Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Agatha Christie’s Poirot - Series 5

Agatha Christie’s Poirot – An Introduction
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 1
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 2
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 3
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 4

1. The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (first broadcast January 17, 1993): An archeological dig in Egypt led by Sir John Willard and financed by the American Mr. Bleibner leads to the opening of the Tomb of the Egyptian King Men-her-Ra. Immediately upon opening the tomb, Sir John Willard dies quite suddenly of heart failure. It is suggested that the curse of the long-dead King is responsible. Soon thereafter Mr. Bliebner himself dies and his nephew in New York also shoots himself to death. The Curse of Men-her-Ra is blamed again. Sir John’s son intends to go to Egypt to finish his father’s work and Lady Willard intervenes by calling in Poirot to investigate the supernatural forces at work. First published in 1923 and included in the collection of stories Poirot Investigates, The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb, also known as The Egyptian Adventure in the US, is the earliest of Agatha Christie’s “archaeological mysteries.” Although such later stories as Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) and Appointment with Death (1938) derive from the author joining second husband Max Mallowan (1904-1978) on his Middle East excavations, the origin of this story probably originated from the then-recent discovery of King Tut’s tomb, enlivened by a touch of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s supernatural suggestion. Clive Exton’s script stays predictably close to Miss Christie’s story. But Exton conceives a back story here for four of the dig’s principals with a peculiar will that motivates three of story’s four deaths. The guilty culprit is apprehended rather differently here too. Peter Barber Fleming helms the first of only two of his Poirot films (Yellow Iris is the other) and does a fairly competent job bringing the story to life, suggesting scenes in Egypt (which is really Spain), London and New York (using stock footage and an obviously British set). Anna Cropper (1938-2007), as Lady Willard, also appeared memorably in the 1987 Miss Marple film Nemesis while Richard Bebb (1927-2006), the uncredited narrator of the Citizen Kane-like “newsreel” that opens this as well as five other Poirot episodes, appeared in the 1985 Miss Marple film A Murder Is Announced. Simon Cowell-Parker (Nigel Harper) also appeared in Clive Donner’s 1986 TV film Dead Man’s Folly (with Peter Ustinov as a contemporary Poirot). Most curiously, Rolf Saxon (Dr. Ames), Olivier Pierre (Henry Schneider) and Paul Birchard (Rupert Bliebner) all appeared with David Suchet as Louis B. Mayer in the 1999 HBO film RKO 281, a dramatization of the making of Citizen Kane.

2. The Underdog (first broadcast January 24, 1993): Sir Reuben Astwell is discovered murdered in his study late one night. His nephew, Charles Leverson, is arrested for the murder. But Lady Astwell is certain that her nephew had nothing to do with the crime. Poirot considers the other members of the household for the crime, including Lady Astwell’s companion, Miss Lilly Margrave, Astwell’s brother, Victor, and Astwell employee Mr. (Owen, in the book, Horace, in the film) Trefusis and discovers many motives for the crime and the true murderer, an underdog, in the end. First published in the UK in 1926 and as part of the US collection The Under Dog and Other Stories, this novella is considerably altered for its 1993 TV presentation. Only the names and the guilty party remain the same. The book reveals Reuben Astwell to be an industrialist that usurps prosperous gold mines in Africa while the film turns the megalomaniac into the thoroughly disagreeable CEO of a company manufacturing a synthetic rubber invention called Astoprene with the intention of selling it to the Germans to ramp up their war machine. As such, the motive for the crime becomes considerably different too. Scripted by Bill Craig (1930-2002) in his only Poirot outing, The Underdog is quite a bit more colorful than Agatha Christie’s original, an admittedly laborious little tale, and tied more to what was really happening in the world in the mid 1930s, when many of the filmed stories take place. The script removes George, Poirot’s valet, from a rather lugubrious role as a stunt double and sounding board and replaces him with Captain Hastings, whose social standing acquaints him with Leverson, and Miss Lemon, who is able to employ her hypnotic technique somewhat interestingly on this occasion (a bit of tomfoolery one Dr. Cazalet induces in the novella). While, in the book, Poirot is invited into the case by Lady Astwell after Reuben Astwell’s death and Charles Leverson’s arrest, the film engages the detective before any crime is committed to appreciate the awful Astwell’s collection of Belgian miniatures (which are apparently notable for being larger than other miniatures) at Astwell’s rather unbelievable invitation. Craig’s script nicely changes Trefusis from a secretary to a chief chemist and modifies Victor Astwell’s attentions (doing business with the enemy) and affections (from Lilly Margrave to Lady Astwell). Sadly, the script makes Lady Astwell quite a bit more demure and mousey than she is in the book. John Bruce, who only directed one other episode from this series (The Case of the Missing Will), helms a nice-looking episode here, showing something of a fondness for German director Fritz Lang throughout. The film recycles a car chase out of the not too dissimilar film presentation of The Incredible Theft and includes the book’s false reference for a servant (similarly questioned by Poirot as was Ursula’s reference in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). Dennis Lill (Sir Reuben Astwell) also appeared in the 1983 episode “The Sunningdale Mystery” of Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime.

