Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Agatha Christie’s Poirot - Series 7

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
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 5
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 6

1. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (first broadcast January 2, 2000): In the quiet village of Kings Abbot, the widow Dorothy Ferrars suddenly commits suicide. Her death causes much speculation and gossip in the small village. The following evening, a rich industrialist, Roger Ackroyd, invites the village doctor, James Sheppard, to his home, Fernly Park, for dinner. Ackroyd confides to the doctor that he and the late Mrs. Ferrars were very much in love and shortly before her death she confessed that she had murdered her husband the year before and that someone was blackmailing her as a result. Ackroyd then receives a letter from the deceased woman and he dismisses the doctor to read the letter alone. Dr. Sheppard returns home and soon gets a phone call from Ackroyd’s butler, Parker, indicating that his master has been murdered. The doctor rushes back to Fernly Park only to find that Parker made no such phone call but Roger Ackroyd has indeed been murdered! The letter is gone and it seems as though Ackroyd’s errant – and suspiciously missing – stepson, Ralph Paton, is the culprit. As it turns out, Dr. Sheppard’s neighbor is none other than Hercule Poirot. Retiring to Kings Abbot to grow vegetable marrows, Poirot endeavors to aid the investigation into the mysterious death of his friend, Roger Ackroyd.

First published in 1926, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is considered by many to be Agatha Christie’s masterpiece. While it is certainly a finely crafted story that has an innovative surprise ending (a superb example of the author tweaking and toying with the detective-fiction form), it may not be the bestChristie novel but it is surely one of the best of the Poirot stories. Christie’s cast of characters here resonates with believability and realism. There are many strong personalities that spring to life from the page, from the many varied descriptions of Ralph Paton’s handsomeness to the gossipy wisdom of Caroline Sheppard (who Christie credits as a precursor to her Miss Marple character, whose first appearance in novels was in The Murder at the Vicarage four years later).

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd served as the basis for Michael Morton’s 1928 play Alibi starring Charles Laughton as Poirot. The play was turned into a 1931 film of the same name with Austin Trevor as Poirot and inspired Christie to write her own play, Black Coffee (1930 – with Francis L. Sullivan as Poirot), which was also turned into a 1931 film with Trevor again playing Poirot (Charles Osborne wrote a novelization of Black Coffee in 1998). The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was also adapted by Orson Welles for an hour-long November 12, 1939, Campbell Playhouse radio play featuring Welles performing both (!) the Belgian detective and the English doctor to near, but manic, perfection.

Scripted by series regular Clive Exton in his second to last Poirot script and directed by series regular Andrew Grieve in the last of his nine Poirot outings, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a glorious presentation that appeared some four years after the previous Poirot film, Dumb Witness. Exton cleverly changes the novel’s first-person narrative to a journal read in voiceover by Poirot himself. This allows the dramatist to pull out some of Agatha Christie’s finest prose, much of it her very own words. The film brings the author’s words vividly to life in beautifully constructed sentences, reminding those who dismiss genre writing as trivial consumption that Agatha Christie is one of literature’s greatest writers. Exton, too, provides some of his most beautiful writing to the film – particularly in the interjections Poirot makes regarding himself.

Exton comes up with a very nice script by doing away with the novel’s Major Blunt, Miss Russell, Charles Kent, “the mysterious stranger,” and Poirot’s non-existent nephew (invented, like Poirot’s brother in Curtain, to help the detective achieve his aim) to no serious detriment and reduces the book’s various inspectors (Raglan, Hayes) to just one, Inspector Davis, while the book’s chief constable, Colonel Melrose, is replaced by the inevitable Chief Inspector Japp (Philip Jackson). Exton recasts Roger Ackroyd as much more of a realistic industrialist than the novel narrator’s initially bizarre speculation that the loathsome man produces “wagon wheels,” which would hardly explain his great wealth. More questionably, though, Exton replaces Dr. Sheppard as Poirot’s Dr. Watson, or Hastings-like associate, with Inspector Japp – who is only briefly referenced in the novel – forcing the doctor to become just one of the suspects Poirot must consider. The film also nicely ups the ante of action by killing off the Fernly Park butler, Parker, because he may have been able to figure out what happened to Ackroyd and gives Ackroyd’s killer a more colorful sort of suicide at the end than he gets in the book.

