Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Agatha Christie’s Poirot - Series 12

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
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 8
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 9
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 10
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 11

1. The Clocks (first broadcast December 30, 2009): Sheila Webb, a typist at the Cavendish Secretarial Bureau, is called for an afternoon appointment at the home of Miss Pebmarsh at 19 Wilbraham Crescent. Upon arrival, Sheila discovers a dead man surrounded by six clocks, four of which are set to the time of 4:13 and one of which bears the name of “Rosemary.” Sheila runs out of the house screaming and into the arms of young Colin, a government agent wandering the street in search of 61 Wilbraham Crescent. Miss Pebmarsh, a blind lady, returns shortly thereafter and claims to not know anything about the dead man but also says she never requested any typist for any reason. Colin, involved in an investigation of his own, becomes interested in the baffling murder of the unknown man and, more importantly, of the young lady who discovered the dead body. An investigation begins and an inquest is held, determining the victim was murdered by a person or persons unknown. A public search of the man’s identity ensues and while one woman comes forward to claim the dead man as a husband who had left her many years before, another young girl from the Cavendish Secretarial Bureau is discovered dead in a phone box at Wilbraham Crescent. Perplexed, Colin consults an old family friend, Hercule Poirot, to help solve the mystery.

The Clocks was published in the UK in 1963 and in the United States the following year. Agatha Christie employs a partial first-person narrative here – for the first time in years (maybe the first since The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in 1926, a tale Poirot refers briefly to in Chapter 14 of this book) – which, because of unreliable narrators of the past, throws much suspicion upon poor Colin, working on a James Bond-like assignment that’s never made properly clear in the book. The plot is complex beyond belief and thus suggests a solution that Poirot surmises must be simple. Of course it is. The complexities come from some of the bizarre fictions Poirot studies and those that the Cavendish Secretarial Bureau is known for typing up. Christie seems to be looking for the bizarre in other author’s wacky plotting in order to conceive a story with more red-herring crime than any in her entire output. She seems to be parodying the form as much as pandering to readers’ needs for immaculately obscure plotting.

Unlike many of Poirot’s manor mysteries or Miss Marple’s village thrillers, The Clocks is especially notable as one of the author’s first (and only) suburban thrillers (mixing the aging old murder mystery with the then-in spy thriller); one where she suggests the differing evils that lurk behind the perfectly symmetrical houses in the now emerging suburban wastelands that were probably built up over the decaying mansions of the now bankrupt social elite of yore. Maybe it’s a bit too much evil. Sure, the dish is overcooked. But her commentary – and meta-commentary – here is perfectly valid. The book, which like Sparkling Cyanide (1945, the basis of which was the 1937 Poirot short story “Yellow Iris”), makes much of the name Rosemary having the meaning of remembrance (Chapter 12), was not one of Christie’s best-known books, nor one of her most critically well received.

ITV’s presentation of The Clocks is not surprisingly the story’s first filmed presentation and does a mostly adequate job of capturing the major plot points and many oblique obscurities as well. While the basic story, the murder victim, the murderer(s) and the modus operandi are retained, many other changes are made to move this story from its early 1960s London setting to a pre-WWII timeframe set in Dover (a coastal town, like the Hastings of Foyle’s War, considered to be the first point of British invasion by the Germans). Scripted by Stewart Harcourt (who wrote the Marple scripts for The Blue Geranium, Ordeal by Innocence, By the Pricking of my Thumbs and A Murder is Announced) in a copycat style to former Poirot scripter Anthony Horowitz’s operatic Foyle’s War scripts and directed in a surprisingly flat manner by Charles Palmer (who also directed the Marple films A Pocket Full of Rye and The Murder at the Vicarage) harking back to the unimaginative WWII espionage films of the forties, the film of The Clocks is probably even more dramatically overdone than the book.

