Murder on the Links (1996) 103 mins
Dramatised by Anthony Horowitz
Directed by Andrew Grieve
Cast: David Suchet as Hercule Poirot, Hugh Fraser as Captain Hastings
From the outset, the very ‘thirties’ title sequence announces loudly that this is definitely not 1923. We learn later that the film is set, along with most of the nineties Poirot episodes, in 1936. Clearly this was a busy year for Suchet’s version of the detective. The newsreel of the Beroldy trial of 1926, which opens the film, emphasises how long ago the novel’s temporal setting is in relation to the film’s setting – although this timeshifting doesn’t really affect the plot or atmosphere of the piece in the way it does with some of the other Poirot adaptations. The only plot change it necessitates is that Jack’s daggers are not made of aircraft wire, as in the novel, but have a distinctive blue sapphire in the hilt – a memento of his work at a South African mining firm, rather than of his experiences in the first world war, in which his film counterpart is too young to have taken part.
The newsreel footage has a different function here than it did in the earlier Styles. As well as helping to give a sense of period detail, it is also one of the film’s many successful attempts to restructure the plot in order to streamline the story and clarify it for a TV audience. It’s a shrewd move and is much more believable than the novel’s clumsy ‘it all came flooding back…’ infodump. Another (welcome) example is that there’s only one Duveen – and, mercifully, she isn’t a trained acrobat. Also helpful is the fact that the lack of a first-person narrator allows the film to show us many of the clues (e.g. Jack’s love life, his fight with his father, the fact that Jack did not sail for Calais but was around on the night of the murder, the fact that Bella also possesses a dagger) rather than have characters relate them in mechanistic dialogues. This is an advantage that the visual medium has over the book, which helps to make the information easier to digest.
While we’re on the subject of easily digestible visual images, there is certainly a preoccupation with theatricality in the adaptation, which I found interesting and which is, to some extent, a product of the way in which the novel has been adapted to a visual medium – arising directly out of the ‘show don’t tell’ attitude. For example, the ‘literary’ deception of Renauld’s letter with its carefully gauged postscript is replaced here with the dramatic deception of Renauld’s appointment with Poirot. That is, because the film has Poirot meet Renauld by chance in Deauville, rather than summon him from London, the literary conventions of the detective thriller utilised by Renauld in the letter he sends in the novel are replaced here by a similar use of the dramatic conventions of the TV detective drama. We see Renauld spot Poirot in a hotel lobby and looking… intrigued? Worried? We wonder whether he is planning a crime or fearful of becoming a victim of one. So when he protests to his secretary (in a manner obviously false) that everything is fine and he doesn’t need a detective, and when he later meets Poirot and confides in him that he is worried about becoming the victim of a serious conspiracy, the viewer might be forgiven for thinking that this explains his earlier reaction on seeing Poirot, much as the letter’s postscript convinces Hastings, in the novel, of the seriousness of their client’s fears. In fact, in both cases, Renauld has simply used the conventions of the medium (whether they be dramatic or literary) to construct a red herring and to try and convince Poirot of the kind of story he wishes to have him believe. Interestingly, Poirot’s line from the novel about the postscript being there ‘to create an impression […] the impression it very nearly did create’ is retained, but moved to a different context. In the film, it is used to indicate why the tramp was stabbed after his death. Yet the same point is being made – Renauld is constructing his own thriller in which he has cast himself as hapless murder victim. It is Poirot’s job, as ever, to look beyond social and cultural conventions about what murder looks like – susceptibility to which allows a deceptive impression so easily to be created – and to strip events down to a series of plain facts.
The novel is the first instance of one of Poirot’s stock weapons of playing the culprits at their own game by staging a little play-acting of his own – and the film draws attention to this in a lovely way. Having already complimented Mrs Renauld’s performance upon hearing of the ‘death’ of her husband, Poirot gets her to use her talents to deceive the murderer into thinking that Jack Renauld is to be disinherited. Poirot’s shock at Mrs Renauld throwing wine in her son’s face and her little ‘look’ at Poirot is wonderful – ‘too much?’ it seems to say. Characters here are always being judged on the efficacy of their performance – their ability to create the illusion that one set of events not only happened, but happened in a particular kind of way. This constant play-acting makes the brutal fact of death all the more troubling and Mrs Renauld’s whimper of ‘it shouldn’t have been Paul’ is heartbreaking as a result. It’s chilling too as we realise that the film is apparently trying to construe Renauld’s murder as just deserts for his impetuous attempt to make reality into fantasy – as Poirot says, his death is a case of ‘fantasy becomes reality’.
