‘The Adventure of the Western Star’ (1990)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Series 2, Episode 9
Screenplay by Clive Exton
Directed by Richard Spence
Dramatised by Clive Exton, the head writer and ‘script consultant’ on the early series of Poirot, this adaptation is a very typical episode of the early years of the series. As usual, Inspector Japp and Miss Lemon are drafted into proceedings despite not appearing in the source material, while new subplots and action sequences open out the story and provide added interest to sustain the fifty-minute running time. Hence, in this adaptation, Gregory Rolfe is not just a filmstar, but an international diamond smuggler, in league with the villainous Mr Van Braks (an original character not present in the short story). This makes perfect sense as an expansion of the basic plot, but also provides welcome comic relief in a running gag involving Japp’s rather rubbish surveillance of the criminal. Highlights of this narrative strand including Japp being discovered in a bush outside Yardley Chase and suspected of the diamond theft (echoing the suspicious reception that meets Sergeant Cuff in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone). Also amusing is the scene near the episode’s climax where Japp ends up effectively arresting Van Braks for carrying his own money and Rolfe for being in possession of a paste diamond. Further comic relief is had via the simple device of making Marie Marvell a Belgian film star, with much disbelief from Hastings and Japp as to the existence of such a species (‘You’re pulling my leg!’ quips Japp on hearing the news and Philip Jackson milks the line for every drop of comic potential) .
Poirot’s crush on his screen idol is also very sweet, and leads to a really rather heartbreaking climax, where Poirot has to inform Marie that her husband has absconded after deceiving her for years. The scene is played in French with no subtitles and the look on David Suchet’s face when Marie says that she has been living in a dream, but that all is finished now, is heartbreaking. What’s lovely about this scene is the way the viewer ends up pitying not only Marie, but also Poirot himself. Without words David Suchet easily conveys Poirot’s intense desire to comfort Marie, the gentlemanly reserve and professionalism that stops him from doing so, and the pain that this causes him. It foreshadows the more persistent reminders later in the series that Poirot is a man full of romance whose romantic liaisons fail because of the very discretion that makes him so in-demand as a detective. It’s as if he wants to involve himself romantically with Marie, but doesn’t quite know how to get beyond the formality of the ‘order and method’ that governs his life and which transforms everything into a series of facts to be sorted out. Indeed, when Marie is about to call on him at the opening of the episode, Poirot arranges the table symmetrically because ‘Marie Marvell is a great artiste’. This is very like Poirot, of course, but it’s also telling that his idea of ‘art’ is one of supreme order and formal brilliance.
This is in direct contrast to Hastings, of course. In the scene between Hastings and Lady Yardley in the short story, events are narrated through Hastings’s eyes. Here, however, we see it as it actually is – from outside, as it were. Hugh Fraser plays it very amusingly (I particularly like the smug way he enunciates ‘Ice. Cold. Logic.’), impersonating Sherlock Holmes, adopting a suave manner and a comically deep voice. Hastings’s sheepish look when he discovers he gave Lady Yardley the perfect excuse not to tell them the truth is also brilliant: ‘Well I… er… assumed.’ This essentially sums up Hastings’s role in the plot – he is there to assume the wrong idea, to get the wrong impression and fall directly into the guilty party’s trap.
Yet, for all the scene’s comic value, I think a telling comparison emerges here between Hastings’s idea of order and method and Poirot’s. Hastings is impersonating the formal generic qualities of the screen/literary detective – he is playing the detective as he believes the part should be played and the result is ineffectual parody – is, indeed, a part to be played rather than a job demanding the production of a new insight into real events. In his encounter with Marie Marvell, however, Poirot is a detective – and the order and method he practices is geared precisely to seeing through the forms, traditions and dramatic modes of the detective thriller that appears to be taking place around him. The trouble is, when he is confronted with passion or excitement in his own life (as he is in his desire to comfort Marie Marvell for a very real tragedy and hence to act according to his attraction for this lady) he is at a complete loss as to what to say or do. Unlike Hastings, he has no formula to fall back on.
Elsewhere, of course, the film itself is hardly above utilising the sensational and sentimental tricks of the screen thriller’s trade. Lady Yardley is shown playing with her children in a domestic idyll, leaving the audience in no doubt as to where its sympathies should lie. A similar dramatic device is used in the adaptation of ‘The Adventure of Johnny Waverly’. Here though, there is at least a precedent in the source material although, regrettably, we are not shown Poirot ‘romping’ with the Yardley children, as per Christie’s original story.
A more welcome borrowing from the film thriller’s stock devices is the use of music to heighten the ambiguity of whether the belle histoire attached to the diamond is true or not. Scratchy violin music heralds its appearance, tempting the audience into believing in the Chinaman’s involvement. The waters are muddied further in an excellent piece of misdirection on Lady Yardley’s part, as she exclaims that the jewel thief wore ‘pig tails’ and a ‘robe’. This either implies a Chinaman or someone pretending to be a Chinaman – certainly, had I not read the original story, I would have immediately leapt to the latter conclusion. This red herring is particularly good, then, because it is designed to take in not only those gullible viewers who are convinced that a Chinaman is behind the diamond theft, but also those viewers well-enough versed in detective drama to spot that the whole Chinese aspect is a massive distraction. It is a red herring within a red herring – a double-edged fish, if you will.
Happily, the adaptation’s conclusion is less uncomfortable than the (admittedly more realistic) ending of the short story. Instead of storming off in a huff at what he perceives to be Poirot’s conscious attempt to humiliate him, Hastings merely produces a little book, recording what he doesn’t understand in one column and the explanation in a column next to it. Instead of protesting against the unequal relationship he and Poirot have, Hastings’s little book demonstrates both Hastings’s function as a cypher and (in contrast to the short story) his willingness to accept this role. His and Poirot’s cordial toast to one other, which ends the episode, emphasises this – and it is the sign not of an unequal relationship but a reciprocal one. Hastings’s inability to appreciate the fine meal that his friend has prepared him could also be read metaphorically. Hastings sees in the cases they encounter only the raw material for a sensational, incident-filled thriller, which he writes up as a ‘juicy read’ (to be consumed without thought). Poirot, on the other hand, sees subtlety of detail and an excuse for mental stimulation, to be carefully savoured. It is this very combination that characterises Christie’s brand of detective fiction – a quick thrill dignified by the sheer cleverness of the underlying puzzle.
Finally, I need to mention one particular period detail that made me chuckle. Towards the end of the episode, when Gregory Rolfe is attempting to flee to Johannesburg, the airport staff are seen weighing not only passengers’ luggage, but also the passengers themselves! I mean – really? Granted that modern aircraft are more robust, but even so, I can’t imagine this would be tolerated nowadays. All the same, better not mention it to Ryanair…