s getting dumped) after having sat on the shelf for a year or so. Not only is it incoherent and cheap-looking, it doesn’t even have Poirot.

This time the sleuth, a Dr. Calgary (Donald Sutherland), is an amateur to the practice of criminal detection. He’s a scientist, drawn into a murder in which he was peripherally involved.

This idea is a good one. Seems Calgary gave a ride to a hitchhiker who left a notebook (with return address) in Calgary’s car. But Calgary was off on an expedition to the Antarctic, where he spent the next two years.

After his stint southward, Calgary dutifully returns the notebook to the address. But it seems the owner is dead—he was hanged for the murder of his mother, which occurred the very night, and at the very time, Calgary had given him a ride.

This means the man did not kill his mother, and Calgary was his only alibi. The scientist sets out to determine the real killer, much to the dismay of the surviving suspects; they all believe the world is a better place without the hanged man, who was a cad.

It’s a good setup, but the narrative goes willy-nilly almost immediately, half-heartedly distributing red herrings. Sutherland does a professional job as the investigator, but the rest of the cast is colorless, and their roles have no meat.

Some of these actors are plain boring (Christopher Plummer, Sarah Miles), some are wasted (Diana Quick, Phoebe Nicholls, both of “Brideshead Revisited”). None of them has anything to do but act British and unperturbed, a deadly dull combination.

The film is so tawdry is relies on black-and-white flashbacks to fill up time, featuring Faye Dunaway as the murder victim. It’s tempting to speculate these scenes were added at some late point in the editing, since the movie, with flashbacks, barely clocks in at 90 minutes.

One other major gaffe: Incredibly, the guilty party is revealed to the audience about 10 minutes before the principals are all gathered into one room for the traditional denouement. This takes considerable wind out of Sutherland’s sails as he leads up to the big accusation.

Ordeal by Innocence is best forgotten, although it does have one quirky feature. That’s the jazz score by Dave Brubeck, which jumps into the story whenever things get dull. This means there’s a whole lot of music. It’s so stupidly out of place in this chilly British world, you’d wonder what was going through the minds of the people who made this movie—if the feebleness of the rest of the film hadn’t already answered that question.

First published in the Herald, November 4, 1985

Does anyone remember this movie? It seems to have no profile at all. Sutherland was busy at this time, filling the lead role in a strange collection of films.

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