Monday, February 08, 2010

Agatha Christie’s Poirot - Series 1

Agatha Christie's Poirot - An Introduction

1. The Adventure of the Clapham Cook (first broadcast January 8, 1989): In an affront to his dignity, Poirot agrees to help locate a missing domestic. Hoping at first to relieve his boredom, the detective discovers a far more insidious plot afoot involving deception, robbery and murder. First published in the UK in 1924 and as part of the US collection The Under Dog and Other Stories, this short story was an odd-choice place to begin David Suchet’s brilliantly definitive turn as the great Belgian detective in 1989. As a viewer, we enter Poirot’s world knowing he’s already solved many a crime and will now only accept commissions of great import, even though this is our first glimpse of the great sleuth. It turns out that starting off in a career already in progress was more of a blessing for the series than one could guess. There was no need to define Poirot to his audience. Director Edward Bennett (who also contributed to this series’ Murder in the Mews, The Third Floor Flat, The Incredible Theft, The Dream, The Veiled Lady, The Lost Mine, The Cornish Mystery and both the extraordinarily well-done feature-length films Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and Dumb Witness) and David Suchet brilliantly worked out many of the series’ signature bits in visual motifs, period clothing, art-deco décor, stock phrases and, of course, the famous moustache. The Clive Exton (1930-2007) script features a ripping yarn, with much of Christie’s warm-witted humor left in tact. Exton went on to contribute an additional 25 scripts to the series, and oversaw an additional six episodes as script consultant. Japp, who is mentioned in the story, and Miss Lemon make perfectly logical appearances in the film despite neither having any presence in the book. Poirot is also a little more forthright with Eliza Dunn, the domestic, in the book than Suchet is in the film. It’s hard to say which way of handling the pitiable situation is more heartbreaking. The film just ignores it. This episode, like any shop’s first dollar bill, is a perfectly good reminder for the never-wrong detective to keep his humility throughout the rest of his career and a great way to start a near-perfect series of murder mysteries. It also shows how often disguise in the commission of a crime is a part of the Poirot heritage (Four And Twenty Blackbirds, The Dream, The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge, The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman, Lord Edgware Dies, After The Funeral, etc.) whereas Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes often resorted to disguise more as a method to catch criminals.

2. Murder In The Mews (first broadcast January 15, 1989): Following the loud fireworks display in celebration of Guy Fawkes Night (Bonfire Night) attended by Poirot in the Bardsley Gardens Mews, a woman residing in the Mews is later discovered as the victim of an apparently self-inflicted gun shot wound. Several unanswered questions and a number of clues point to the woman’s death possibly being a murder. The woman’s questionable associates taunt Poirot to consider the possibilities of either suicide or murder. Originally published in the UK in 1937 and as part of the US collection Dead Man’s Mirror, Murder in the Mews is one of Agatha Christie’s many classic deconstructions of the mystery form. This is the first sign of the Poirot TV series’ artiness, with great sets, indelible character actors and sumptuous photography. The visualization of this story also brings out Miss Plenderleith’s apparent lesbian affinities for the dead Mrs. Allen a bit more, perhaps, than Christie’s telling of it and Juliette Mole (Miss Plenderleith), who at the end of the film appears at Poirot’s office saying she was late due to attending Barbara’s funeral (another sign of love not in the book), performs tremendously well in a most impassioned manner. Ms. Mole also appeared several years earlier in the great Miss Marple presentation of 4:50 From Paddington. David Yelland, who plays the upwardly mobile Charles Laverton-West, the detached M.P. who was engaged to the deceased woman, began to appear regularly in the Poirot series as George, Poirot’s butler/valet, beginning with Taken at the Flood (2006) (George is mentioned once in this story, but has no place in the film). The film’s Nicholas Delve as the young boy, Freddie, is priceless. He’s a marvelous actor who did not appear to do much acting after this. While Hastings figures rather largely in the film, he is not at all present in the book. Japp functions as Poirot’s Dr. Watson in the book, as several references to Sherlock Holmes are made during the course of the story. Hastings takes on the inevitable Dr. Watson role in the film, a surprisingly colorful and very good entry in the Poirot series.

