When I am not spending the final hours of a Sunday evening watching a film about fascism (see my discussion of Mr. Klein for thoughts on that habit) I am probably watching this ’40s whodunnit, based on Agatha Christie’s novel Ten Little Indians. It’s not a perverse choice. Bare minimum, ATTWN is a well made, often inventive and witty film. It is hardly the only movie with those qualities, however, so they alone can’t explain why I view the movie repeatedly.
There are other factors. ATTWN takes place over a weekend, as a group of guests invited to an island home get bumped off one by one, and the survivors struggle to figure out who among them is the killer. So there is a nice congruence between the span of the film’s action and the weekend fading behind me as I watch it. (I almost never watch it any other time.) The movie also nicely captures the feel of being shut away in a drafty house during a wet, windy storm. And there is the satisfaction of watching Hollywood character actors like Walter Huston, Barry Fitzgerald and Judith Anderson at their best. Still, none of this is quite enough to explain my habitual viewings.
The deciding qualities are first, as a “cozy” whodunnit, ATTWN provides the charm of the puzzle or, after you know the solution, the pleasure of seeing how you have been misled. Second, Christie’s work is utterly safe. Even if her stories center on murder, it is the game of cat and mouse between book and reader or film and viewer that matters. Nothing is at stake. The stories are just involving enough to distract, but make no emotional demands. Even the characters in ATTWN seem to view identifying the killer as more of an intellectual exercise than a matter of life and death. It is that safety, that lack of emotional appeal that makes such stories perfect preparation for the stress of the week ahead. The predictability of the well known works as a harmless soporific, a way to wind down and tune out.
Friends have often despaired at my habit of using the movie this way, but I have just as often wondered why we should think it unusual to watch a film repeatedly, when no one demurs about listening to a piece of music over and over again, or re-reading favorite books. Why is using a movie as a mild tonic any less legitimate than being excited by a fresh experience? While I would never treat my favorite films in such a carelessly casual way, or advocate such an approach for film making (one shouldn’t strive to put people to sleep) viewing a movie as an old friend seems as good a reason as any to value it.