3. Yellow Iris (first broadcast January 31, 1993): Several years earlier at a dinner party hosted by Barton Russell, his wife, Iris, is stricken and dies suddenly, the victim of potassium cyanide poisoning. Russell later reconvenes the same group of people, including Russell’s business partner, Stephen Carter, Iris’s sister, Pauline Wetherby, and her suitor Anthony Chapelle and the Argentinean dancer Lola Valdez, in order to ferret out the person in the group he believes is the murderer. Poirot joins in the festivities of this deathly reunion and Iris’s sister, Pauline, is apparently poisoned in the very same way that killed Iris several years before. First published in 1937 as “Case of the Yellow Iris,” this short story appears in the collection The Regatta Mystery (1939) and was later expanded by Miss Christie into the 1945 novel Sparkling Cyanide. Agatha Christie herself wrote a version of the short story as a radio play, broadcast on BBC National Programme on November 2, 1937, although the script of the play remains unpublished. Here, dramatist Anthony Horowitz transforms Christie’s interesting set up into one of the series’ richest, most colorful and captivating mysteries. Much has changed on this story’s journey from page to film, most notably the back story which transports the place of Iris’s death from New York to Buenos Aires (during a political uprising) and the span of time between dinners from the book’s four years to the film’s two. Horowitz’s script inserts Poirot into the Argentine affair, which the political uprising prevents him from solving, adds not one but two up-market restaurants called Le Jardin de Cygnes (Garden of Swans) and utilizes the yellow iris to a much more notable effect. Horowitz also dramatically alters Stephen Carter’s character, removing any hint that there might have been more than one reason for Iris’s death. Like director Peter Barber-Fleming’s previous Poirot effort, The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb, where Spain doubles for Egypt, Spain probably doubles for some of the shots included here, particularly the Buenos Aires exteriors. The interiors are particularly splendid and the colorful cast delivers one of the better ensemble performances in the whole series. Agatha Christie’s story actually contains the lyrics that are used for the song “I’ve Forgotten You” – scored particularly well by (probably) Neil Richardson – but the script does not make any use of Christie’s “There’s Nothing Like Love,” Pauline and Anthony’s song, probably because Horowitz’s script doesn’t place much levity (or importance?) in their relationship. Geraldine Somerville (Pauline Wetherby) will be familiar to many for roles she played after this including, DCI Jane “Panhandle” Penhaligon on Cracker as well as the deceased Lily Potter in the Harry Potter films.