Here, a whole MI-6 backstory is constructed to fill in Ms. Christie’s half-baked spy plot, something that only really explained Colin’s presence on the scene when Sheila discovers the dead body. Colin, the secret agent, whose book name is “Colin Lamb” (clearly a pseudonym for the son of one of Poirot’s old friends, often assumed to be Superintendent Battle). Here he is “Colin Race,” who then takes on the undisguised guise of son of Poirot’s old friend Colonel Race, who was previously portrayed in the ITV film of Death on the Nile by James Fox (the character was also supposed to appear in Cards on the Table but James Fox wasn’t available, so his charcter was replaced by Robert Pugh’s Colonel Hughes). “Miss” Pebmarsh gets an entirely different career – and sons! – to explain what it is she does. Sheila ends up having an unwanted affair with Professor Purdy she doesn’t have in the book. The pesky neighborhood boys are now girls, attended by a single father with a hated German nanny, rather than a single mother. There is no little girl here trapped in her room, a witness to all that goes on in the Crescent. Colin is more dimwitted here than in the book too. And so on and so on. Clearly Harcourt is trying to do away with much of Christie’s filler and filling in what was obviously some gaping plot holes that existed before, but ends up just throwing more confusion into what was already a needlessly confusing plot. And the surprisingly dull denouement hardly seems worthy of all the misleading decoupage (i.e., it’s hard to believe that such boring people with such boring lives would be able to conceive such an elaborate charade for what is essentially a boring crime) – a reality present in the book and, unfortunately, proved true in the film. Somehow, Christie’s prose makes it, if not believable, then somewhat acceptable. Seeing it all acted out makes the fever dream appear to be the play Poirot rolls his eyes at during opening scenes of The Clocks: unbelievable and ridiculous.

Tom Burke, who is surprisingly forced to portray Colin Race as unnecessarily emotionally challenged and wishy washy, is the son of David Burke (who appeared in the 1995 Poirot film Hickory Dickory Dock and is well known as Dr. Watson in the Granada Sherlock Holmes series) and Anna Calder-Marshall (who appeared in the 2006 Poirot film After the Funeral). Anna Massey (Miss Pebmarsh), daughter of actor Raymond Massey and one-time wife of Granada TV’s Sherlock Holmes, Jeremy Brett, portrayed Miss Christie in a TV film Agatha Christie: A Life in Pictures, which also featured The Clocks’ Stephen Boxer (Christopher Mabbutt). The Clocks also welcomes back several actors from previous Poirot films dating back to the series’ beginning, including Beatie Edney (Mrs. Hemmings, the cat lady – who was Mary Cavendish in the 1990 film The Mysterious Affair at Styles) and the lovely Frances Barber (Merlina Rival, wife of the mysterious dead man, who was memorably Lady Millicent Castle-Vaughan in the 1990 film The Veiled Lady and also appeared as Miss Hinchcliffe in the excellent 2005 Marple film A Murder is Announced).

2. Three Act Tragedy (first broadcast January 1, 2010): First Act: Poirot attends a dinner party hosted by famed actor Sir Charles Cartwright at which a local rector suddenly dies. The man had been drinking a martini shortly before he died but no poison was discovered in his glass. While some question the suspicious death, it is ruled as natural. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, even Poirot believes the death was accidental. Second Act: Sir Bartholomew Strange, a psychiatrist and one of the attendees at Cartwright’s dinner party, hosts his own dinner party with many of the same guests from the earlier dinner in attendance. Suddenly, he too is struck dead, himself the victim of poisoning from a glass that contained no poison. This time the death is ruled murder. Sir Charles Cartwright assumes the role of the detective and discovers that many of the same guests from his dinner party were in attendance at Strange’s dinner party. Cartwright also finds that a young man from the first dinner party, Oliver Manders, has mysteriously crashed his motorcycle outside Strange’s house just before that fateful dinner and a new bulter, Ellis, has strangely disappeared. Third Act: Poirot confesses that following Strange’s death, he must concede that the first death was murder too. He allows Cartwright to head up the investigation, with a little help from Poirot, and in the course of the investigation there is one more suspicious death. Poirot vows that the murders must stop, using his little gray cells to put the pieces together.