It is easy to see how the gossipy village-life scenario provided Agatha Christie with a template for the Miss Marple stories. But even in retirement, Hercule Poirot is a fish out of water here. There is no room in Poirot’s “order and method” for so much of the gossip that is bandied about in the book. Exton was wise to minimize it for the film, particularly in an effort not to compete with Joan Hickson’s already well-known and magnificent performances as Miss Marple. Unfortunately, this substantially reduces the importance of Caroline Sheppard in the film and there’s no doubt that Selina Cadell would have done justice to the character as Miss Christie wrote her. Such as it may be it, there is certainly something odd about watching Suchet’s Poirot in mid-career of the film series retired to Kings Abbot. Indeed, he’s back to Whitehaven Mansions for the next film, Lord Edgware Dies. But even Agatha Christie had the “retired” detective investigating murder and mayhem for another half century after the murder of Roger Ackroyd!

Andrew Grieve’s direction here is workmanlike and mostly unremarkable, but as “the matter of time” is so important to the mystery, he captures many fine and subtle shots of clocks showing the time for the careful observer – even though Poirot’s carriage clock appears to be two different clocks (a goof?). It should be noted that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is the first of the Poirot films edited by A&E TV for American DVD release. The edits are brief and unimportant to the plot and no doubt made to allow for commercials during television broadcasts. But the fact that the original cut of the film couldn’t have been restored for the DVD release is particularly irksome for Poirot completists (A&E TV has also repeatedly released even more drastically edited DVDs of Monty Python’s Flying Circus).

Oliver Ford Davies (Dr. Sheppard) also appeared as Col. Reece in the 2003 TV film Sparkling Cyanide, which also featured Roger Frost (Parker), and has since become known as Sio Bibble from the Star Wars films. Selina Cadell (Caroline Sheppard) also appeared memorably as Mary Dove in the 1985 Miss Marple film A Pocket Full of Rye.

2. Lord Edgware Dies (first broadcast February 19, 2000): During a performance by the American impressionist Carlotta Adams, the beautiful and well-known actress Jane Wilkinson, also known as Lady Edgware, asks for Poirot’s assistance in helping to convince her husband for a divorce so she can marry the Duke of Merton. The marriage was never a success but Lord Edgware has previously refused to divorce his wife to maintain his good name. Poirot consents to meet Lord Edgware only to discover that he has indeed agreed to the divorce and notified his wife of the fact some time before. Confounded, Poirot informs Lady Edgware of this fact. Then, Lord Edgware is murdered. Lady Edgware is immediately suspected and witnesses even place her at the scene of the crime. But it could not have been Lady Edgware who committed the crime because she was at a dinner party and the other 12 guests can vouch for her presence there at the time of the murder. It then occurs to Poirot that Carlotta Adams could have impersonated Jane Wilkins and gone to his home to murder Lord Edgware. When Poirot begins to wonder what Carlotta Adams’ motive for the murder might have been, he suddenly realizes he needs to find the actress before it’s too late. His fear is indeed confirmed when he discovers Carlotta Adams dead from an overdose of Veronal. A small gold box of the sleeping powder is found near the dead woman, suggesting she had been an addict for some time and accidentally overdosed. When Carlotta’s sister, Lucy, steps forward with a letter from her dead sister confirming that a ruse was committed, Poirot realizes that he is looking for a murderer.

First published in 1933 as Lord Edgware Dies in the UK and the same year as 13 at Dinner in the US, the novel (which one character suggests in the ironic thirteenth chapter, of all things, that “Lord Edgware Dies” would make a good title for a book!) was first filmed in a 1934 adaptation under the British title, directed by Henry Edwards and starring Austin Trevor as Poirot in his third of three film performances as the detective, following Alibi and Black Coffee. The story was filmed again in 1985 for television and directed by TV veteran Lou Antonio in a contemporary setting with Peter Ustinov in his third of six performances as Poirot (and the first of four contemporary updates of the detective stories made for television), Faye Dunaway (who also appeared as Rachel Argyle in the film adaptation of Ordeal By Innocence made the same year) as both Jane Wilkinson and Carlotta Adams and, notably, David Suchet as Inspector Japp. In her biography, Agatha Christie based the story on her impression of the American dramatist Ruth Draper (1884-1956), who was a masterful impressionist. Draper was the inspiration for the story’s American stage actress, Carlotta Adams, who imitates Jane Wilkinson on stage in the book, but whose film embodiment – portrayed rather too broadly and poorly by the obviously British Fiona Allen – imitates Teddy Roosevelt (who, like Poirot, is in the audience!), Hitler and the great Poirot himself.