3. The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly (first broadcast January 22, 1989): The Waverlys receive several notes indicating that their three-year-old son, Johnny, will be kidnapped unless a sizable ransom is paid. As the notes proceed, the demand for money increases as well. Poirot is asked to investigate. First published in 1924 in the UK and as part of the US collection Three Blind Mice and Other Stories, The Adventure of Johnny Waverly is not Johnny’s adventure at all but rather that of his parents, who share a relationship taxed by certain financial problems. Geoffrey Bateman, as Marcus Waverley, Esq., does a masterful job playing up his character’s snooty “country squire” shtick, while rocking uneasily on a rickety foundation of significant financial loss. The film differs from the book in several ways. In the book, Johnnie’s kidnapping takes place before Poirot is consulted. The film shows Mr. Waverly consulting Poirot before the kidnapping, which is also at odds with the book as it more sensibly reveals the Waverlys jointly consulting Poirot. Inspector Japp, who replaces the book’s Inspector McNeil, also watches a different car go by in the film as Johnnie’s kidnapping takes place. The film’s dénouement is altered a bit, but the complicity is far better resolved by the telecast than Christie’s surprisingly complex conspiracy. Poirot’s moralistic exchange with Marcus Waverly at the end of the book is preserved almost verbatim in the film.

4. Four And Twenty Blackbirds (first broadcast January 29, 1989): One evening while at a restaurant with a friend, Poirot becomes curious about another patron of the restaurant, an old man who is said to have recently altered some very distinct habits. Upon discovering soon thereafter that the man has died an accidental death, Poirot suspects that something is amiss. First published in the UK in 1940 and as part of The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and in the US as part of Three Blind Mice and Other Stories, this is another Agatha Christie story that comes from the nursery rhyme, “Sing A Song of Sixpence” (the eponymous title of a 1929 Agatha Christie short story and the subject of which is also used for the wonderful 1953 Miss Marple novel A Pocket Full of Rye). Here, the title is a bit more of an oblique reference that Poirot ties to a clue which breaks the case for him: the eating of blackberry pie. The US publishers, probably sensing the confusion, re-titled the story much less fancifully as Poirot and the Regular Customer (similar to the titles used for Monk episodes). The film, written by Russell Murray (who also did The Adventure of the Cheap Flat) and directed by Renny Rye, who directed the previous The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly and the following Triangle at Rhodes, Problem at Sea, The King of Clubs, Peril at End House, The Tragedy at Marsden Manor, The Affair at the Victory Ball and The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge, does a fine job of visualizing this especially intellectual case. The book has no sign of Hastings, Japp or Miss Lemon and features nephew George Lorrimer as a doctor, rather than the film’s more sensible theatrical producer. A romantic sub plot that happens years before the actual story takes place is built, most admirably, into the film as well. The indelible Hilary Mason (1917-2006), who was so memorable in any number of parts, including Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) and the terrific Miss Marple adaptation of The Moving Finger (1985), is, as ever, fantastic here as Mrs. Amelia Hill, cook and housekeeper to Anthony Gascoigne. Still, a slight story, done up quite well for the telling of it on film.

5. The Third-Floor Flat (first broadcast February 5, 1989): Two young couples, upon being locked out one evening of one of the girl’s fourth-story flat, determine that the two men of the double pair can use the apartment’s coal lift to gain access to the flat. Upon entering the flat, the two young men discover not only that they have entered the wrong flat on the third floor – neither apparently able to count four floors up from the basement – but that there’s a dead woman who looks to be murdered in the apartment. First published in the UK in 1929 and in the US as part of Three Blind Mice and Other Stories, The Third-Floor Flat is a strange little tale that isn’t nearly as successful as so many other of Agatha Christie’s Poirot stories are. In Christie’s short story, the action takes place at Friars Mansions, where Poirot has inexplicably taken a fifth-floor flat under an assumed name. Writer Michael Baker, who also scripted the series’ episodes The King of Clubs and The Lost Mine, sets the filmed action more properly at Whitehaven Mansions, placing Poirot under his own name in the fifth-floor flat above the girl, Pat’s flat. The filmed version replaces the book’s unnamed inspector with Philip Jackson’s Chief Inspector Japp and includes a well-done sub-plot featuring Hugh Fraser’s Captain Hastings, who bets Poirot he can’t figure out the guilty party of a ridiculous – yet significantly ironic – whodunit play that the story’s characters attend (Poirot and Hastings attend such a play in the 28th chapter of the 1937 novel Dumb Witness). The film does much to enhance Christie’s thin and rather unbelievable story, and only strays with the weird scenes of Pat and Mildred dancing together far too much one afternoon in Pat’s apartment. Poirot’s introduction to the filmed version of this story is also much more plausible than the weird “here I am” presence he presents in the book.