First published in the US in 1934 as Murder in Three Acts and in the UK in 1935 under its original title, Three Act Tragedy is a classic in detective-fiction misdirection. The story, for as little as it involves Poirot – even allowing the famed detective to permit others to do much of the mostly useless detective work (which takes up a great deal of the text, leading to quite a few more red herrings here than usual) – offers one of Christie’s more surprising and, ultimately, satisfying conclusions. As a twist on the classic don’t-trust-the-narrator text, Three Act Tragedy proposes the questionable role of “acting” among people, especially well-to-do individuals. To paraphrase a rather beautiful proclamation Hercule Poirot makes in Chapter 17 about the truth: “there is nothing so curious and so interesting and so beautiful” as good acting. Indeed, Three Act Tragedy, with its introductory credits (“Directed by Charles Cartwright” etc.), posits that inspired criminal detection is as much an art form of good acting as the actual commission of crime.

Intruiging as the story is and daring as the twist may be, Three Act Tragedy shares several notable plot points with other Christie novels. First, like the two Poirot novels which followed it, Death in the Clouds (1935) and The A.B.C. Murders (1936), Three Act Tragedy cleverly conceals the murderer by having Poirot deputize him or her as a supplemental detective. Secondly, like Appointment with Death (1938), One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940) and Sparkling Cyanide/Remembered Death (1945 – and the similarly plotted 1937 short story, “Yellow Iris”), Three Act Tragedy involves the murderer disguised as a servant (the disguised servant also occurs in The Mystery of the Blue Train, 1928, and After the Funeral, 1953). Finally, Three Act Tragedy curiously finds the guilty party among a certain profession that is especially adept at pulling such things off (almost) successfully as in Thirteen at Dinner / Lord Edgware Dies (1933), One, Two, Buckle My Shoe / The Patriotic Murders (1940) and the Miss Marple mystery The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (1962). Three Act Tragedy also reprises the character of Mr. Satterthwaite (from The Mysterious Mr. Quin stories), references travel by “the Blue Train” (Chapter 6) and specifically recalls The Mysterious Affair at Styles (Chapter 6) and “The Chocolate Box” (Chapter 17). Curiously, the play the book’s Miss Wills writes for Angela Sutcliffe, Little Dog Laughed (called Sin in Suburbia in the 2010 film), is another of Christie’s nursery rhyme titles – from “Hey diddle diddle” – and was the title used for an off-Broadway play by Douglas Carter Beane in 2006.

Three Act Tragedy was first filmed for American television in 1986 under the story’s American title, Murder in Three Acts, in an oddly contemporary story set mostly in Acapulco. Otherwise sticking pretty close to Christie’s original story, Murder in Three Acts featured Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot with Tony Curtis effectively portraying Charles Cartwright. Jonathan Cecil reprises his role here as the hapless Hastings from Dead Man’s Folly (1986) and Thirteen at Dinner (1985), replacing the book’s Mr. Satterthwaite.

The 2010 film presentation is magnificent on almost every level. Directed with a combination of astonishing period elegance and artfully ironic noir camera work by Ashley Pearce (who returns to the series from the well done Mrs. McGinty’s Dead and the not so well done Appointment with Death) and scripted with eloquently verbal precision by Nick Dear (who wrote the series’ Mrs. McGinty’s Dead as well as two of its best later entries, The Hollow and Cards on the Table), Three Act Tragedy is among the series’ very best entries. Relatively little was changed from the book – up to and including the book’s delicious last lines – other than the deletion (again) of the Mr. Satterthwaite character and a minor modification in the modus operandi of the crimes, necessitating the omission of “am worried about M” that, at least in the book, helps Poirot understand why the crimes are committed.

The Cornwall locations are superb. The interiors are immaculate. The plotting seems quite natural, especially given the amazing set of cicumstances that unleash the plot. And the actors are tremendously well cast for their parts.

First and foremost is the remarkable Martin Shaw (Inspector George Gently, Adam Dalgliesh, Judge John Deed and a bunch of other British TV detectives), who gives a magisterial performance of someone giving the performance of a lifetime. Martin Shaw had previously acted with David Suchet on a 1978 episode of The Professionals (“Where the Jungle Ends”) and their chemistry here is not only natural and acceptable thoughout, but so spectacular as to suggest the emotion of true friendship as the story progresses. It’s also fair to say that Martin Shaw has worked with most of the actors in this ensemble in his various roles elsewhere, making his casting (and theirs) artful perfection in itself.