One of the less successful changes from book to film is that Giraud is an older man, so we don’t get the new methods versus old theme of the book. This is unfortunate, because without the theme of old versus new methods it’s hard to believe that anyone would think Giraud the best detective in France – not least because he hasn’t a French accent (although, to be fair, this is conspicuous by its absence in all characters except Poirot). This extends to a wider lack in the film, which does not retain the book’s interest in what characterises Poirot’s unique methods as a detective. In the film, the show don’t tell attitude means that, occasionally, Poirot just knows things. One exchange goes: ‘How do you know all this Monsieur Poirot!’ ‘The eyes of Hercule Poirot – they see everything!’ Which, of course, is no answer at all. At least in the novel Poirot admits he’s basically guessing and that his method lies in trying out various possibilities until he finds one that accounts for every fact, regardless of whether there’s any tangible proof.
Having said that, the film does use Giraud to come up with a marvellous fix for the plot hole of the lead piping. In the film, the detail of the tramp’s disfigurement is omitted and, it turns out, Poirot comments on the lead piping simply to annoy Giraud. The wager between Poirot and Giraud, whereby Poirot agrees to sacrifice his moustache if Giraud finds the killer before him, is also good fun. More abstractly, I also like the idea that Giraud falls in with precisely the theatricality that Poirot’s investigation sets out to dispel – he intends to arrest Jack ‘at the finishing line’ purely because of its narrative appropriateness. This wrongful arrest only succeeds in adding to the ‘musical comedy’ feel of the cycling theme, ensuring that it seems more and more like something out of Rogers and Hart’s The Girl Friend – a cheesy 1924 musical about a cyclist and his girlfriend/trainer who get into all sorts of hilarious scrapes.
While the novel is only the second to feature Hastings, the film was one of the last few to feature the character – indeed the penultimate instalment to feature him before the show was ‘rested’ for a while at the end of the nineties. For an audience member, Hastings’s love affair is all the more satisfying as a pay-off to his story here, since we have known him longer than in the books. The fact that Hastings and Poirot are familiar figures to TV audiences also allows for some nice touches of humour to emerge from a relationship that is more longstanding than in the books at this point. My favourite of these is Hastings trying to hide the fact that he has brought Poirot to Deauville (the Merlinville of the novel) expressly so that he can enjoy a few rounds of golf. I love the scene where Poirot trims his moustache, while tricking the viewer into thinking you think he’s going to shave it off completely – a little touch which could only work in a series where we know the lead character so well as to be able to instantly read so much into such a comical gesture (that he has no intention of surrendering his moustache to Giraud just yet, that he is vain enough to take time out of a serious case to preen himself – and so forth).
I also like the feminist undertones, carried over from the novel, in Marthe and her mother’s disbelief that there are only two suspects (‘only two?!’) and that these are Chillean men. Hastings’s protectiveness of Bella is also less old-fashioned here, his heartfelt enquiry, ‘How did you come to be hurt, Isabella?’, making his protectiveness seem like an appealing mix of old-fashioned chivalry and ‘new man’ sensitivity. Their ‘dating’ is a bit more modern too, and she’s nearer his own age than in the novel where she’s little more than a child. Also, Hastings isn’t so daft here as to show Bella the crime scene at her own request. Instead, although he shows off, he simply lets her tag along to the incident room where he hopes to meet Bex. The film also makes it really obvious from the off that Bella’s up to something – in the novel, you’re just left wondering why the hell no-one suspects her. There’s also no mention of hereditary evil in the film either. Also, Jack’s womanising does seem heartless here, specifically the way he seems to try and get back with Bella as soon as his latest squeeze is revealed only to be after his inheritance. As Poirot says, Jack might have been the object of Bella’s affection but ‘There are men who do not deserve such love from a woman’. Certainly, the affair is a case of mutual ‘love at first sight’ and is, in this respect, almost as ridiculous as in the novel – but the film certainly works harder to help you suspend your disbelief and is helped by the fact that the series has had longer to build up the viewer’s genuine affection for Hastings, ensuring that we have an investment in seeing him happy.
All of which prompts Poirot’s matchmaking (between Hastings and Bella), which is sweet and in character but not in the novel. Late in TV series, it’s a lovely gesture and cements Poirot’s affection for someone who is, by now, a very old friend. I’ve never noticed before how sad Poirot looks as his car drives off – a touching reminder of the sacrifice that he makes in helping Hastings up the aisle. It’s a nicely melancholic counterpoint to the sea behind Hastings and Bella’s kiss; a taste of the horizon before them and of their impending emigration (also hinted at in novel’s ending).
I may actually prefer the film to the novel. It’s more compact and less messy, addressing what, for me, constitute the novel’s flaws whilst consolidating its strengths and taking advantage of the viewer’s familiarity with the central characters – a familiarity greater than the reader’s would have been in 1923. It’s also one of the more successful examples of the way in which the Poirot TV series occasionally modernises the novel’s themes, ironing out some of the more problematic elements of the source material.