6. Triangle at Rhodes (first broadcast February 12, 1989): During an off-season holiday on the Greek island of Rhodes, Poirot encounters a small group of people where a potential love triangle seems to be forming among the married Douglas Gold and the beautiful and rich Valentine Chantry, who is also married. Poirot senses danger and urges Mrs. Gold to leave the island at once if she values her life. When Valentine Chantry is poisoned to death, Poirot’s worst fears are confirmed. But who really killed Mrs. Chantry – and why? First published in the UK in 1934 and as part of the US book Dead Man’s Mirror and Other Stories, Triangle at Rhodes serves as a blueprint for the remarkably similar Poirot novel, Evil under the Sun (1941). It’s a good story, laced with intrigue and exotic settings and the first in the Granada series to highlight mystery and murder abroad. The film takes full advantage of the exotic location with sumptuous photography of stoned thoroughfares, crowded markets, historic sites and breathtaking vistas. Writer Stephen Wakelam, in his only Poirot script, deletes a useless character (Susan Blake), places Poirot at the end of his holiday (as if he’s about to leave Rhodes) and in one of several nods to the terrific 1982 film version of Evil Under The Sun, introduces something of a spy angle that is not present in the book. Wakelam’s script also significantly changes how Poirot identifies the solution to the crime. In the book, he witnesses a certain event that he is not present for in the film. Again, the filmed story improves substantially upon the written story by making Poirot and his Watson-like sidekick in the film, Pamela Lyall – played by Frances Low, who had appeared in the 1985 Miss Marple film A Pocket Full of Rye and who provides the suggestion of the triangle of the story’s title here that Poirot suggests in the book – detect the nature of the true crime and the origin of the real criminal(s). This episode’s use of the solo Eastern European hammer dulcimer instrument called the cimbalom on the soundtrack adds substantially to the exotic atmosphere throughout and suggests such spy thrillers of yore as The Ipcress File (John Barry) and The Eagle Has Landed. (Lalo Schifrin).

7. Problem At Sea (first broadcast February 19, 1989): While holidaying on a cruise ship sailing the rocky Mediterranean, Poirot encounters a small group of passengers including Miss Ellie Henderson, General Forbes, Colonel and Mrs. Clapperton, Kitty Mooney and Pamela Cregan. During a stopover in Alexandria, Egypt, Mrs. Clapperton is discovered to have been murdered. Was it a stranger who boarded the ship during the layover or one of the ship’s passengers who killed Mrs. Clapperton? First published in the UK in 1935 as Poirot and the Crime in Cabin 66 and originally as part of the US collection called The Regatta Mystery, Problem at Sea is another one of Agatha Christie’s many travel adventures. The film plays down Poirot’s mal de mer, but suggests sea sickness in a number of discomforting scenes. Whether or not it was intentional, the viewer certainly senses that this was indeed a bumpy ride. The filmed story, which is a preface to the far more substantial Poirot novel Death on the Nile (1945), greatly enhances the rather pedestrian and slightly obvious mystery by adding quite a few characters - including a little girl who could be said to have possessed the doll which reveals the story’s dénouement - having Poirot leave the boat, as most passengers did, for an afternoon in Alexandria (which he did not do in the book) and adding a little humor to the story by including Captain Hastings, who is not present in the book, preparing for a clay-pigeon shoot. Even so, the film is resolved pretty much the same way as the book and the filmmakers wisely retained Poirot’s signature statement from the story: “I do not approve of murder.” This is certainly another occasion where the film improves markedly over the original story. But, still, it’s not much of a story. The film’s odd character, Skinner, is played by the quirky Colin Higgins, who also featured in the 1984 Miss Marple film The Body in the Library.