4. The Case of the Missing Will (first broadcast February 7, 1993): This grand episode of Poirot is the only one in the series to have almost nothing whatsoever to do with the book it is based on. Only the title and the names of Andrew Marsh and the Bakers remain the same between the two stories and the headstrong “new woman” Violet (Marsh, in the book, Wilson, in the film) maintains her heady feminism in both cases. Agatha Christie’s short story, first published in 1923 (and in the US in 1924 as “The Missing Will”) and included in the collection Poirot Investigates, finds Violet consulting Poirot over a strange will her recently deceased Uncle Andrew has made insisting that upon his death, she as his only living relative inherit his home, Crabtree Manor, for a year – if she proves her wits – then the home is to be turned over to a hospital. Poirot intuits that Andrew Marsh has hidden a large fortune or an alternative will somewhere in the house for the girl to find and goes about investigating the matter. Poirot discovers the second will’s hiding place, but the will is inexplicably burnt. Poirot determines that Andrew Marsh, playing a very strange game of wits with his niece, has left the “missing will” in a fairly obviously place, but written it out somewhere in disappearing ink (!). The film, craftily scripted by Douglas Watkinson in the first of his three Poirot dramatizations (The Chocolate Box, Dumb Witness), adds quite a number of other characters, beefs up the arguments for and against feminism, stirs the pot with any number of mysterious parentages and blends in Andrew Marsh’s murder for good measure. The film starts with the rich Andrew Marsh announcing at a New Year’s celebration that he has made a will that substantially benefits his good friend Dr. Pritchard, along with allowances for Phyllida Campion, who administers a girl’s college at Cambridge, and two young boys, Robert Siddaway, his lawyer’s son, and Peter Baker, his housekeeper’s son. Miss Campion is enraged that Marsh has left nothing at all to young Violet, but Marsh argues that she will be taken care of by the man she marries, perhaps young Robert or young Peter. Ten years later, Andrew privately consults his friend, Hercule Poirot, to tell him that he is dying and wishes to change his will to benefit Violet entirely, to correct his mistake of years before. Late that very night, Marsh receives a strange phone call and is lured to his folly where he is subsequently murdered. While Marsh never had the opportunity to change his will, the original will benefitting Dr. Pritchard has suddenly gone missing. Evidence later found at the crime scene points to Pritchard as the killer. Then it is suggested that Andrew Marsh has indeed fathered a child and that one of the two boys may in fact be his son and, with the missing will, the sole beneficiary of Marsh’s vast estate. All told, it’s a ripping good yarn, taking Christie’s original concept into a very different direction that stays quite true to the tradition, abounding in such Christie references as Dead Man’s Mirror (parents murdering for their children’s sake), Cat Among The Pigeons, Dead Man’s Folly, etc. John Bruce again directs an opulent episode here in the last of his two Poirot outings (The Underdog is the other), capturing what looks like the real University of Cambridge grounds and buildings (possibly interiors too). Another superb cast is assembled for this stirring little thriller, many of whom have other links to the Agatha Christie film tradition. Richard Durden (Dr. Pritchard) also appears in the 2006 Poirot film Taken at the Flood as Pebmarsh and the 2004 Marple film The Body in the Library as Mr. Prescott. Beth Goddard (Violet Wilson) also appears in the 2008 Poirot film Appointment with Death as Sister Agnieszka. Terrence Hardiman (John Siddaway) also appeared in the 1987 Miss Marple film Sleeping Murder as Walter Fane while Rowena Cooper (Sarah Siddaway) also appeared as Dr. Kleber in the similarly titled 1984 episode of Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime called “The Case of the Missing Lady.”

5. The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (first broadcast February 14, 1993): While Hercule Poirot dines one evening with his friend, Dr. Hawker, the doctor receives news of a frantic phone call from one of his patients, Count Foscatini, saying that he’s just been killed. Poirot accompanies the doctor to the Count’s flat to discover that the man has indeed been killed, the victim of an apparent bludgeoning. Poirot is troubled by the appearance of the Count’s dining room, particularly the window and the curtains, which were strangely left open. Mr. Graves, the Count’s valet, eventually returns to the flat indicating that the previous day his master was engaged in what was obviously a blackmail situation with the mysterious Signor (Paolo, in the book, Mario, in the film) Ascanio. The negotiations were to be concluded that night over dinner. Signor Ascanio is then arrested for the murder but Poirot believes he is innocent of the crime. First published in 1923 and included in the collection Poirot Investigates (and published in the US in 1924 as “The Italian Nobleman”), this story sees the return of Clive Exton, who fleshes out Agatha Christie’s story with some fitfully fanciful and somewhat confusing flourishes. Excepting the bizarre nature of the initial phone call – which, of course, comes from the original story – Exton ramps up the drama considerably, but perhaps too much, adding Bruno Vizzini, a car dealer who is working with Captain Hastings on the purchase of an Italian roadster (and who is obviously engaged in other various questionable activities), Margherita Fabbri, as Vizzini’s rather too-capable assistant (or something else?), an immensely staged Italian wedding, a fun little car chase involving Hastings’ new car (recalling, with a wink, the film of the previous The Adventure of the Third Floor Flat) and most interestingly of all, a peculiar relationship forged between the already married (at least in the film) Mr. Graves, masquerading as private secretary to the Italian nobleman, and Miss Lemon. Exton plays with the idea of just who is blackmailing whom and, most notably (and realistically), the nature of the scandalous papers at the root of the resulting crime. There are also necessarily a number of other characters added to the brew, including the unlikely talkative Darida (the handsome Alberto Janelli), who works for the Italian Ambassador, whose position is altered greatly by Exton’s changes. Despite the complications which may necessitate repeat viewings to fully grasp, The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman stays true to Agatha Christie’s original and is sufficiently enlivened to be consistently engaging right up until the very end. Curiously, some of series composer Christopher Gunning’s music here suggests John Barry’s music for the James Bond series (though there is little doubt that Neil Richardson was engaged to provide the wedding music). This episode marks the second of two appearances of actor Ben Bazell as Sgt. Beddoes (the other is One, Two, Buckle My Shoe) and the first of two appearances actor Arthur Cox makes as the book’s Dr. Hawker in the series (Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan is the other).

