Thursday, February 18, 2010

Agatha Christie’s Poirot - Series 2

Agatha Christie’s Poirot – An Introduction
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 1

1. Peril at End House (first broadcast January 7, 1990): While taking a week’s holiday at the Majestic hotel in a Cornish resort town (St. Loo in the book, St. Looe in the film), Hercule Poirot encounters the beautiful Nick Buckley, owner of the neighboring End House mansion. Ms. Buckley, who is unaware of Poirot’s world-famous abilities, casually mentions several recently close calls with death and the detective has reason to fear for the young lady’s life. As Poirot gets to know the young lady, he discovers a web of deceit that builds upon a round-the-world pilot, a drug-smuggling operation, seemingly opportunistic confidants and a particularly unique family secret. First published in 1932 and adapted as a stage play by Arnold Ridley in 1940, Peril at End House is the very first of Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels to be adapted by Granada into a feature-length film (about 100 minutes). Oddly, the story had never been filmed before – despite its touristy appeal. It is a typically splendid pastiche of Christie and Granada’s high standard for mysterious perfection. Clive Exton’s characteristically marvelous script sticks pretty close to Christie’s main story, taking away a bit of the literary fluff and minimizing the role of several unimportant characters. But, unfortunately, the film opens some plot holes that are more properly explained in the novel, such as the origin of a bullet that buzzes by Nick’s head, the elucidation of the reason for Nick wearing black on the night of the fireworks (though it becomes apparent upon repeated viewings), the true sender (and purpose) of a poisoned box of chocolates and the true nature of the odd Australian couple, the Crofts. Much of the book is translated as-is for the film, with many lines of Christie’s deft dialog left firmly in tact. Both the novel and the film feature Captain Hastings – although he is married on the page, he still has not yet met Bella in the series’ progression; so he is, as he has been up to now in the Granada series, single. But the film also brings Chief Inspector Japp into the story earlier than the book and perfectly introduces Pauline Moran, who is a real spiritualist, as Miss Lemon into the story as the spiritualist who conducts the séance conducted by Hastings, of all people, in the book. The novel references such past Poirot escapades as The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928) in Chapters 1 & 5, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1916) in Chapter 14, The Clue of the Chocolate Box (1923) in Chapter 15 and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) in Chapter 16 – but since none of these stories had yet been filmed, the film’s plot leaves out all such references. Like the previously-filmed Murder in the Mews, this is another Christie mystery where a significant murder happens during a fireworks display. Polly Walker, who perfectly portrays Nick Buckley, also plays Bess Sedgwick in the 2007 Marple film At Bertram’s Hotel. Carol MacReady, as the Australian Milly Croft, also plays the completely different Miss Johnson in the 2008 Poirot film Cat among the Pigeons (she also appeared in the 1982 television film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder is Easy).

2. The Veiled Lady (first broadcast January 14, 1990): Dispirited by the lack of cases that require his attention, Poirot posits that “I regret that I am of such a moral disposition. To work against the law, it would be pleasing, for a change.” Then a heavily veiled lady named Lady Millicent Castle Vaughan asks for Poirot’s assistance in recovering an indiscreet letter being used by the unscrupulous Mr. Lavington to blackmail her. Poirot goes against the law to recover the letter but winds up ensnarling culprits involved in a jewel robbery. First published in the UK in 1923 as The Case of the Veiled Lady, The Veiled Lady was published in the UK as part of Poirot’s Early Cases and in the US as part of Poirot Investigates. The highly implausible, yet exceedingly entertaining story is preserved almost word for word by scripter Clive Exton with several smart additions including a comical scene appropriately recalling Peter Sellers’ turn as Inspector Clouseau as the telephone-repair man in the 1975 film The Return of the Pink Panther and a climactic scene filmed gorgeously in London’s magnificent natural history museum. The beautiful Frances Barber, as Lady Millicent Castle Vaughan, later appeared as Hinchcliff in the 2005 Marple film A Murder Is Announced and as Merlina Rival in the 2009 Poirot film The Clocks. Fiachra Trench, who scored seven Poirot episodes during the second and third seasons and went onto to work on Ren & Stimpy, of all things, provided the enchanting incidental music to The Veiled Lady, the first of his Poirot scores.