8. The Incredible Theft (first broadcast February 26, 1989): Plans for a top-secret war plane disappear on the evening that a dinner party is held at the plane engineer’s house. In the right hands, the missing plans could fetch the thief an enormous fortune and ruin the man behind the plane. Suspicion falls on one of the dinner guests, who is suspected of working on behalf of the wartime enemy. Poirot investigates. Originally published in 1924 as The Submarine Plans, the story was expanded into the longer-than-usual short story The Incredible Theft in 1937. It was published as part of Dead Man’s Mirror and Other Stories in the US. Taking obvious inspiration from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1893 Sherlock Holmes tale The Naval Treaty, The Incredible Theft is neither incredible nor much of a theft. Like the Conan Doyle tale, it’s not a murder mystery either. Still, it’s a ripping yarn of war-time espionage that has much merit. Many of the changes that were made to the film were done in accord with England’s position during World War II (i.e., mentions of Germany and Japan – neither of which is specifically named or inferred in the book). The film’s script also sheds many of the book’s characters, some odd background and involves Poirot much earlier than Christie’s story. Usually, Agatha Christie’s spy yarns are kind of, well, terribly boring (The Big Four, The Seven Dials Mystery, etc.). This is years, even decades, before Ian Fleming/James Bond’s shaken-not-stirred cocktail clotheshorse and lady’s man became the spy norm for so many and while Miss Christie tapped into the undeniably intriguing elements of interest in espionage, she rarely crafted a compelling spy thriller. This one, like so many others, layers on complexity so confusingly – and, sadly, so unrealistically – that the rather bizarre ending hardly matters. Given the restraints of the author’s original material, which the filmmakers accede to as best as possible, it’s still a fun journey with some great actors coursing along for the ride. John Carson, as Sir George Carrington, would later appear in the 2006 Poirot film After the Funeral (as Richard Abernethie). Phyllida Law, as Lady Carrington, also appeared in the later Poirot film Hallowe’en Party (2010). Ciaran Madden, as Lady Mayfield, had appeared memorably in the 1984 Miss Marple film The Body in the Library, while John Stride, as Tommy Mayfield, had appeared in the 1985 TV film Thirteen at Dinner (with Peter Ustinov as Poirot and David Suchet as Inspector Japp). The delightful Carmen du Sautoy (The Man with the Golden Gun, Absolutely Fabulous, Midsomer Murders) is outstanding as the villainous Mrs. Vanderlyn – who is the right age and, even as a Brit, gets Christie’s oddly refracted take on American dialect right (though she’s a blonde in the book). Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon make perfectly valid appearances in the film – Hastings’s turn here is particularly light-hearted and humorous – despite none having any presence in the book (Sir George calls Poirot in on the case in the book, but calls Japp in to the film). This episode features Poirot’s tremendously funny retort to one character’s expression that “Froggy thinks she didn’t do it”: “Froggy knows she didn’t do it.”

9. The King of Clubs (first broadcast March 12, 1989): Miss Saintclair discovers Henry Reedburn dead at his villa and rushes to a neighboring house owned by the Oglanders for sanctuary. Miss Saintclair, engaged to be married shortly to a Prince, had gone to Reedburn’s house originally to discuss blackmail. The Prince, wary of any hint of scandal, asks Poirot to look into the affair and a deck of playing cards helps convince the investigator what really happened. First published in 1923 as The Adventure of the King of Clubs, this story was published in the US as part of The Under Dog and Other Stories. Similar in some ways to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes short story, A Scandal in Bohemia (1891), The King of Clubs actually takes some of the gusto out of the machinations and characterizations of Conan Doyle’s tale and drops in elements of certain other Holmes adventures to spice up this rather unbelievable adventure. Like A Scandal in Bohemia, the perpetrators of The King of Clubs also get away with their questionable activities due to the wealth of power they’re supposed to wield in the world. The extraordinarily flimsy and implausible story gets an injection of weird reality in the film by taking place in the world of film. Like one of those episodes of Columbo that takes place on the Hollywood backlot, it’s especially engaging (who doesn’t want to see famous people acting badly?) and an easy way to film an otherwise trashy story (“Hey, it’s a real backlot!”). The film realistically changes “impresario” Harry Reedburn into a 30s-era studio head and famed “dancer” Miss Saintclair into a leading film actress who makes the studio all its money. The fact that Reedburn’s house is next door to the eventually significant Oglander household is unbelievable in the extreme and Miss Saintclair’s fallout and later complicity with the Oglanders is never made clear, either in the book or, more especially, in the film. The film fortunately dispenses with the story-teller’s symbolic device of a fortune teller and adds several other characters (film folk, gypsies, etc.) that have good reason to do away with Harry Reedburn. Most oddly, the “murder,” while unaccountably dismissed by Poirot in the book, is inexplicably called an accident in the film. Captain Hastings is also involved more in the film’s action than in the book and Inspector Japp, who gets to deliver the script’s best line - “Little gray cells are all very nice, Poirot, but it’s dogged as does it” - gets some goofy Lestrade-like appearances in the film, despite his having no presence at all in the book. Amazingly, the police do not factor at all in the book. The film features several outstanding Art Deco sets and some brief and beautiful outdoor scenes that dilute any consternation one could have of the story’s ridiculous nature. And, the acting is – as ever – superb. Avril Elgar, as Mrs. Olgander, also appeared in the 1985 TV film Thirteen at Dinner (with Peter Ustinov as Poirot and David Suchet as Inspector Japp). Sean Pertwee, as Ronnie Oglander (John Jr. in the book), also appeared in the 2006 Marple movie The Moving Finger while Niamb Cusak, as the pretty much awful Valerie Saintclair, appeared in the 2004 Marple film 4:50 From Paddington.

