Monday, May 24, 2010

Agatha Christie’s Poirot - Series 8

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
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 7

1. Evil Under The Sun (first broadcast April 20, 2001, though the ITV box indicates December 15, 2002): While holidaying at a seaside resort, Hercule Poirot inevitably meets a number of the hotel’s guests, including Reverend Stephen Lane, Emily Brewster, Patrick and Christina Redfern, Rosamund Darnley, Major Barry, Horace Blatt and the actress Arlena Stuart and her husband, Kenneth Marshall. Most seem to be enjoying the repose of the sun and the sea. But many, including Poirot, feel that the presence of evil surrounds them. This is reinforced by Patrick Redfern’s indiscreet carrying on with the married and well-to-do Arlena Stuart. As tensions rise, it becomes apparent that many, like Kenneth Marshall, disapprove of Arlena’s behavior, while others, like Christina Redfern, are disgusted by it. Everyone makes plans to enjoy a particularly beautiful morning one day while Poirot himself witnesses Arlena boating to a remote cove with the obviously untrue request to be left on her own for once. While supposedly boating casually around the island with Emily Brewster, Patrick Redfern discovers Arlena lying on the beach at the quiet cove only to find that she’s dead. Someone has strangled her. Redfern sends Miss Brewster back to notify the authorities. Poirot thinks he knows who committed the murder. But the clues he finds point away from his suspicions and lead him to discover a web of deceipt and even uncover a drug smuggling racquet.

First published in 1941, Evil under the Sun is an economic and elegant whodunit very similar in many ways to Agatha Christie’s earlier short story Triangle at Rhodes (1934). The novel references such earlier Poirot escapades as Death on the Nile, in Chapters 1 and 2, and Peril at End House, with the appearance of Colonel Weston in Chapter 5, reminding the reader of “that affair at [nearby] St. Loo” (several references are also made to the hotel’s proximity to Dartmoor and a certain Sherlock Holmes tale of note). The novel was first filmed in 1982 with Peter Ustinov in his second and best of six performances as Poirot and featuring a most remarkable all-star cast (Diana Rigg, Maggie Smith, Jane Birkin, Roddy McDowall, James Mason and Sylvia Miles), an exceedingly inventive adaptation by Anthony Schaffer (the Sleuth playwright also wrote the 1978 screenplay for Death on the Nile and did uncredited work on the 1974 script for Murder on the Orient Express) and some sauve and beautiful direction from Guy Hamilton (one of the notable directors from the James Bond franchise who had also directed the 1980 film The Mirror Crack’d). This particular film adaptation, presented some two decades later, is somewhat closer in tone and tenor to Agatha Christie’s original story, but with quite a number of changes to spice up what is a fairly basic, though inexplicable, but imaginative, murder mystery. It is an especially ideal follow-up to the previous film, Lord Edgware Dies, in that it presents another beautiful, shallow actress who gets an altogether different comeuppance.

Scriptwriter Anthony Horowitz starts with a murder out of the past, as was done in Murder on the Links (1996) – an act which, as before, is covered near the end of Christie’s novel – and devises a framing device allowing the presence of Miss Lemon, Captain Hastings and Chief Inspector Japp (none of whom feature in the novel). The device is the opening of an Argentinian restaurant, El Ranchero, financed by Captain Hastings. This permits Poirot to contract some sort of food poisoning that is mistaken for health reasons (obesity), forcing him to take a beach holiday. The film, directected by Brian Farnham, is set at the Bigbury-on-Sea hotel on Burgh Island, the same hotel that actually inspired Agatha Christie to conceive of this story – and unlike the unbelievably crappy TV miniseries of Stephen King’s The Shining (1997), which was also filmed at the same hotel where the writer conceived the story (to no good purpose), it is much more notable and interesting, despite some obvious but nicely Deco-decorated studio-based interior sets.

Horowitz borrows several scenes from the previous film, such as the early murder shown at the beginning of the film, Poirot’s crossing to the hotel with the Redferns and the concept of an investment Miss Brewster made in a play Arlena Stuart walked out on (something the Gardeners did in the earlier film). But he deletes the novel’s Mr. and Mrs. Odell Gardener, the unnecessary and insignificant Masterman and Cowan families (hotel guests who were only mentioned once in the novel), Dr. Neasdon and Inspector Colgate (a major character in the novel who is obviously replaced by Chief Inspector Japp in this particular filming of the story). One of the most significant changes Horowitz makes is transforming Marshall’s teenaged daughter, Linda, into his teenaged son, Lionel. This provides the investigators with another male suspect who could have strangled Arlena. Horowitz removes Linda’s goofy voodoo elements (and her attempted suicide) and replaces them with Lionel’s somewhat more realistic fascination with poisons. The dramatist removes a number of the book’s “clues” – including a broken pipe – and settles on a more realistic pair of eyeglasses left at the scene of the crime.