3. The Lost Mine (first broadcast on January 21, 1990): A British concern headed by Mr. Pearson wishes to negotiate with Wu Ling, a Chinese merchant, to acquire the rights to the only known record of a lost silver mine. Wu Ling fails to appear at the appointed meeting and is discovered dead several days later. Mr. Pearson consults Poirot on the matter and the journey takes the detective into London’s seamy opium-den netherworld. First published in the UK in 1923, The Lost Mine was published in the UK as part of Poirot’s Early Cases and in the US as part of Poirot Investigates. Christie’s story is recounted to Hastings by Poirot in a most fanciful way, with the reader as baffled by Poirot’s sudden solution to the crime as Hastings is upon hearing it. The film makes Poirot witness to a seemingly unimportant clue that he never gets in the book, helping him to crack the case more logically than the book allows him to. It is a dramatization that is in many ways superior to the original story. The script enhances the story with several dashes of daring do: Poirot and Hastings, for instance, engaged in a mostly symbolic game of Monopoly (despite the fact that the film takes place in 1935 and the British version of the board game was not introduced until 1936); an investment firm’s news-making failure bankrupting many, giving the crime’s perpetrator more of a motive to do what he did; Poirot discovering that his bank account has been horrifically overdrafted; and the rather extended detective work of Chief Inspector Japp (Inspector Mitchell helms the book’s investigation, much to Poirot’s dissatisfaction) and his modern methods of police surveillance. Like Peril at End House, this is also one of Agatha Christie’s hard-to-accept situations where the one who initially consulted the world’s greatest detective about a crime turns out to be discovered by the detective as the crime’s perpetrator. The film also enhances the story with some splendidly colorful actors who really bring a special quality of realistic otherworldliness that the book only hints at. These include Anthony Bate as Pearson (a Lord here), James Saxon as Reggie Dyer, Colin Stinton as investment analyst Charles Lester and, most notably, Hi Ching as the bizarre Chow Feng, proprietor of The Red Eyed Dragon club. Barbara Barnes, who plays Mrs. Lester here, also played Esther Walters in the 1989 Miss Marple film A Caribbean Mystery and Mrs. Leidner in the 2001 Poirot film Murder in Mesopotamia. John Cording also reprises the role of backgrounded police officer Jameson from the previous season’s Murder in the Mews.

4. The Cornish Mystery (first broadcast January 28, 1990): Mrs. Pengelley, a middle-aged lady from Polgarwith, a small market town in Cornwall, comes to consult Poirot out of fear of being poisoned by her husband, a dentist who, she suspects, is having an affair with his “yellow-haired hussy” of an assistant. Even though the lady’s doctor insists her troubles are related to gastritis, Mrs. Pengelley is adamant that she is being poisoned. Poirot agrees to look into the matter and assures Mrs. Pengelley that he will travel to Polgarwith the following day to investigate. But upon his arrival, Poirot discovers Mrs. Pengelley has been killed, the victim of the arsenic poisoning she feared. First published in the UK in 1923, The Cornish Mystery was published in the UK as part of Poirot’s Early Cases and in the US as part of The Under Dog and Other Stories. This story is set up similarly to the Poirot short story How Does Your Garden Grow (1935), but is much more interestingly prompted and, surprisingly, resolved (by Poirot) via the “vox populi,” or, the voice of the people (gossip, rumors, innuendo, etc.). This thin conceit seems more in line with Miss Marple’s village-life métier than Poirot’s citified cynic. But, of course, Miss Christie makes it all sound palpably plausible and the idea is certainly intriguing. Clive Exton, as always, does a superb job bringing this story to life, nicely bringing both Miss Lemon and Inspector Japp into the plot’s machinations. Both David Suchet and Hugh Fraser bring some great comic interplay to the proceedings, particularly during Poirot’s surprising unveiling – with no proof whatsoever – of the guilty party.