The young and fiesty Kimberley Nixon as Egg (Cranford) is especially good here too, bringing much of the verve and vitality of the book’s young heroine to her part. But the script shortchanges the terrific Kate Ashfield (Shaun of the Dead, Collission), whose Miss Wills character is given something of a too short shrift. Even so, Ms. Ashfield does a lot with the little she’s given to do. Jane Asher, who is also not given much to do as Lady Mary, is well cast and has also appeared in the 2004 Marple film The Murder at the Vicarage, while the briefly seen young boy James Hurran also appeared in the 2007 Marple film Ordeal by Innocence. None of the other cast members have a Christie history, but are extrememly well cast, especially hunk Tom Wisdom, whose Oliver Manders absolutely embodies the good-looking shell of a hunk Christie wrote his part to be. The ever regal David Yelland also returns as the indefatigable George, Poirot’s valet, rounding out a superb cast to a superb telecast.

3. Hallowe’en Party (first broadcast May 26, 2010): While staying with a friend, Judith Butler and her daughter, Miranda, in the village of Woodleigh Common, writer Ariadne Oliver is engaged to help set up a children’s Hallowe’en Party at the neighboring home of Rowena Drake. As the preparations ensue, many are taken by Mrs. Oliver’s fame and the popular murder mysteries she writes, including a young girl, Joyce Reynolds, who says that she too once witnessed a murder. When asked why she never said anything about this murder, Joyce tells everyone that what she saw didn’t register as a murder at first. When asked when this “murder” occurred, Joyce says that it happened “years ago,” when she was still a child. Roundly dismissed as another of Joyce’s many stories, the party proceeds as planned. After the party is over, the young girl Joyce is discovered dead, drowned by force in a bucket of water used for an apple bob. The shaken Mrs. Oliver calls Hercule Poirot for assistance and the Belgian detective finds a long trail back into the past involving deception, forgery and murder in Woodleigh Common.

Hallowe’en Party was first published in 1969 and is the last of the Hercule Poirot novels Agatha Christie wrote (the final Poirot novel, Curtain, though published in 1975, was written some three decades before). The story is inspired by the American celebration of Halloween, following a trip Ms. Christie made to the states with husband Max Mallowan. The tale has kooky ambiance to spare and like Taken at the Flood (1948) is another of the author’s “murder from the past” puzzles. Indeed, Hallowe’en Party revels in much of Agatha Christie’s past, with specific recollections to Dead Man’s Folly (Chapters 1 and 4), Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (Chapter 5), Cat Among the Pigeons (Chapter 10), The Labors of Hercules (Chapter 11) and the slightly disapproving take on fads of the sixties present in Third Girl (including Mrs. Oliver’s reference to peacocks in Chapter 16) as well as an overall similarity to the earlier Poirot short story “How Does Your Garden Grow” (1935). Like “How Does Your Garden Grow,” the Hallowe’en Party solution also turns on a nursery rhyme; in this case “Ding dong dell, pussy’s in the well.” Here, Christie brings back Superintendent Spence from Taken at the Flood (1948) and Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (1952), here retired to the village of Woodleigh Common and anxious to help Poirot in his inquiries. It’s a complex story, layered with many interesting plot points, but ends up as one of Ms. Christie’s least satisfying stories. There are a few too many holes in the rather unwieldy plot (so many unsolved murders in a small village seems crazy) and some rather far-fetched occurances – including a blackmailing 10-year-old and a long-lost father willing to murder his own daughter – seem overdramatic in the extreme, as if the author is bowing to what she feels are the extremes of a generation of readers she just doesn’t understand.

Given the story’s many weaknesses, it’s not surprising that Hallowe’en Party had not been filmed before. What is surprising, though, is that ITV drafted and filmed Hallowe’en Party before Dead Man’s Folly (1956), a story that shares many similarities to this story and certainly preceeds the 1969 in many ways. Perhaps ITV will choose not bothering with Dead Man’s Folly, a very good story that was filmed for TV by director Clive Donner in 1986 with Peter Ustinov as Poirot. Like the book, the ITV film of Hallowe’en Party is especially ambient, mixing all the colors and moods of the spooky season into a witches brew of foreboding lights and shadow. Directed by Charles Palmer, who also directed The Clocks (as well as the Marple films A Pocket Fill of Rye and The Murder at the Vicarage), and scripted by actor/writer Mark Gatiss, who wrote the 2008 Poirot film Cat Among the Pigeons and starred as Leonard in the 2008 Poirot film Appointment with Death, Hallowe’en Party gets the mood and the story mostly right, mixing in appropriate – though somewhat overly obvious – references to Poe and Matthew Hopkins to amp up the nasty spookiness just a notch or two.

