Times Staff Writer

Agatha Christie’s “Ordeal by Innocence” (citywide) is quite a few cuts above most films that open Fridays without previews, yet is not up to the best of the filmed Christie mysteries. There’s just not enough bite in either adapter Alexander Stuart’s dialogue or in Desmond Davis’ direction.

Even so, Christie’s whodunits are reliably diverting, and this one is fitted out with the usual starry cast, a gorgeous locale--the 800-year-old Devon coastal town of Dartmouth--photographed by the esteemed Billy Williams and, best of all, a rich and varied Dave Brubeck jazz score. It’s an OK entertainment if you’re in an undemanding mood.

After two years in the Antarctic--"researching evidence of the Continental Drift"--paleontologist Donald Sutherland dutifully looks up a young man he gave a lift to just before he left on his expedition. Sutherland wants to return to him his address book, which Sutherland has found in his car.

However, he is greeted by the man’s father (Christopher Plummer) at his baronial residence with the news that his son has been hanged for having bludgeoned to death his mother (Faye Dunaway, in a “Mommie Dearest” cameo) with a fireside poker. But Sutherland, a punctilious sort, insists that at the very moment the man was supposed to be killing his mother he was in fact a passenger in Sutherland’s car. This is enough to turn Sutherland into an amateur sleuth, even though Plummer finally admits that in his opinion his son “lacked any saving grace.”

Among the many Sutherland interrogates are Plummer’s secretary-mistress Diana Quick; his housekeeper Annette Crosbie; his hard-drinking daughter Sarah Miles; her husband Ian McShane, confined to a wheelchair and devoted to raising orchids; and the son’s widow, saucy theater usherette Cassie Stuart (who gives the film its only oomph).


Set in the ‘50s, “Ordeal by Innocence” (rated PG-13 for some violence, discreetly presented) could have benefited greatly from the hard, embittered edge of “Dance With a Stranger,” especially since the material is uncharacteristically somber and decidedly downbeat for Christie. The cast is enjoyable, especially Sutherland as an idealist who must bear the responsibility for the dire consequences of his meddling.

‘ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE’ A Cannon Group presentation. Exec. producers Menahem Golan, Yoram Globus. Producer Jenny Craven. Director Desmond Davis. Screenplay Alexander Stuart; based on the novel by Agatha Christie. Camera Billy Williams. Music Dave Brubeck. Assoc. producer Michael Kagan. Production designer Ken Bridgeman. Costumes Gwenda Evans. Film editor Timothy Gee. With Donald Sutherland, Sarah Miles, Christopher Plummer, Ian McShane, Diana Quick, Faye Dunaway, Annette Crosbie,. Michael Elphick, George Innes, Valerie Whittington, Phoebe Nichols, Michael Maloney, Cassie Stuart.

Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.

MPAA-rated: PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned; some material may be inappropriate for children under 13).