Monday, March 08, 2010

Agatha Christie’s Poirot - Series 4

Agatha Christie’s Poirot – An Introduction
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 1
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 2
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 3

1. The ABC Murders (first broadcast January 5, 1992): Hercule Poirot receives a taunting letter indicating that something noteworthy will occur in Andover on the 21st. On the appointed day, a Mrs. Alice Asher is found murdered in her shop with an open A.B.C. rail guide close by her side. Her ex-husband is immediately considered a suspect for the murder until another letter appears indicating the occurrence of something more in Bexhill-on-Sea on the 25th. Miss Elizabeth Barnard is found strangled that day on the beach, also with an open A.B.C. rail guide near her body. Then, Poirot receives a letter indicating that a further misdeed is scheduled for Churston on the 29th. Unfortunately because the letter is misaddressed, Poirot only receives the letter on the 29th, when Sir Carmichael Clarke is discovered battered on his estate in Churston with an open A.B.C. rail guide by his side. Poirot and the police are baffled and the media grasps hold of the sensational story, terrifying the entire country as the ABC Murderer seemingly goes through the alphabet in a murderous rampage. A group of the survivors, including Mrs. Asher’s niece, Miss Barnard’s boyfriend and her sister and Carmichael Clarke’s secretary and his brother, band together with Poirot to investigate. Then, Poirot receives another letter alerting him a few days ahead of the next murder in Doncaster on the 11th of the following month. First published in 1935, “The A.B.C. Murders” was first filmed in 1966 as a spoof called The Alphabet Murders, with Tony Randall as a very Clouseau-like Poirot and Robert Morley as the goofier-than Nigel Bruce’s Watson-like sidekick, Hastings. It’s no surprise that this film was written by the same writing team that gave us the bizarre and utterly ridiculous Miss Marple films starring Margaret Rutherford. Like those films, The Alphabet Murders has little to do with Agatha Christie’s story

Agatha Christie’s engrossing and sadly too believable novel presages any number of actual thrill-kill serial killers – who are far scarier than the fictional one presented here - namely the Zodiac killer of the sixties. But of course, England had already suffered the Jack the Ripper slayings (referenced by the author in Chapter 8) to have some knowledge of serial killings by the time this novel appeared. There is something especially notable in Christie’s use of publicity in the novel, something of a character all its own. She doesn’t really make a big deal of it. But the references to publicity throughout are especially prescient, given the number of killers who have since sought attention via publicity, the number of innocents claiming to be guilty in order to acquire some modicum of publicity and the number of citizens that do right (or wrong) not because its right (or wrong) but because it benefits their acquisition of publicity. Miss Christie’s style had certainly come into its own by the time of this 1935 novel and nicely references the earlier Poirot novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) in Chapter 1 and even alludes to the forthcoming Poirot novel Cards on the Table (1936) in Chapter 2. She plants clues that were always there among the rabble for all to see that could not possibly be detected by the average reader until a second reading – making her sleuth a keen observer and most brilliant spotter of consistencies. In this case, stockings are dropped in rather cleverly for those who want a hint at what’s going on.

Clive Exton again returns to helm this dramatization, which stays remarkably faithful to the original novel with only a few exceptions. One is the ridiculous but amusing framing device of Poirot welcoming Hastings back from an extended stay in South America, where the Captain has bagged a crocodile he had stuffed as a gift for Poirot. Another places Japp at the helm of the crimes, replacing the book’s clueless Inspector Crome and several others involved in different parishes, including Japp himself. Still another is the grandly staged horse race in Doncaster, to which the entire investigative group is dispatched to watch out for something they could never possibly find. Exton’s script also glosses over the unexplained murder in Doncaster (in the book, the Alphabet Killer kills an “E,” not a “D” – in the film, you don’t know who the victim is) and allows Poirot to use his little grey cells to solve the real nature of the killings much earlier on than he does in the book. One slip Exton makes is assuming that Mrs. Asher’s niece inherits when the woman has a surviving husband. But the script fortunately does away with Christie’s (unnecessarily symbolic) references to children’s author E. Nesbit that help Poirot solve the mystery and the even sillier idea of Poirot having the guilty person’s gun disarmed without his knowing.

While in the book, Cust attends screenings of a non-existent film called “Not A Sparrow” (a reference from the chapter of Matthew in the Bible often cited as an example of God’s awareness of every life, no matter how small), Andrew Grieve’s film has Cust attending several showings of Alfred Hitchock’s real 1932 film Number 17. And like many films of the 30s, Grieve’s film uses multiple spinning newspapers to (comically) convey information and push the story along as well as, more importantly (and more seriously), reflect the public’s anxiety over the serial killings.

