The Man in the Brown Suit (1989)
Directed by Alan Grint
Screenplay by Carla Jean Wagner
Stephanie Zimbalist, Edward Woodward, Rue McClanahan, Tony Rnadall
I didn’t think I’d be able to review this film as part of my trawl, due to its being very hard to come by on DVD and (as far as I can see) also unavailable on a certain popular video-streaming site. Fortunately, it popped up on ITV over Christmas, so I was able to watch it after all.
I must admit, I’d never had any inclination to seek out this adaptation of the novel before now. Its characters’ nationalities (the good guys at any rate) have been pointlessly transformed from British to American and the action transposed to the late 1980s. The novel is so very much a product of 1920s Britain that I just didn’t feel any desire to watch a version of the story updated in this way. Just… why would you do that? Why? To be honest, I’m still not sure. But I was very pleasantly surprised by this film, which turned out to be delightful – not least in the inventive ways it remained faithful to the story and spirit of the source material.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was the way that, even given the late-1980s setting, the story is left almost totally intact, the biggest change being that Anne starts her adventure having already embarked on her travels; and that the affair that sparks off her amateur sleuthing is a car accident rather than death-by-tube. This removes any of the ambiguity from the opening incident – here, it very much is an accident. The meaning of the ‘7 1 22’ riddle is also slightly different, given that there’s now no way this could read as a date in the year 1922.
Another change (for me at least) was that Anne is much, much more endearing here than in the novel, although I’m really at a loss to explain why. It must be down to the actress playing her, since the character herself is largely unchanged. The references might be updated slightly, with mentions of The Perils of Pauline replaced by mentions of Charlie’s Angels, but Anne herself is still a sucker for the conventions of the thriller and is as self-aware of her position in a film as Anne in the novel is of her position in an exciting book. At one point, half-way through proceedings, she exclaims stubbornly ‘You don’t expect me to just up and walk out in the middle of the picture?’ Cleverly, the last line is also ‘I always did love a movie that ended with –’. So yeah, I suppose part of the remedy is the way in which the film itself is intensely aware of its status as a film while, in the novel, it’s only Anne herself who acts quixotically as if she’s in a thriller. Of course, she actually is in a thriller, but the book does less than the film to signal that thriller’s own ridiculous adhesion to generic rules – the metafictional dialogue has been noted, and another example would be the ostentatious diamond-shaped zoom (it’s hard to describe) that signals the frequent cliffhangers. As a result, where the book appears just as annoyingly quixotic as its main character, the film version ensures that Anne is perfectly right to imagine herself a part of an exciting thriller, whilst also signalling its apprehension of just how ridiculous such thrillers can be – signalling to the audience, that is, that there is absolutely no reason here to take either Anne or the film seriously. And it’s all the more enjoyable for that.
The other difference might lie in the show-don’t-tell attitude of the visual medium. In the absence of any long disquisitions in the first person, Anne simply doesn’t seem so irritatingly pleased with herself as in the novel. That, and the fact that the film wisely ditches the whole ‘I love a man who might beat me’ make her a much more fun person to be around (in this version, Anne just really fancies Lucas, whose main flaw isn’t his latent primitive thuggery but merely his arrogance).
As I said, credit must also go to loveable Stephanie Zimbalist, whose naïve charm reminds me of Laura Linney in the TV version of Tales of the City. Sir Eustace is also brilliantly realised by Edward Woodward, who nails the knight’s endearing pomposity to a tee. The film also neatly manages to sidestep the sleaziness that attends the character in the novel, although it does manage to slip in a knowing reference to the book version’s unhealthy fascination with Anne’s legs. The only disappointment is that Sir Eustace doesn’t attend the costume party as a teddy bear – one of my favourite jokes from the novel, which I would have loved to have seen realised onscreen. Perhaps disappointingly, Colonel Race (a balding, middle-aged CIA agent in this modern version) is nothing like the handsome young officer of the novel – although this sort of makes sense given the fabulous older lady who plays Suzanne and who provides an almost-love interest for him.
There are moments when the film has a lot of fun with the inherent ridiculousness of some aspects of the source material, courtesy of a device usually silently omitted from screen versions of Christie – specifically, the unlikely transvestism of one of the novel’s villains. You can get away with this in a novel (just) because the reader can’t actually see the person described, so is a little more willing to accept the idea that no one notices a rather burly man passing himself off as a woman. Here though, the fake female steward who tries to gain entry to Anne’s cabin is so obviously a man dressed up it’s hilarious, as is the case with Sir Eustace’s new secretary later. Please note: I’m really not having a go at transvestism as a practice – rather, I’m lampooning its inherent ridiculousness as a plot device in mystery novels, which is also what I believe this film to be doing. Even more hilarious than Chichester in drag is the idea that anyone would actually think such a disguise would actually work – an idea emphasised hilariously by the flashbacks, which allow us to see the erstwhile vicar side by side with his feminine alter egos, thus emphasising for the viewer (in a way the novel does not) the degree of levity which is the only really appropriate response to these proceedings – think Psycho but less grim. And when all’s said and done, neither of these women looks like the Reverend Chichester, which means that, as an element in the mystery plot, the device still works.
So all in all, this film greatly surpassed my expectations. It doesn’t always stay true to the precise spirit of the book – which is no bad thing when one considers some of the novel’s more unsavoury aspects. What it does do, however, is convey a sense of the spirit in which this breezy thriller can be enjoyed, transforming it into exactly the kind of escapist fun the book aims for but (for me, at any rate) doesn’t quite achieve. That it also manages to transfer the plot sixty years forward in time whilst staying utterly true to the best aspects of the novel is also no mean feat.