This film reteams scripter Anthony Horowitz with director Brian Farnham for the first time since the eloquent Dead Man’s Mirror (1993). Since then, Horowitz had created the Crime Traveller series and was part of the creative team that launched the fine, Agatha Christie-like Midsomer Murders. Horowitz sticks closely to Agatha Christie’s soapy novel (actors and writers mingling rather shabbily with the upper classes), cutting out only the snobby Duchess of Merton, who strongly opposes her son’s marriage to Jane Wilkinson, changing Jenny Driver to Penny Driver, here a hat maker with a reason of her own to wish Jane Wilkinson out of the way, and adding Miss Lemon to the reunion of Poirot with Japp and Hastings. The story is nicely woven into the film series by returning Captain Hastings from Argentina, where he married his beloved Bella, whom he’d met in 1996’s Murder on the Links, following a bad investment (and without Bella) and providing a number of suggestions that Poirot has returned to his former profession following his “retirement” as portrayed in the previous Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

Horowitz, who probably sensed the story’s otherworldly oddities of the rich and famous (and which, in the wake of O.J. Simpson, Robert Blake and Phil Spector, don’t seem so peculiar any more), grounds the film with many recognizable cultural signposts, such as Jane Wilkinson’s spot-on “performance” as Lady Macbeth in the Shakespeare play, the highly overrated playwright Donald Ross dismissing Noel Coward as a passing fancy and Carlotta Adams’ impersonations of relatively accurate historical figures. The dramatist also changes the time of Lord Edgware’s consent letter to his wife (that is allegedly never received) from six months before in the novel to a more sensible one month before in the film. While Horowitz sticks close to Agatha Christie’s story, much of the animated dialogue is very much his own and he provides some especially nice lines to the series’ regulars. For example, Hastings, responding to Japp’s belief that Jane Wilkinson has Poirot wrapped around her little finger, says “I wouldn’t say that. I’ve never thought of women as the manipulative sex. It’s certainly not been my experience.” Japp, who, after Donald Ross’ murder, hilariously says “This chap was just a writer. A nobody. How would he know anything about anything?” And for Miss Lemon, reproaching a suspect who wonders if Poirot has the answers to his five questions, responds more sharply than usual, “Of course Mister Poirot has the answers. That’s why you’re here!”

Brian Farnham’s direction is serviceable, but the plot doesn’t allow for much grandiloquence. The cast, however, is a superb mix of British character actors who play their parts to perfection, with the possible exception of Fiona Allen, who really only pulls off looking remarkably like Helen Grace’s Jane Wilkinson in evening dress. Most oddly, though, in the climactic scene at dinner it really seems very much like Helen Grace is at the table, not Fiona Allen, who is supposed to be at the table. It’s hard to believe the producers made this mistake and indeed they would probably want to convince us that the deception was that convincing. But it’s not. It’s easy to see Helen Grace really is in two places at one time (which may be some sort of visual reference to the real-life Elizabeth Canning case Agatha Christie has Japp find similarities with in the book’s seventh chapter). While the book notes the “marked resemblance” of the actor Bryan Martin to Lord Edgware’s unnamed, handsome “Greek God” of a butler, the film cleverly employs brothers Dominic Guard as Byron Martin and Christopher Guard as Alton, the butler (who gets killed in the film following a chase he’s never part of in the book in order to provide the drama with a little action, probably to placate American audiences) to further illustrate the point of just who it might be that was seen leaving Lord Edgware’s house around the time of the murder. The great John Castle (Lord Edgware) also appeared in the 1992 Miss Marple film The Mirror Crack’d while Fenella Woolgar (Ellis, Jane Wilkinson’s maid) also appeared as Miss Whitaker in the 2010 Poirot film Hallowe’en Party.

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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