5. The Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim (first broadcast February 4, 1990): A financier, Mr. Davenheim, disappears from his home shortly before a meeting he has scheduled with Mr. Lowen, a former rival and potential business partner. Shortly thereafter it is discovered that Davenheim’s safe has been robbed and a small fortune including his wife’s jewels is gone. Lowen is suspected in the disappearance and the robbery but nothing can be proved. Inspector Japp bets Poirot that he can’t solve the mystery without leaving his flat. Poirot accepts the wager. First published in the UK in 1923, The Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim (also known without the “Mr.” in the title) was published as part of Poirot Investigates and bears some structural similarities to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tale The Man with the Twisted Lip (1891). In this particular story, Agatha Christie clearly defines Poirot as a man of thought (order and method) as opposed to a man of action, something any one of her American contemporaries would go about quite differently. The film, scripted by David Renwick, who wrote the earlier The Lost Mine as well as the following Wasp’s Nest and The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor, throws a good deal of witty humor into the film’s mix and even adds a wholly symbolic magic angle that works quite well in bringing the story to life, despite the preposterous fate of the missing Mr. Davenheim, which is left utterly in tact. Renwick also cleverly cues up Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture to make the robbery somewhat more believable than Christie’s outline presents, but also much more comically enjoyable. The film ratchets up Hastings’ sleuthing abilities by making him Poirot’s intrepid legman – or, rather, Watson to Poirot’s Holmes or even Archie Goodwin (Christie is professed to have quite admired this Rex Stout character) to Poirot’s Nero Wolfe – whereas the story is uncomfortably content to make the Captain, with hardly any appearance in the story whatsoever, a foolish idiot. Patrick Page, as the stage conjurer who makes women disappear, is a real magician and also acted as a magic consultant for the film. Indeed, David Suchet’s Poirot performs several sleights of hand most impressively. Kenneth Colley, as Mr. Davenheim, will be familiar for, among other things, playing Jesus in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979). It is interesting to note that “The Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim” was adapted as a 30-minute play for an April 1962 broadcast on General Electric Theatre under the title of “Hercule Poirot.” The play, which was the first appearance of Poirot on television, was introduced by Ronald Regan, directed by John Brahm and starred Martin Gabel as Poirot.

6. Double Sin (first broadcast February 11, 1990): During a bus trip, Poirot and Captain Hastings encounter Mary Durrant, a young woman who is acting on behalf of her aunt’s antique shop, to deliver rare miniatures to an American collector. Along the way, the miniatures are revealed to be stolen and, upon alerting the American buyer, it is discovered that he has already made the purchase and the miniatures are well in hand. One of the fellow travelers on the coach tour who had been acting suspiciously is suspected of the heist and the illicit sale of the miniatures. First published in the in 1929 as Road or Rail, Double Sin was later published in the UK as part of Poirot’s Early Cases and in the US as part of Double Sin and Other Stories. Like Agatha Christie’s later Miss Marple novel, Nemesis, Double Sin gets its kicks out of a claustrophobic coach tour. But where the story finds Poirot overworked and needing a holiday to the south, the film finds the detective underworked and dragging Captain Hastings up north. Clive Exton’s script is markedly more fanciful than the original story, giving responsibility for the main investigation, such as it is, to Captain Hastings – Poirot, of course, still solves the case – and having Poirot use Inspector Japp’s “greatest cases” lecture tour as a not-so-apparent excuse to make the trip in the first place. The suspicious-acting man on the bus also gets a trumped-up back story to explain his suspicious actions, which weren’t all that suspicious in the first place. Director Richard Spence, who also directed the series’ next The Adventure of the Cheap Flat and The Adventure of the Western Star, provides some nice settings for the action, particularly along the English countryside and in and around the marvelously stylized art-deco hotel, Midland – which even Hastings finds a peculiar name for a place up North.

