Whodunnit? Cannon sure did try to find out the answer.

Jumanji 2 and Frozen 2 may be the top movies out right now thanks to the kiddies, teens and college kids, but Knives Out is the title their parents are continuing to turn into a surprise hit. Everyone, from general audiences to critics have made Rian Johnson’s enthralling and hugely fun murder mystery a success all around. It isn’t just box office numbers that has given Johnson and everyone associated with the film something to celebrate; the movie has also won over various awards circles, including the Golden Globes, who have bestowed nominations for leads Daniel Craig and Ana de Armas as well as one for the film itself as Best Motion Picture Musical/Comedy.

In a nutshell, Knives Out tells the story of a wealthy mystery author (Christopher Plummer) who is found murdered on the night of his 85th birthday and the renowned detective (Craig) who is brought in to investigate the case with the help of the dead man’s devoted nurse (de Armas). The brilliance of Knives Out can be found in both its clever mystery and genre trappings, including a stately manor and an all-star cast, not least of which Plummer himself, who enjoys one of the movie’s most standout parts. The legendary actor’s presence called to mind another time when the acting pro (who just turned a sprightly 90) ventured into the murder mystery realm by way of the Agatha Christie adaptation Ordeal by Innocence.

Produced by Cannon Films (I know, but hear me out), 1984’s Ordeal by Innocence stars Donald Sutherland as Dr. Arthur Calgary, a paleontologist recently back from an expedition who turns up at a small English village in order to return the lost address book of the hitchhiker he picked up two years prior. Shortly arriving at the man’s home, Arthur discovers that he has been executed after being found guilty of his mother’s (Faye Dunaway) murder. However Arthur pieces together that he is the dead man’s alibi when he realizes that he was in his car during the time of the murder. Despite Arthur’s efforts to clear the dead man’s name, no one in the family, including father Leo (Plummer), sister Mary (Sarah Miles) and brother-in-law Philip (Ian McShane) seem all that interested, leading him to wonder what it is they’re all hiding.

Christie has always been well-known for her two most famous detective characters: Hercule Poiroit and Jane Marple. Both were the guides and anchors of most of the captivating mysteries Christie wrote. Very rarely did the legendary author venture away from using either of these characters in her work. When she did, however, the results were always surprising on one level or another. Stand-alone Christie tends to accentuate all of the qualities which made her mysteries so successful; the crimes were darker, the motives were more sinister and the themes were explored from a more primal approach. Ordeal by Innocence is classic Christie in this mode as the film brings forward so many of the author’s motifs, specifically the perverse fascination of a family comprised of orphans adopted by a callous father and a domineering mother. There’s a sense of something altogether unbelievable of a family (one in which adopted siblings sleep together) with no interest in either avenging their younger son’s death and/or finding their mother’s actual killer. If there’s a single element which points to what it is about a stand-alone Christie that’s dynamically different than her other works, it can be found in the character she’s designated as detective and their grappling with the events in question. Arthur is the perfect Christie amateur detective and the film doesn’t waste the opportunity with his character. We see Arthur’s trying to navigate the world he finds himself in after being plunged into this dark family saga without letting it literally kill him. Moreover however, Ordeal by Innocence successfully fleshes out it’s main protagonist by subtly illustrating the guilt, regret and remorse which fuels his need to solve this murder and put right the wrongful death he feels responsible for not having been able to stop.

But, this is still a Cannon effort; and for all their aims, Cannon couldn’t help the way they saw the art of making films. While it’s easy to remember the dogs (American Ninja 3), some actually fail to quickly recall the fact that the studio did actually manage to pull off a decent film experience once in a while. Ordeal by Innocence is one such case. The film is one of their most effective thanks to the fact that its studio entrusted in director Desmond Davis and screenwriter Alexander Stuart the kind of free hand to explore Christie’s text in terms of motifs and motivations. Meanwhile the story’s strong sense of place was taken full advantage of (a small English village comes off like an isolated world of its own) and the use of black and white filming for the flashback sequences gives the events leading up to the murder (and the act itself) a sort of hazy, nightmarish quality. The flip side of a “prestige” Cannon production which actually works is that it’s far less memorable when compared to the elements which were hopelessly out of touch with the film as a whole. One of the more glaring missteps of the movie is the score, which is more at home in a late-night big city jazz club than in an English Agatha Christie story. Yet on some level it’s even harder to ignore a funny feeling the movie imparts regarding it’s flow and pacing. Supposedly, the Cannon folks had spent so much on the pricey cast, that they had little money to spend on the script. When the initial cut of the film was screened, it ran dangerously short, prompting some hastily-written extra scenes which had to be quickly shot so that the movie could even quality for feature status. Although it’s difficult to discern where the extra scenes are, there’s a sort of disjointed feel about Ordeal by Innocence which the movie only more or less manages to shake off.

If there’s an element which helps enormously in making Ordeal by Innocence feel less like a Cannon film, it’s the cast. Each of the seasoned and well-respected cast members embrace Christie’s world and the characters they’ve been given. Because he’s Sutherland, the actor is able to make the protagonist Arthur more than just an observer when it comes to uncovering the mystery he’s stumbled upon by injecting a compelling hint of pathos which carries him far. Dunaway’s role is a risky one for the actress. Coming three years after the legendary Mommie Dearest, Rachel may not be Joan Crawford, but her domineering mother is nonetheless formidable and realistically terrifying in Dunaway’s capable hands. Miles and McShane make for a watchable pair of suspects, while Plummer playfully uses the film to further hone his cold, sly lord of the manor screen persona.

One suspects that the folks over at Cannon had higher hopes for Ordeal by Innocence than they did for some of their…other titles. Always aiming to be associated with prestige films as well as commercial hits, the producers managed to wrangle a Royal premiere for the movie, complete with Queen Elizabeth herself in attendance. But Cannon was still Cannon and everyone knew it. Reviews were lousy, the audience didn’t show and the movie eventually faded off into obscurity, becoming difficult to locate even for hardcore Christie fans.

Ordeal by Innocence would not be the only time Cannon tried to earn some cred by latching their name onto some of Christie’s work. By the decade’s end the studio had commissioned another of the author’s novels, the more famous Ten Little Indians. But not only did that adaptation stray too far from the original text, but also suffered thanks to a lackluster ensemble (including Frank Stallone in the lead role) and a script which totally diminished the suspense. The company found more success with director Michael Winner’s version of Christie’s Appointment with Death, which amped up the mystery and star power thanks to the likes of Lauren Bacall, Carrie Fisher, John Gielgud, Hayley Mills, Piper Laurie and Peter Ustinov as Poirot. Still there’s something curiously watchable about the imperfect Ordeal by Innocence and the efforts of the company that brought it to the screen. In spite of the extra shooting and cast demands (Sutherland refused to be shot from below, while Dunaway insisted on being lit from up front), the movie works. Even if the film may not be quintessential Christie or Cannon, it still manages enough suspense and theme to come alive and embody the sensibilities of both storytelling forces.

Ordeal by Innocence is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

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