10. The Dream (first broadcast March 19, 1989): Eccentric millionaire Benedict Farley asks Hercule Poirot by letter to meet with him under rather unusual circumstances about a recurring dream he has. In the dream, Farley commits suicide by killing himself with a revolver at a very specific time of the day. Stating he has no good reason to kill himself, the millionaire fears he has been hypnotized by this delusion, that the delusion has infiltrated his dreams and that someone is actually intent upon murdering him. Poirot is baffled. But Farley dismisses his incredulousness, and then Benedict Farley is shortly thereafter discovered to have killed himself exactly as he predicted in his dream. But authorities find out about Farley’s letter to Poirot and think it might be murder after all. First published in 1937 in the UK and included in book The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and, in the US, as part of The Regatta Mystery, The Dream is a neat little story that appears to take then-topical Freudian dream logic to Agatha Christie’s own delectable ends. While Miss Christie uses “the dream” as an excuse for her own murderous means, it is a shame that more of the theatrical imagery that Freud inserted into his theories – and the same literate heavy-handedness that Miss Christie inserted into so many of her own books, particularly the non-Poirot stories (Sleeping Murder, By The Pricking Of My Thumbs, etc.) – is not explored in a little more depth here. Still, it is a short story after all and “the dream,” any dream, is an absolutely perfect set-up for a murderous crime. Clive Exton’s beautifully conceived script embellishes the book most magnificently by setting the action in a bizarrely successful pie manufacturer’s factory/home. Even Edward Bennett’s direction, replete with introductory newsreel footage (which would later be repeated in several other Poirot episodes, including The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb, Murder on the Links – in a very Citizen Kane-styled way - and Murder in Mesopotamia), is especially good, taking in some remarkably beautiful deco décor and a good deal of fine acting. Inspector Japp is inserted into the film in place of the book’s Inspector Barnett and both Captain Hastings and Miss Lemon earn amusingly worthy places in the film, though neither has a place in the book. One of the most interesting points of casting here is Alan Howard, who portrays both Benedict Farley and his secretary, Hugo Cornworthy – a curious fact which proves to be significant in the story. Neville Phillips, as Holmes (the curiously unnamed butler), also appeared in the excellent 1987 Miss Marple film At Bertram’s Hotel.

Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 2
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 3
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 4
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 5
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 6
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 7
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 8
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 9
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 10
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 11
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 12

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Douglas,

Great job you're doing here :-)

Allow me to correct a minor misunderstanding I stumbled upon when reading, concerning Joely Richardson; according to the ITV press release on the upcoming Suchet version of Murder on The Orient Express, Richardson is not on the cast list.

She was rumoured (on Wikipedia) for the role of Mary Debenham but that part went to Jessica Chastain. Would have been amusing, though, if Richardson had got that part, since it originally was played by her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, in the star-studded famous Ustinov film version.

Check out the cast liste here (20th November) - http://www.bricksite.com/davidsuchet/news-2009-oct-dec

Best wishes
Sanna/siteowner of bricksite.com/davidsuchet

Anonymous said...

LOL - Ok, not Ustinov but Finney version.

Sanna

Douglas Payne said...

Thank you, Sanna, for the correction. I have removed the Joely Richardson reference above.

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