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Ordeal By Innocence
(1984)

Director: Desmond Davis
Cast:
Donald Sutherland, Christopher Plummer, Faye Dunaway


It's interesting to think about activities that the public feels should only be done by certain individuals. Take policemen for example, specifically the members of the boys in blue that don't just patrol and protect the citizens of a specific populous. I am talking about policemen who are detectives. If they live in a sizable and heavily populated area, the chance is that they have a lot of unsolved crimes on their hands, crimes from theft to homicide. I can only imagine what stress they go through not only going step by step in their investigation, but making sure that they don't screw up and then having an innocent person arrested, or finding the guilty party but then having to let them go because you screwed up. Or maybe the investigation ends up being unsolved, like many crimes. But I am very sure that when a crime is properly solved and the guilty party gets punished, the detectives get a great deal of satisfaction in knowing that they have properly served their community and get appropriate appreciation from the public. The public also knows that police detectives go through a lot of training, so there's usually no objections to the detectives' work. There's another kind of detective I want to talk about that I have no problems with for the most part, that being private investigators. I know that their work is usually not as glamorous as it is on TV or in movies - they mostly just gather evidence that a spouse of a client is cheating on them, or they track down missing people. But when they solve their cases to their clients' satisfaction, I am sure the private investigators get satisfaction as well. Sure, private investigators have somewhat of a sleaze factor to them, but they are providing a legal and regulated service that often the police can't or won't do, and have to go through training so they can do their job properly.

So clearly, I have no objections to policemen and private investigators getting involved with detective work, at least as long as they have been trained properly and follow the law exactly. However, I do have a problem with individuals who, despite not having gone through enough official training in detective work, decide all the same to deeply investigate some sort of criminal activity that's happened. I often think that is extremely insane behavior for a number of reasons. It frequently shows arrogance and contempt for trained and regulated detectives. Also, since the person has not been trained, there is a high probability of the wannabe detective making some sort of mistake that could destroy the possibility of the eventually revealed culprit being officially punished by the law. The wannabe detective, for that matter, could quickly find him or herself in a very sticky situation that would be risky for their lives, or the lives of other people for that matter. I'm sure you can think of other issues surrounding the issue of ordinary Joes doing their own detective work. Whenever I have indulged in fiction that concerns this premise, I've always found it a little difficult to believe that no problems seem to come up. As a child, I enjoyed the Encyclopedia Brown stories for kids, but even at my tender age I couldn't believe the title character didn't have his detective work stopped by his police chief father. Years later, I watched the TV show Elementary. Now, I really enjoyed the show (I saw every episode), but all the same I couldn't believe that Sherlock Holmes and his partner Joan Watson were allowed by the police to have a free run on serious criminal cases, especially since they often broke the law in doing so.

I'm sure I'm not the only person who finds it hard to believe in fiction when an ordinary person does his or her own investigation on a murder or some other major crime. Why has this premise then been used many times in books, television, and movies? Well, I think the main reason is that Ordeal By Innocencethe premise still has some appeal, that being it comes from the fact that the wannabe detective often seems more relatable than a true and trained detective. We want to see someone like us succeed so our lowly selves can share in the satisfaction of that person struggling yet managing to show the authorities that they accomplished something they were unable to do. I admit that to a degree I like seeing that, despite the theme in general being very unlikely to happen in real life. All the same, when I got my hands on the murder mystery Ordeal By Innocence, I had to prepare to suspend my belief, though it was made easier by knowing the movie was produced by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus of Cannon Films; I had a feeling the end results would be... interesting, enough to compensate for any disbelief. The wannabe detective in this 1950s-set story is one Dr. Arthur Calgary (Sutherland, Gas), who at the beginning of the movie has returned to England after a two-year expedition in Antarctica. He first sets off to return an address book that was accidently left in his car by a man named Jacko Argyle (Billy McCole) that he gave a ride to just a short time before leaving for Antarctica. Arthur finds the Argyle mansion, but is told by the man of the Argyle mansion, one Leo Argyle (Plummer, Shadow Dancing), that Jacko murdered his mother (who was also Leo's wife, played by Dunaway of Mommie Dearest), and was executed. Arthur quickly figures out that when Jocko was with him two years earlier, he couldn't have murdered his mother at the time it was claimed to have happened. However, Leo doesn't seem to want the case to be reopened, Jacko's sister Mary (Sarah Miles, Venom) and her husband Philip (Ian McShane of the John Wick series) also don't want that, and Jacko's secretary Gwenda (Diana Quick, The Death Of Stalin) also isn't interested. Even the local police inspector Huish (Michael Elphick, O Lucky Man!) is reluctant to reopen the case. Confused by all this, Arthur decides to make his own investigation.