6. The Chocolate Box (first broadcast February 21, 1993): Poirot recalls a case he was concerned with while still a policeman in the Belgian police force involving the sudden poisoning death of Paul Deroulard, a minister of state, who died of arsenic poisoning. Poirot, engaged to take the case by Virginie Mesnard, a cousin of the dead man’s deceased wife, discovers that Deroulard’s wife died of mysterious circumstances and that many people have the need to hush up the case of Paul Deroulard’s death. Poirot, though, ends up discovering what really happened. First published in 1925 and included in the collection Poirot Investigates, this remains one of the most touching of all the Poirot films ever filmed. Transformed by dramatist Douglas Watkinson, the story takes Poirot back to Belgium for the first time since his departure some two decades before, in order for Inspector Japp to receive (rather unbelievably) Belgium’s highest honor among policemen. Of course, Poirot encounters many of his former friends, colleagues and enemies, all of whom help to reveal the one mystery he has never been permitted to officially solve. Watkinson’s script takes many artful detours away from Agatha Christie’s story, including a possible love interest for Poirot (!), the explanation for Poirot’s lapel pin and Poirot’s complete understanding of the crime at hand (the color(s) of the chocolate box(es) – none of which is expounded upon in the short story). Filmed in Belgian locations such as Antwerp and Brussels, this is also one of the more picturesque films of the Poirot series. David Suchet, who assays both the young Belgian detective and an older, wiser self visiting Belgium again, is simply magnificent. It’s hard to walk away from this particular episode with a dry eye. That is due mostly to Suchet’s tremendous performance as Poirot, something he makes more human and much greater than the character in the book. The great Rosalie Crutchley (1920-97), who appears here as Madame Deroulard, also appeared as Mrs. Price-Ridley in the 1987 Miss Marple film Murder at the Vicarage while the equally great Preston Lockwood (1912-96), who appears here as the butler Francois, also appeared memorably as Canon Pennyfather in the 1987 Miss Marple film At Bertram’s Hotel as well as the 1983 episode of Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime “The Unbreakable Alibi.” Anna Chancellor (Virginie Mesnard) also appeared in the 2008 Marple film Murder Is Easy while James Coombes (Paul Deroulard) also appears in the American TV film of Murder with Mirrors (with Helen Hayes as Miss Marple).