7. The Adventure of the Cheap Flat (first broadcast February 18, 1990): While discussing lodgings one evening at a party, a young couple named The Robinsons reveals that in the last few days they have secured a handsome apartment in a fashionable part of town for an astonishingly low rate. Poirot finds the story most curious and, upon investigation, discovers the Robinsons have occupied the apartment for six months and the Mrs. Robinson of the apartment is decidedly different than the Mrs. Robinson of the party. Poirot is intrigued and takes a flat in the same building to investigate further. First published in the UK in 1923 and also as part of Poirot Investigates, The Adventure of the Cheap Flat is, like The Third Floor Flat, one of Christie’s few apartment thrillers, a nice complement to her many manor mysteries. Christie predictably mixes traces of Conan Doyle (The Adventure of the Naval Treaty, The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans) with American pulp fiction and exquisitely extends some of her own detective and spy-fiction thinking into the little-mentioned area (at the time) of the Mafia (hinted at in the Sherlock Holmes tales The Adventure of the Dancing Men and The Adventure of the Red Circle) for “a most unusual case” and one, that is entirely compelling and engrossing. Richard Spence superbly directs Russell Murray’s imaginative dramatization, adding many colorful settings and excellent symbolic representations. The production team also perfectly peoples the film with a particularly fine cast of distinctive actors. The film starts grandly with Japp, Hastings and a wincing Poirot attending a screening of the 1935 James Cagney film “G” Men (complete with many shots from the actual film) and goes from there. The book’s American secret service agent, Mr. Burt, becomes an unlikely FBI agent here and is performed by the splendid American character actor William Hootkins (1948-2005), who plays the ugly American as a low-rent J. Edgar Hoover, mouthing off ridiculous Hooverisms like “there’s no such thing as the Mafia.” Turning the first “Mrs. Robinson” into a chanteuse was something of an inspired touch, with Miss Lemon picking out a rather obscure clue (true?) regarding “Lullaby of Broadway” (from the 1935 film Gold Diggers of 1935). An enchantingly theatrical sequence – reminding this viewer of what the Broadway presentation of Sweet Smell of Success: The Musical (2002) achieved – where Poirot describes the origin of the crime at hand to Hastings is marvelously shot. The well-done night club music heard here is provided by KPM library composer Neil Richardson, who had done the dance-band music for Peril at End House and would do additional dance band/night club music heard in the Poirot films The Affair at the Victory Ball, Yellow Iris, The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman and Murder on the Links. Samantha Bond, as Stella Robinson, appears here five years before her first appearance as Miss Moneypenny in the Pierce Brosnan James Bond films and the handsome John Michie, as John Robinson, is on hand, years before becoming well known in the UK as DI Robbie Ross on ITV’s Taggart.