Many changes are made along the way, most notably the time period going from the late 1960s (doing away with a lot of obvious hippie references) to the period of time when Franlin D. Roosevelt was in office (1933-45). Quite a number of characters are done away with (Spence, Elspeth McKay, Joyce’s older sister Ann, Miss Emlyn, Harriet Leaman and the boy heroes, Nicholas Ransom and Desmond Holland) and several characters and character traits are added (notably, Mrs. Drake’s two mostly adult children and the unlikely homosexuality of two charachters). Leopold Reynolds gains a few years to better explain what it is he’s up to. But as in the film of The Clocks, Hallowe’en Party seems to take many short cuts to its conclusion, cutting out a bit too much of the plot’s admittedly skimpy humanity and replacing it with some overly dramatic moments that seem to apologize for the original story’s shortcomings.

Fenella Woolger (Miss Whitaker) returns to Poirot from her 2000 performance as Ellis in Lord Edgware Dies while Phyllida Law (mother of Sophie Thompson, who plays Mrs. Reynolds in Hallowe’en Party, and Emma Thompson), who plays Mrs. Llewellyn-Smythe, also appeared as Lady Carrington in the 1989 Poirot film The Incredible Theft. Timothy West (Reverend Cottrell) also appeared as Rex Fortescue in the 1985 Miss Marple film A Pocket Full of Rye as well as Lord Easterfield in the 1982 film Murder is Easy and Kenward in the 1979 film Agatha. Paola Dionisotti (Mrs. Goodbody) appeared memorably as Miss Hinchcliffe in the 1985 Miss Marple film A Murder Is Announced. Julian Rhind-Tutt (Michael Garfield) also appeared as Arthur Calgary in the 2007 Marple film Ordeal by Innocence. Ian Hallard, who plays Edmund Drake, also served as script consultant on this film (as well as the 2008 Poirot film Cat Among the Pigeons, was also featured in the 2006 Marple film The Sittaford Mystery. The always right-as-rain Zoë Wannamaker returns as Ariadne Oliver (also in Third Girl, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead and Cards on the Table), but is inexplicably kept in bed with a cold throughout (but gets the film’s best scare scene), while the always elegant David Yelland returns briefly as George, Poirot’s valet (Three Act Tragedy, Third Girl, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead and Taken at the Flood).

4. Murder on the Orient Express (first broadcast July 11, 2010): After he finishes resolving a case in Syria, Hercule Poirot is suddenly summoned back to England to conclude a case he began there earlier. He attempts to book passage on the Orient Express train in Yugoslavia back to London, but finds that all of the first-class accommodations are taken, a surprising turn of events since it is winter, an off-season for travelers. Remarkably, Poirot meets the train line’s director, M. Bouc, who helps the Belgian detective secure accommodations aboard the Orient Express. While on the train, Poirot encounters the many passengers who have filled the train, including Mary Debenham, an English governess; Colonel Arbuthnot, the strong, silent type; Mr. Samuel Ratchett, a mysterious American who has recently decided to spend his leisure years in travel; Hector MacQueen, Mr. Ratchett’s secretary; Edward Masterman, Mr. Ratchett’s valet; Antonio Foscarelli, an Italian who is thought to have suspicious connections; Princess Dragimiroff, a Russian grand dame; Greta Ohlsson, a Swedish nurse; Mrs. Hubbard, an American matron; Hildegarde Schmidt, the Russian Princess’s maid; and the Count and Countess Andrenyi. Aboard the train, Mr. Ratchett approaches Poirot to ask his protection from someone who is threatening him. Despite promises of “big money,” Poirot refuses to help Mr. Ratchett. During the night, the train is stopped by a large snowdrift between Vincovici and Brod. And then in the morning, Mr. Ratchett is discovered dead, the victim of multiple stab wounds. It is determined that the murder happened sometime during the night and a number of clues are discovered in Ratchett’s compartment, including the remains of a burnt note that indicates the ominous phrase “…member little Daisy Armstrong.” Poirot immediately knows the true identity of the victim. Ratchett is a man known as Casetti, an American who kidnapped and killed the daughter of a wealthy American family, the Armstrongs, and was moving throughout Europe, hiding from his would-be captors. Poirot understands that the murderer must be among the passengers on the train, because no one could have boarded and left the train during the snowstorm. As he begins to learn more about each of the potential suspects, he discovers that no one is telling the truth about whom they are and why they are traveling on the Orient Express.