All in all, this feature-length presentation of The ABC Murders (with no periods, as in the novel) is a near perfect representation of Agatha Christie’s beguiling book, with principals David Suchet, Hugh Fraser and, particularly, Philip Jackson (who gets some of the film’s funniest lines) in particularly fine fettle. Nicholas Farrell (Donald Fraser) also appeared memorably in the 2005 Poirot film The Mystery of the Blue Train as Knighton while Miranda Forbes (Mrs. Turton) also appeared earlier in the Poirot series as the Landlady in Double Sin. David McAlister (Inspector Glen) also appeared in the 1987 Miss Marple film Sleeping Murder as Raymond West.

2. Death in the Clouds (first broadcast January 12, 1992): On a return flight to England from France, Hercule Poirot is joined by such passengers as Lady Cicely Horbury, socialite Venetia Kerr, the dentist Norman Gale, the detective-fiction writer Daniel Clancy, the young and handsome French archaeologist Jean Dupont and Mademoiselle Giselle, a mysterious woman who resides in Paris. Poirot’s discomfort with air travel permits him to sleep through much of the flight, though, during the course of the flight a wasp appears to annoy some of the passengers. Then it is discovered that Mademoiselle Giselle has died sometime during the flight. Poirot is awakened by the commotion and begins to look into the matter. At first it is believed the woman died as the result of a bite from the wasp. But a dart laced with poison is soon discovered nearby, leading Poirot to conclude that the lady’s death is murder. All aboard the plane deny knowing the woman. The investigation reveals that the woman was a well-to-do money lender for English society types. It soon turns out that the few suspects, which remarkably even include Poirot, have either means or motive for murder. But who had the opportunity? Poirot investigates, as much to clear his character as to discover the real murderer.

First published in 1935 under the title “Death in the Air” and known also as “Mystery in the Air,” Death in the Clouds commemorates the beginning of a regular London-Paris air service using converted bombers as aircraft. Like The Yellow Iris (1937) several years later, the curiously plotted Death in the Clouds turns on a murder committed in full view of all witnesses because the murderer disguises themselves as a servant who, most remarkably, is not normally noticed at all by anyone present. Mr. Clancy allows the author (at least in the book) to get in a couple of satiric comments on writers and the writing process – as well as Japp’s jabs against detective-story writers’ constant go at making the police seem like idiots, presaging Ariadne Oliver’s presence in Christie’s stories, which begin with the following year’s Poirot novel Cards on the Table (note too that the book’s Clancy has a thing for bananas much as Miss Oliver has a thing for apples!). The book even enters into many thoughtful passages about “foreigner phobia” that forces Miss Christie to make Hercule Poirot a suspect too (the film glazes over this rather jokingly, and the very un-P.C. humor isn’t dwelled upon for very long, for very good reason).

The film, scripted by William Humble in his only Poirot outing, excises a number of characters on the murderous flight (James Ryder, Jean’s father, Armand Dupont, Dr. Roger Bryant and two male flight attendants) and changes Jane Grey from a hairdresser’s assistant to a flight attendant and morphs her into Poirot’s girl Friday (the film even makes brief – and accurate – reference to the character’s name deriving from a 16th century queen). Humble’s script does away with several unnecessary items such as Giselle’s little book, Giselle’s manservant, curiously named Georges, Poirot’s ridiculous (and obviously feminine) matchmaking and the investigator’s involvement in a faux blackmail plot to flush out one of the suspect’s connection to the dead woman (the film uses disguise, as does the book, to flesh out several suspects). Unlike the film, the book does not send Japp to Paris, which seems a bit far fetched in the first place. The book also makes several references to the earlier Parisian Poirot plot, Murder on the Links (1923), particularly in Chapters 6 and 11, and to the previous year Poirot novel, Murder on The Orient Express (1934) in Chapter 21.

Actor turned director Stephen Whittaker helmed this presentation of Death in the Clouds, his only film in the Poirot series, which presents a number of appropriately scenic shots in Paris, including the Sacré-Cœur Basilica at Montmartre (which Suchet’s Poirot claims “looks like an enormous birthday cake”), the Palais-Royal, a Salvador Dali exhibit somewhere in the city, the Champ de Mars at the Eiffel Tower and a scene at the chic La Palette bistro. One significant alteration of the script takes the story’s participants from various enjoyments at Le Pinet to a more logical presence at the French Open, named after aviator Roland Garros (which prompts a clever bit of scripting, when the sport-opposed Poirot is questioned about going to Wimbledon, something he’d done earlier – but not for tennis-related reasons – as part of The Veiled Lady).