All in all, it’s a most picturesque tale with a diabolical, nearly impossible murder that can really only be speculated at by Poirot. His “proofs” would hardly stand up in any court of law. Even the bust up of the drug smuggling ring is pure speculation that wouldn’t stand up (or exist, really) for anyone who has seen any one episode of Miami Vice CSI: Miami. Horowitz removes the book’s misanthropic and significant idea that bodies roasting in the sun all look the same, which forces the detective here to arrive at the solution to the crime by very different means. This principal agrees with the manner and method that David Suchet prefers to play Poirot. But the solution presented in the film is, perhaps, more weak-willed than the unbelievable pronouncement the detective delivers in the novel. And Michael Higgs, who performs adequately as Patrick Redfern, seems to be the wrong actor for the part in any number of different evaluations. Director Brian Farnham is given some beautiful backgrounds to work with and crafts a postcard-like piece. But, all told, this film isn’t the best the series could have delivered. Indeed, it was probably better suited to one of the series’ 50-minute episodes, despite its novel basis.

Suffice it to say, Evil Under The Sun represented a number of regrettable lasts. To date, this film can be said to be the last of the 11 Poirot scripts written by Anthony Horowitz, the last of the six Poirot films directed by Brian Farnham, the last of Pauline Moran’s 39 appearances as Miss Lemon and the last of Philip Jackson’s 39 performances as Chief Inspector Japp. Hugh Fraser, who has recorded a number of Agatha Christie stories for audiobook release, would appear in only one more Poirot film; the next one, Murder in Mesopotamia. An otherwise nice cast was assembled for this particular film; all of whom seemed game to make it work. But, somehow, they couldn’t out-charm or out-class the previous and far less serious theatrical version directed by Guy Hamilton. Carolyn Pickles (Emily Brewster) also appeared in the 1980 film The Mirror Crack’d as Miss Giles and the 1979 film Agatha as Charlotte Fisher. Russell Tovey (Lionel Marshall) also appeared in the 2008 Marple film Murder is Easy while Tim Meats (Stephen Lane) also appeared in the 1983 Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime episode “The Unbreakable Alibi.”

2. Murder in Mesopotamia (first broadcast July 8, 2001): While on an archaelogical dig, Louise Leidner, the beautiful wife of Dr. Leidner, the head of the expidition, experiences ghostly visions and hears strange noises that cause her great fear and anxiety. Mrs. Leidner later reveals that many years before she had been married, briefly, to Frederick Bosner, a man who turned out to be a spy. She had a hand in revealing him to the authorities and he wound up getting killed for his actions. Eventually, she begins receiving threatening letters from her dead husband warning that if she ever marries again he will kill her. She finds out that Bosner was not actually killed but was involved in a train wreck. It’s possible that he could have escaped the wreck and began threatening her life. It’s also possible that the dead man’s adoring younger brother, William, could be pretending to be the brother in order to avenge his death. After a number of years, the letters stop. Louise finally feels comfortable marrying someone when she meets the well-known archaeologist Dr. Leidner. Then, while on the archaeological dig, the letters begin again. Finally, after feeling terrified for so long, Mrs. Leidner is discovered dead one afternoon. There are no witnesses to the crime and no one saw anyone around the murdered woman’s room at the time of her death. Poirot is asked to investigate.

First published in 1936 after a 1935 serialization in The Saturday Evening Post, Murder in Mesopotamia contains many details derived from the author’s visit to the Royal Cemetary at Ur (Earth’s first known continent) with her second husband, Max Mallowan, and other British archaeologists. The somewhat exotic plot, located at what is often called the cradle of civilization, suggests a very similar device British dramatist Patrick Hamilton used to fashion his 1938 play Angel Street, which was later filmed and has become better known as Gaslight. The book’s “foreword,” provided by “Gilles Reilly, MD” (and pre-dating the “John Ray, Jr.” preface of Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel, Lolita), indicates that the nurse, Amy Letheran is the writer of the story, a first-person account Agatha Christie often gave to Captain Hastings in the Poirot stories. The story’s “poison pen” letters also anticipate the author’s Miss Marple novel The Moving Finger (1942). The story itself is interesting but relies hardly at all on its locale (which the writer unapologetically dismisses in Chapter 7 for those expecting such things) except as a way to suggest “otherness” as a point of provoking fear and terror – something Agatha Christie often did in her many books with so many characters’ constant grousing about “foreigners.” But this adventure is somewhat clever, especially as it is dependent on its location for the effectiveness of the mystery. There are a number of clever turns of phrase in the book (for example, a close look at “Frederick” reveals “Eric”) and the author crafts the detective’s soloution to the puzzle most cleverly. The book also references such Poirot adventures as The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928) in Chapter 12 and closes Chapter 29 by indicating that Poirot “went home on the Orient Express and got himself mixed up in another murder,” a reference to the 1934 novel.