First published in 1934, Murder on the Orient Express was presented in the US as Murder in the Calais Coach (the actual coach on the train where the action takes place) to avoid confusion with the 1932 Graham Greene book, Stamboul Train, which was published in the US as Orient Express. The interesting, though slightly disappointing, story is one of the author’s most popular and is based on two significant events: the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s young son in 1932 (and even the suspicion of the maid’s involvement and her eventual suicide) and the fact that an Orient Express train – which Agatha Christie had first traveled on in the fall of 1928 – was trapped for six days by a blizzard in Turkey in February 1929. It makes for a gripping read until the reader discovers, fairly late in the game, that not only no one person could have possibly committed the crime but, more importantly, the book is nothing but a recollection of lies, a preposterous number of alternate identities and too many clues that are all simply red herrings. Ingenious though it may be to craft such a riddle of a tale, so much misdirection cannot help but become confusing and tedious – especially given the surprise ending which renders nearly all of the preceding text practically meaningless.

While the everyone-did-it nature of Murder on the Orient Express is the complete opposite of the author’s most popular novel, the everyone-gets-killed And Then There Were None (1939), it could be said that the story shares the same conspiratorial framing device used for the Christie novels The Hollow (1946) and At Bertram’s Hotel (1965), where everyone lies for various reasons and the detective has to, more or less, guess at what’s really going on and, of course, gets it all right. Poirot’s initial deduction about the true identity of the murder victim is preposterous in the extreme, but allows the detective to reasonably piece together the real identities of the train’s other passengers – an unlikely assemblage of people from too many different walks of life to reasonably know each other and all of whom remarkably know Mr. Ratchett’s true identity when no one else does.

Murder on the Orient Express was first filmed in 1974 by director Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Fail Safe and, later, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, The Verdict and the Agatha Christie-like Deathtrap) with an all-star cast including Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall (Appointment with Death), Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Martin Balsam (who, coincidentally, starred in a 1976 TV film The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case), Jean-Pierre Cassel, John Gielgud (Appointment with Death, The Seven Dials Mystery, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans) , Wendy Hiller (Witness for the Prosecution), Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave (Agatha), Michael York, Colin Blakley (Evil Under the Sun), Denis Quilley (Evil Under the Sun), Richard Widmark as Mr. Ratchett and Albert Finney in a ridiculously overstated performance as Hercule Poirot. Remarkably, the elegantly-staged film represents the novel exceedingly well with a reverentially pitch-perfect script by Paul Dehn (Goldfinger, also with Sean Connery, The Deadly Affair, also by Sidney Lumet and several of the Planet of the Apes films) and was the first film adaptation Agatha Christie agreed to after years of what she considered to be poor adaptations of her work. The author, who attended the film’s 1974 premiere, apparently approved and even found Finney’s overdrawn performance as Poirot acceptable. Finney, who was the producers’ third choice for Poirot after Alex Guinness and Paul Scofield had both refused, declined a reprise of the role of Poirot for the 1978 film Death on the Nile due to the large amount of make-up the role required and the thought of filming in the arid climes of the story. Peter Ustinov took the role for the film and played Poirot in two more feature films and three contemporary TV films.

Perhaps the less said about the 2001 CBS-TV film version of Murder on the Orient Express - with Hercule Poirot portrayed by Alfred Molina (in un-pressed linen suits no less!) in present-day surroundings that allow the inclusion of cell phones, PDAs, laptops and the Internet as well as unnecessary references to Ross Perot (get it?), O.J. (!), Donatella Versace and Brad Pitt – the better. While Christie’s basic story is maintained, almost everything about the TV movie is, at a minimum, ill-conceived, and, at its worst, just plain bad.