The film makes several other notable but not entirely judicious changes, including Clancy’s even more bizarre behavior (his fictional character tells him what to write!) and Lord Horbury’s unnecessary visit to Poirot’s office. Even more significantly, the film raises the question of complicity in Giselle’s daughter, who shows up much later in the book than in the unnecessarily mysterious way she is presented in the film. Giselle’s daughter is a somewhat innocent victim in the book. But the film implies that she is undoubtedly an unwitting participant or someone who is stupidly blind to the bizarre nature of her very unusual situation. One of the stranger changes sees the film’s Japp traveling to Paris in pursuit of the criminal and taking over French police inspector Fournier’s office and investigation in much the same unbelievable way as FBI man Mr. Burt takes over Japp’s office and investigation in the film version of The Adventure of the Cheap Flat.

When examined closely, it’s not an entirely satisfying plot, especially given the much larger size of present-day commuter flights. But, strangely, it is supremely engaging and engrossing, whether you’re reading it or watching this film of the story. Amand Royle (Venetia Kerr) also appeared in the 1987 Miss Marple film At Bertram’s Hotel

3. One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (first broadcast January 19, 1992): Mr. Morley, a dentist, is discovered dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound on the very day he has kept an appointment with Hercule Poirot. Curiously, the dentist’s receptionist is also called away under what turns out to be false pretences on the same day of the dentist’s death. The investigation leads to other people scheduled to see the dentist on that day, including the prominent financier Alistair Blunt, a Miss Mabelle Sainsbury Seale, just back from India, and a new patient named Mr. Amberiotis, also recently arrived from India. Soon thereafter Mr. Amberiotis is found dead of an anesthetic overdose, which seemingly provides corroboration for why the dentist might have taken his own life. Then Miss Sainsbury Seale disappears. Weeks later, a woman answering to the lady’s description is discovered dead with her face smashed in at the vacated apartment of one Mrs. Chapman. But dental records reveal that the dead woman is not Miss Sainsbury Seale but rather the mysterious Mrs. Chapman. Poirot determines that each death is murder and sets about finding the culprits of each crime.

First published in 1940 and in the US in 1941 as The Patriotic Murders (published again in the US under the equally absurd title An Overdose Of Death), One, Two, Buckle My Shoe seemingly witnesses Agatha Christie’s fear of and respect for dentists (note Death in the Clouds and the obvious suspect in The Cornish Mystery). Perhaps, though, it is more akin to Alfred Hitchcock’s well-known portrayal of the police. It is also yet another of Christie’s stories that significantly employs disguise as deception and, at least in this case, it is the disguise – the titular buckle – that helps Poirot untangle the web of deceit on hand (pay attention again to the stocking, as in The ABC Murders). The clever plot turns on any number of unbelievable coincidences, mostly involving Mr. Amberiotis’s convenient appearance at this particular dentist at this particular time and the murderer’s hard-to-fathom knowledge of the dentist’s receptionist, Grace Neville, and her friend, Frank Carter. Still, it’s a corker of a plot that inserts a bit more of Miss Christie’s politics than has been evident before – though a strictly political reading of the story might be a far-fetched way at determining the author’s political point of view, other than, perhaps, to suggest a possible turning away from long-held conservative values.

Clive Exton’s script does away with Morley’s partner, Reilly (and his list of suspect patients), the overwhelming suggestion of espionage – as suggested by subplots concerning a retired official from the Home Office, Mr. Barnes, a radical fellow romancing Blunt’s niece and a trivially-handled assassination attempt on the Prime Minister – a conveniently titled book being read by the dentist’s pageboy (“Death at 11:45”) and the presence of Poirot’s manservant, George. The script also makes the time difference between India and the present ten years, when the book evinces a nearly unbelievable gap of almost twenty years. The film’s prologue outlines the whole India affair most colorfully with a performance of Much Ado About Nothing, which also deals with multiple marriages, and the visit of the Prince of Wales to Calcutta. A most significant change makes Helen a “secretary” rather than a “second cousin” – either, though, seems too difficult to readily accept. The film, directed by Ross Devenish who previously helmed The Mysterious Affair at Styles, adds the visualization of two little girls playing hopscotch, repeatedly singing the nursery rhyme that gives this story its title, some lovely settings and a real Mrs. Chapman. Joanna Phillips-Lane gives a tremendous performance in a number of differing parts. Peter Blythe (1934-2004), who appears as Blunt, also appeared on the 1983 “Finessing the King” episode of Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime while Rosalind Knight (Georgina Morley) also appeared in the 2006 Marple film The Moving Finger. The highly distinctive Helen Horton (Julia Olivera) also appeared in the 1987 Miss Marple film At Bertram’s Hotel as Mrs. Cabot and, just as distinctively, in the 1972 film of Agatha Christie’s Endless Night (as Auth Beth – “we were shocked!”). Christopher Eccelston (Frank Carter) appears here right before his better known appearances as DCI David Billborough on the great Robbie Coltrane series Cracker.

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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