This was the last of the 21 scripts provided by dramatist Clive Exton (1930-2007) for the Poirot series. He also “supervised” an additional 11 scripts written by other dramatists. Exton’s storytelling prowess did much to define the flavor and the character of the films, from the very first presentation of The Adventure of the Clapham Cook in 1989 all the way through to this production some dozen years later. Exton wasn’t the imaginative scenarist that Anthony Horowitz is. He was more of a Christie editor while Horowitz was more of an inspired embellisher. But Exton’s stories always stayed remarkably true to Agatha Christie’s vision, if they were unfortunately lacking in the gifted artisty she used in the telling of her tales. After Exton, the Poirot films decidedly turned away from their televisual origins – a character that many dramatic TV shows of “quality” began doing at the time – and pursued the Horowitz-styled embellishments over the Exton-styled austerity. Murder in Mesopotamia is the last of the old-fashioned detective programs and a sort of farewell to a home viewing style that was rapidly seen as staid and slow-moving to a viewing public becoming enured to television’s now prevalent high-octain action, artier/showier direction and rapid-fire editing techniques.

Murder in Mesopotamia is nothing if not old school and contains little that would stir or mystify anyone other than the elderly. The talky plot is, admittedly, tricky to bring to life successfully. But Exton’s script removes almost all the mystery of Louise Leidner; so much so in fact that the viewer cares less about the resolution of her murder than the generally apathetic and, in this case, lifeless characters in the film do. In Exton’s drama, Poirot comes to Iraq in an unlikely response to a request for help from the Countess Vera Rossakoff, who is introduced in “The Double Clue” and factors in several other Poirot stories, but not this particular novel. This puts Poirot on the scene before Louise Leidner’s murder. The book finds the detective passing through the region on another case and he doesn’t enter the story until the book’s thirteenth chapter, about a third of the way through the story. Here, Poirot meets up with Captain Hastings (also not in the book) who is, curisously, a guest of the Iraqi dig visiting Bill Coleman, who here is Hastings’ nephew. Exton also has one of the characters commit suicide, presumably to throw suspicion on their guilt as a murderer or, possibly just to ramp up the action a little bit. In doing so, the script leaves out quite a few of the book’s mostly superfluous characters, such as Dr. Reilly (who introduces both Poirot and the narrator, Ann Leatheran, to the story), the Kelseys, Carl Reiter, David Emmott and French archaeologist Verrier. This makes Sheila Riley of the book into Sheila Maitland of the film, the spunky daughter of (Captain in the book, Superintendent in the film) Maitland.

Directed by TV veteran Tom Clegg, known for his theatrical cult film McVicar starring The Who’s Roger Daltrey, in his only Poirot outing, Murder in Mesopotamia is beautifully highlighted by exotic exteriors filmed in the beautiful Northern African climes of Tunisia and at the Archeological Site of Oudhna. There is much that looks magnificent here, with some particularly nice staging. Unfortunately, it’s all hampered by a cast that doesn’t have much to do and, regrettably, it’s not one of the finest casts ever assembled for a Poirot. Indeed, some of the acting is just awful, made ever clearer by Suchet’s now perfect turn as the Belgian detective. There is some decent acting among the cast. But those that are good enough in their abilities seem surprisingly ill-fitted to their roles. It simply renders the film as one of the lesser triumphs in the Poirot series, particularly among the film-length presentations. Sadly, Murder in Mesopotamia represents the last appearance to date of Hugh Fraser as the hapless but always helpful Captain Arthur Hastings, though Fraser has continued narrating quite a wealth of audio books produced from Agatha Christie’s many books – and where he does a marvelously well-done Poirot himself. Barbara Barnes (Louise Leidner) also appeared in the 1990 Poirot film The Lost Mine as Mrs. Lester and in the 1989 Miss Marple film A Caribbean Mystery as Esther Walters.

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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