The long-awaited 2010 film with David Suchet’s perfectly definitive Poirot is, surprisingly, quite a disappointment too. The elegance of the 1974 film is replaced here by director Philip Martin’s astonishingly average presentation. Filmed in Malta aboard an obviously inelegant train, Martin relies on an annoying overabundance of hand-held camera work obviously meant to provide a sense of documentary relevance and refracted imagery that doubles everything like a distorted view through beveled glass. Get it? The obvious symbolism merely masks what feels like a presentation lacking in many ways. Suchet’s performance is, as expected, magnificent, although for the first time, his presentation here suggests a certain weariness (or disgust?) with the part not present before. Even though his dark, gravely performance well outshines Albert Finney’s hysteric, near comic presentation some four decades before, Suchet’s Poirot has never appeared this pious, this angry or, frankly, this unbelievable.

As scripted by Stewart Harcourt, who wrote the wacky Marple films A Murder Is Announced (2005), By The Pricking of My Thumbs (2006), Ordeal By Innocence (2007) and The Blue Geranium (2010) as well as the 2009 Poirot film The Clocks, this Murder on the Orient Express is unusually heavy in the conflicted and conflicting philosophy of rough justice and, most regrettably, the religious overtones that unnecessarily weighted down the 2008 Poirot film of Appointment with Death. A lot of Christie’s meticulous detail – and the abundance of clues – is dropped in favor of some bizarre and heavy-handed dialogue about God and justice that do nothing to enhance the story. Indeed so much superfluous philosophy is inserted into this presentation that Poirot’s sudden dénouement laughably comes across as little more than divine guesswork.

One of the things the 1974 film is particularly notable for is presenting the whole Daisy Armstrong story up front (through a montage of blue-tinted newspaper headlines). This helps the viewer – particularly one so removed from the actual events that inspired the story so very many years ago – understand the following sequence of events. Like Christie’s novel, the 2010 film unwisely moves this information (presented through a montage of red-tinted newspaper headlines) back to Poirot’s revelation of Daisy Armstrong’s relevance following Ratchett’s murder. It’s a small point. But it reflects the lack of understanding the film’s producers have in presenting the story in visual terms appropriate for the medium and their lack of success in proffering a story of emotional retribution in strictly moral and religious terms.

The mostly unknown cast does a pretty decent job fulfilling its various roles, at least as they are written here. Like David Suchet’s Poirot, though, it is a grave injustice that they just weren’t given more or better material to work with – particularly for one of Hercule Poirot’s best-known adventures. Eileen Atkins (Princess Dragomiroff) also appeared in the 2007 Marple film Towards Zero. Hugh Bonneville (Edward Masterman) also appeared in the 2010 Marple film The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side.


Catrin said...

How funny. I disagree with your assessment of each of these films almost entirely.

I found "Three Act Tragedy" dull and pedestrian, with flat and charisma-free performances from both Martin Shaw and Kimberley Nixon.

I much preferred "The Clocks" and "Hallowe'en Party", which seemed to me stylish, exciting and with just the right amount of humour.

"Orient Express" is probably the only one I'd agree with you on. The ranting, fantatically religious Poirot might be how Mr Suchet wants to play him these days, but he bares very little resemblance to the character in Christie's books.

I'm not trying to be a troll. I just find it interesting to see how tastes differ.

mark said...

I just watched "Three Act Tragedy." (I haven't seen the others in this series yet.)

While I usually agree with your assessments of Poirot mysteries, this time I strongly disagree. My girlfriend and I found the film too stylized. It was as if the director was saying, "look at me; look at how I'm framing the scene. Look at all the decisions I made on how to shoot this film." It was very distracting.

I agree with you that the settings are superb and that Martin Shaw performed terrifically in his role as Sir Charles Cartwright. Nevertheless, primarily due to the directing, we liked this film less than most. It's certainly not "magnificent" nor "among the series’ very best entries."

Just a different opinion. We enjoy reading your commentaries, thereby learning similarities between the film and the book, connections between actors and other films, and your analysis of the plot line.

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