Release Date(s)1985 (June 18, 2019)
Studio(s)Cannon Film Distributors/MGM (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: C
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: D
Based on a novel by Agatha Christie, Ordeal by Innocence takes place in the old coastal town of Dartmouth, England. Paleontologist Dr. Arthur Calgary (Donald Sutherland) comes to town seeking a young man he gave a lift to shortly before leaving on a two-year expedition to Antarctica. In his car, Calgary found an address book belonging to the hitchhiker and wants to return it. At the forbidding cliff-top Argyle Manor, accessible only by sea, he has a puzzling encounter with the young man’s father, Leo Argyle (Christopher Plummer). Emotionlessly, Mr. Argyle reveals that the owner of the address book, his son Jack, is dead – hanged for having murdered his mother (Faye Dunaway) with a fireplace poker. Dr. Calgary insists that Jack couldn’t have committed the crime because he was in Calgary’s car at the time of the murder. Calgary resolves to get to the bottom of the mystery.
He interviews Argyle’s secretary and mistress, Gwenda Vaughan (Diana Quick); his housekeeper, Kirsten Lindstrom (Annette Crosbie); his hard-drinking daughter Mary Durrant (Sarah Miles); and Jack’s widow, usherette Maureen Clegg (Cassie Stuart), but no one seems to care to revisit the murder. Even the local police inspector (Michael Elphick) is reluctant to take a fresh look at the two-year-old crime. This only makes Calgary more determined to figure out what really happened.
Ordeal by Innocence doesn’t benefit from a colorful central sleuth, such as Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, to track down clues and figure out “whodunit.” The rationale for Calgary to go above and beyond what most people would do is that he is driven by regret that only he could have provided Jack Argyle with a legitimate alibi. There are tragic consequences for Calgary’s meddling, but the various characters he questions are rather lackluster.
The location is a major asset, with a number of scenes shot in the small fog-laden town where everyone seems to know everyone else. Director Desmond Davis opens the film with a long sequence under the titles of Calgary traveling by small boat, and we get a look at the picturesque coastal village.
Flashbacks in black and white show Jack’s mother and provide insight into her relationship with her son. These scenes are brief, even though Ms. Dunaway’s is the biggest name in the movie. Despite a fine cast, Ordeal by Innocence never rises above routine. It comes across as just another formulaic mystery. Perhaps it was hoped that some of the luster of the far superior Agatha Christie adaptations Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Death on the Nile (1978) would rub off.
The Region A Blu-ray release, featuring 1080p resolution, contains crisp detail and atmospheric compositions, such as the black-and-white sequence in which Jack Argyle, back to camera, plays solitaire as two guards stand watch with the shadow of the cell bars falling across the floor. In a shadowy corridor, he is led up onto the gallows, his head is covered, and the trap door opens, plunging him downward. A close-up lingers on the taut rope as it gently sways. A few scenes on the water are shot with heavy mist, obscuring detail beyond a certain point, and when Calgary walks through the woods asking questions of a town resident, they pass through bare trees, their naked branches forming interesting patterns. An outdoor scene shot at night is bathed in moonlight as the characters are backlit. Rain-soaked streets reflecting street lights add a noir-ish touch.
The DTS soundtrack features a good balance of dialogue and ambient sound. Gun shots are very loud and the discovery of a dead body is accompanied by a high-pitched musical cue suggesting a scream. A slap in the face is “sweetened” to sound more dramatic. Seagulls are present in great numbers in one scene and their cries are clearly heard. The score, by jazz artist Dave Brubeck, often seems to work against the visuals. It’s too light and airy. Darker, more somber music would have better added atmosphere to the story.
The only bonus materials are a half dozen trailers. Ordeal by Innocence is rated PG-13.
Theatrical Trailers – Six trailers are included, all of them mystery movies.
1. Ordeal by Innocence (U.S. trailer)
2. Ordeal by Innocence (International trailer)
3. The Rosary Murders (Donald Sutherland, Charles Durning, Belinda Bauer)
4. The High Commissioner (Christopher Plummer, Rod Taylor, Lilli Palmer, Daliah Lavi)
5. The Thomas Crown Affair (Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway)
6. Witness for the Prosecution (Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton)
– Dennis Seuling