Ordeal By Innocence happens to be based on a novel written by Agatha Christie, and was the first of three Christie film adaptations by Cannon Films (the others being Appointment With Death and Ten Little Indians). The only Christie I'd seen before this movie was a stage presentation of The Mousetrap, the two Murder On The Orient Express movies, and Evil Under The Sun. So I had an inkling that Ordeal By Innocence would have Christie's unique style to some degree. The most interesting touch of this Christie story is that the movie is that after some time, it is questioned several times if the investigating Arthur is doing the right thing with his private investigation, especially when things turn darker (guess how). At the end of the movie, this question really hangs in the air and makes you think, which is much different than endings from your typical murder mystery. (Though I wish Arthur expressed more about the issue than he actually did.) Thinking back to the beginning, however, it's easy to see why Arthur did get involved - he saw a great injustice that he felt had to be righted, probably close to what one of us would think in his shoes. When he starts his investigation, it's actually kind of compelling, since we see the indifference expressed by everyone around Arthur; we want to know why this is happening. As well, things at this part of the movie unfold layer by layer in a manner that is pretty easy to follow and keeps us in the audience interested. However, a little more than halfway through the movie, things start to get pretty confusing, because by then we have met a lot more suspects. Each suspect has their own stories, opinions, and motivations, and it was hard for me to keep things straight. I feel I should mention that quite often I get confused while watching a mystery movie such as this, so this particular quibble might just be for people like me who can only process so much important detail in a movie at a time.

On the other hand, the script has some other issues that I think most other people would agree with me are problems, such as the fact that there are no particularly compelling characters. That is sometimes a problem during the adaptation of a novel to the silver screen, because a story in novel form can get into the heads of the characters, which is harder to do in a movie. All the characters in Ordeal By Innocence just seem to be written to do the bare minimum their characters have to do to advance the story. We don't really get to know how the Argyle family members really think about the fact that their relative was executed for something he didn't do. The police inspector just goes by the book despite the implications of an innocent man executed, no personal feelings are expressed. The Arthur character is hardly expanded upon further than the revelations that he is divorced and a paleontologist. Such weakly written characters would be a challenge for any actor to bring to life. The only actors who manage to bring in some color are Elphick as the police inspector and McShane as the crippled husband of the Sarah Miles character; each manages to be lively with just a few minutes of screen time. While the rest of the cast includes professional and seasoned actors like Sutherland, Plummer, and Dunaway, there is a remarkable feeling of going through the motions coming from them. Since he has to carry the burden of the movie, the award for worst performance goes to Sutherland. He actually seems to be in physical pain in most of his scenes judging from his facial expressions, his body frequently seems to be stiffened up, he talks very slowly, and even worse is when he combines all three of those kinds of uncomfortable body languages together in the same scene.

While the director of a movie also has to share blame for lacklustre performances by his cast, reports state that credited director Desmond Davis (Clash Of The Titans) had his cut of the movie significantly changed by extensive reshoots by uncredited director Alan Birkinshaw, who later directed Cannon's Ten Little Indians. I can't say who shot which scenes, but whoever did, the movie not only has a remarkable uniform display of the aforementioned poor acting, but also a uniform dreary look and feel. True, the events of the movie are taking place in a coastal English village during the colder part of the year, but either director could have displayed this backdrop in a way that would have given the movie a mysterious and haunting feeing, which would have made for some great atmosphere. It instead just feels dirty and sleep-inducing. What makes this backdrop even worse to sit through is the studio-imposed musical score by Dave Brubeck. Brubeck was well known for his jazz and classical music, but the music he composed for Ordeal By Innocence is completely inappropriate for a movie such as this. It's a purely jazz score, believe it or not, with clarinets, pianos, trumpets, and other jazz instruments. From the first note, it clashes so badly with what we are seeing that the movie is extremely irritating to watch, and I am not sure if that feeling is better than the pure boredom that viewers would have experienced even had the movie been scored with more fitting music. It's no surprise then that Golan and Globus barely released the finished results to theaters. The blurb on the back of the DVD case states, "Ordeal By Innocence is one ordeal you're sure to enjoy!" Yes, if you are a masochist.

BONUS: Cinematographer Billy Williams talks about his experiences on the Ordeal By Innocence shoot - click here to watch the video!

(Posted May 19, 2021)

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Check Amazon for availability of original novel by Agatha Christie

See also: Brigham City, That Championship Season, Unman, Wittering, and Zigo

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