8. The Kidnapped Prime Minister (first broadcast February 25, 1990): Shortly after a failed assassination attempt, England’s Prime Minister is kidnapped on his way to a peace summit of national import in France. The British government asks Poirot to investigate, confounded that the detective doesn’t follow the most obvious clues. First published in the UK in 1923 and also as part of Poirot Investigates, The Kidnapped Prime Minister is structured and written very much like one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales of semi-political intrigue, with Hastings as the story’s Watson narrator and Poirot as the brilliant sleuth who, of course, figures it all out. The film winds up a bit differently than the story – neither quite as satisfyingly as they might, particularly after a history of conspiracy-themed stories that post date this Agatha Christie story by almost a half century (also, I do not know enough about the World War I history of England, Germany and Ireland, all of which figure into both plots, to say whether any of this tale holds much water). The initial story banks on a never-explained double of the Prime Minister being unrecognizable shortly after the alleged assassination attempt (which makes sense in the pre-TV days of political oversaturation) but, rather unbelievably, finds Poirot initially recognizing one of the cabinet ministers who secures his services from the pictures published in the paper (which, though highly unlikely, suggests that Poirot pays more attention to newspaper photos than the general public and law-enforcement insiders). The film nicely ups the political conspiracy quotient, but still is rather harder than usual to accept at face value. One of the script’s major weaknesses is precisely why the British government would ask a foreign national to recover its country’s most significant political asset, especially during war time. The book gives a rather peculiar reason. But the film just presumes, rather absurdly, that Poirot is Britain’s preeminent and, naturally, most discreet sleuth. It is, after all, fiction. And at the time of Miss Christie’s story, readers would have been a great deal more open to accepting this bizarre, pre-Ludlumesque logic than readers or viewers would today. Also, the Poirot of the book immediately recognizes – as any grade-school student could – that the kidnapping is an inside job. The film takes a little longer to come to this rather obvious conclusion. Most curiously, Clive Exton’s script changes the Premier’s driver’s name from the significant and obvious O’Murphy to the more generic and ultimately more mysterious Egan. Directed by Andrew Grieve, who also directed the previous The Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim as well as seven other Poirot films including the well-done feature-length films The ABC Murders, Hickory Dickory Dock, Murder on the Links and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the film is as good as such a weak story can probably be expected to be. David Horovitch, pleasantly cast as the questionable Commander Daniels, will be familiar to many fans of the Miss Marple series as the consistently befuddled Inspector Slack (The Body in the Library, The Murder at the Vicarage, 4:50 From Paddington, They Do It With Mirrors, The Mirror Crack’d) and his ex-wife, Imogene, who has no part at all in the book, is played with a certain fetishistic relish by Lisa Harrow, who will be familiar to sci-fi cult fans of the British/German co-production of Star Maidens.

9. The Adventure of the Western Star (first broadcast March 4, 1990): A famous film actress receives repeated letters that her great diamond, the Western Star, must be returned to its rightful Chinese owner, otherwise it will be taken. She feels threatened and consults Poirot. She is planning with her producer husband, Gregory Rolf, who gave her the diamond as a wedding present, to visit one of England’s showplaces, Yardly Chase, with the intention of making a film there. The place is inhabited by one Lady Yardly, who also owns the Eastern Star, the other half of the Chinese set. Lady Yardly soon reveals similar threatening letters. Both diamonds are then stolen by mysterious Chinese figures. Poirot and Hastings investigate. First published in the UK in 1923 and also as part of Poirot Investigates, The Adventure of the Western Star is a nifty little caper story with some clever little twists. Built upon a solid foundation of lies and literary obfuscation, Christie crafts something of a clever puzzle here. The original story references both The Affair at the Victory Ball (1923, Agatha Christie’s first published short story) as the reason that brings Miss Marvel to Poirot and The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920, Christie’s first published novel) as the impetus that brings Lady Yardly to Poirot’s office. Clive Exton’s particularly colorful dramatization remains remarkably true to the original story, but makes some significant changes and ups the comedy element a bit too. Exton adds a subplot featuring international diamond thief Henrik Van Bracks (Struan Rodger) pursued by Chief Inspector Japp (who also isn’t in the book) and, most audaciously, changes American film star Mary Marvelle – whose fame gives the diamond in her possession its name – to Belgium film star (!) Marie Marvel (portrayed unconvincingly by actress Rosalind Bennett like a female version of Sellers’ Clouseau). Pauline Moran’s Miss Lemon, naturally, replaces the story’s landlady, Mrs. Murchison, and the Hoffberg character becomes a bit more sinister and important to the plot’s machinations. Hugh Fraser’s Hastings, peevishly put out by Poirot in the book, delivers some of his funniest lines in the film series here. Responding to Poirot’s assertion that “Marie Marvel is the greatest film star Belgium has ever produced,” Hastings replies, with perfect timing, “I should think she’s the only film star Belgium’s ever produced.” In grave seriousness, he also delivers steely one-liners like “Ice cold logic, Lady Yardley. The deductive process.” And, with a sigh of superiority, he tells the hapless Belgian detective, “if only you’d listen to me, Poirot.” Struan Rodger, cast as the curious Henrik Van Bracks, can also be heard as the voice of “Ferdinand” in the performance of “The Duchess of Malfi,” presented in the great 1987 Miss Marple film Sleeping Murder.

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

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