7. Dead Man’s Mirror (first broadcast February 28, 1993): Gervase Chevenix believes he is being defrauded and convenes Hercule Poirot to his estate of Hamborough Close to investigate. Insulted but intrigued, Poirot consents and arrives to meet Chevenix’s wife, Vanda, his adopted daughter, Ruth, Hugo Trent, Gervase’s nephew, Miss Lingard, a literary assistant, and Lake, a business associate. One evening, upon the striking of the second gong, Chevenix does not appear as he always does for dinner. He is discovered, locked in his study, sprawled on his desk with a gun in his hand and the word “sorry” scrawled on a piece of paper. The victim apparently shot himself through the head and the bullet passed through to splinter the dead man’s mirror, but the more Poirot considers the character of the man and how he would have to be placed in order to hit the mirror as well, the more he believes the suicide is in fact murder. The novella Dead Man’s Mirror, first published in 1937, is included in the collection Dead Man’s Mirror, also published as Murder in the Mews, is an expanded version of a 1932 Agatha Christie story called The Second Gong. The story, of course, makes reference to the Tennyson poem that also gave title to Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side. Dramatist Anthony Horowitz condenses the novella quite convincingly by doing away with the Colonel Bury, Ogilvie Forbes and Godfrey Burrows characters and engaging Poirot’s participation with a real request from Chevenix rather than the rather hard-to-believe false telegram which lures the detective into the web of deceit. Horowitz also deals more realistically with forensics than Miss Christie’s story does and nicely spices up the tale with an auction, at which Poirot loses the titular mirror (said in the film to be an Edgar Brandt original) to Chevenix, more of Vanda’s mystical leanings, the change of Chevenix’s project with Miss Lingard from family history to art history (allowing a significant painting of a mother losing her child to be included in the film) and colorful business interests for both Lake and Trent (both of whom have business troubles in the film that Colonel Bury has in the book). Any number of the changes Horowitz makes to the story (a champagne bottle, a cufflink and the murderer framing someone else for the crime) are far more sensible than the literary garden path Miss Christie sends Poirot down in the book. Additionally, Horowitz replaces the novella’s Mr. Satterthwaite (from the Harley Quin stories) with Hugh Fraser’s Captain Hastings and the surprisingly clueless Major Riddle with Philip Jackson’s Chief Inspector Japp. Director Brian Farnham frames here one of the best looking of all the 50-minute Poirot episodes, something that is probably due to the film being set in and around the beautifully unique stone mansion that serves as Hamborough Close. Series composer Nicholas Gunning provides a most haunting musical score using voices and spare, near-dissonant instrumentation. Iain Cuthbertson (Gervase Chevenix), while not exactly Christie’s “man of Herculean build with a Viking beard,” also featured hilariously as Dr. Farson in the 1977 Ripping Yarns tale “Murder at Moorstones Manor,” a spoof of/tribute to Agatha Christie’s locked-room mysteries like Dead Man’s Mirror while Jeremy Northam (Hugo Trent) also featured in Robert Altman’s Christie-esque locked-room mystery Gosford Park (2001). The handsome Richard Lintern (John Lake) also appeared as Guy Carpenter in the 2008 Poirot film Mrs. McGinty’s Dead while Jon Croft (Lawrence, Trent’s business associate) also appeared as Inch in the 1992 Miss Marple film The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side.

8. Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (first broadcast March 7, 1993): While convalescing at the Grand Metropolitan, a seaside resort, Hercule Poirot meets Mr. and Mrs. Opalsen, who have an ostentatious set of valuable pearls that are soon stolen. Curiously, the jewels are stolen from the Opalsens’ hotel room while the couple is out, but seemingly during the time that Mrs.Opalsen’s companion, Celestine, was in the room with a hotel chambermaid. Poirot investigates. First published in 1923 as The Curious Disappearance of the Opalsen Pearls and in the US as Mrs. Opalsen’s Pearls, The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan is included in the collection of early stories, Poirot Investigates. It isn’t much of a story, but it allows Agatha Christie to outline how Poirot spots pertinent clues that others miss that help him solve the mystery (in this case, it’s dust). Anthony Horowitz’s script typically ups the ante by making Mrs. Opalsen an actress and her husband a producer, staging a play called, oddly enough, given all the references to Mrs. Opalsen’s rather large and unappealing countenance, “Pearls before Swine.” The play is a cheesy whodunit scripted by the penniless Andrew Hall who, of course, has a gambling problem that the stolen jewels could help offset. Horowitz throws in several references to Oscar Wilde, notably the 1908 film of Wilde’s stage play Salome (which is briefly seen at the beginning of this film to establish that Mr. Opalsen has purchased the great set of pearls Florence Lawrence wears in the film for Mrs. Opalsen to wear in her performance of the play) and a disguised character – not in the book – who assumes the name of the lead character in The Importance of Being Earnest. Horowitz tosses much more humor into the episode, the last, to date, of the 50-minute Poirot films, with Poirot constantly being mistaken for Lucky Len, a character in a newspaper contest who, if spotted, pays the successful spotter a few pounds. Despite some lovely location shooting in what is obviously Brighton on the sea, this is one of the lighter episodes of the entire Poirot series and one that is knowingly teeming with “characters” rather than “people.” Simon Shepherd (Andrew Hall) also appears as Dr. Rendell in the 2008 Poirot film Mrs. McGinty’s Dead and as Patrick Simmons in the 1985 Miss Marple film A Murder is Announced while Tim Stern (the bellboy) also appears as Alf Renny in the 2008 Poirot film Third Girl and as an attendant in the 2004 Marple film 4:50 From Paddington. Interestingly, this film features the actors Peter Kelly (Lucky Len) and Andrew Carr (who died four months before this film was first broadcast – as actor Hubert Devine), both of whom joined Hugh Fraser in the 1983 film Curse of the Pink Panther.

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

1 comment:

VB said...

Far beyond the lifespan of this blog, but perhaps of interest to passers by, the pearls episode was actually filmed partly in Eastbourne and partly in Hastings, rather than the (also picturesque) Brighton.