Tag Archives: Agatha Christie’s Poirot

Re-Watching Agatha Christie: The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge

Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Series 3, Episode 11

Written by T.R. Bowen (Script Consultant: Clive Exton)

Directed by Renny Rye

For me, this episode of Poirot epitomises the cosiness I always associate with the early series of the show. Indeed, the snowy north-of-England scenery, and the sumptuous interiors are literally ‘cosy’, replete with an air of winter chilliness warded off with good eating and a large open fire. Not only superlative comfort viewing then, but also viewing that gives the Sunday-night audience a chance to revel in the onscreen comfort.

As it turns out, this emphasis on comfort and luxury during a harsh winter is actually very germane to the episode’s politics. In this adaptation, not only is Harrington Pace a very unlikable character compared to the short story, but his unsavouriness is linked to his unscrupulous capitalism. We are told that he cheated his partner and then made a fortune from profiteering ‘during the war’. ‘And people liked him!!’ snaps one of his relatives. Our attraction, as viewers, to the comfort of the house (our literal ‘comfort viewing’) implicates us in this dubious luxury as well when we learn that Pace opens Hunter’s Lodge for only 12 weeks of the year – we are passively sharing in the pleasures of such luxury, whilst simultaneously being told how immoral it is. While this is in keeping with the show’s staunchly moralistic attitude, it is unusual to have such an unequivocally left-wing bent to that morality – after all, we meet a great many capitalists in Christie adaptations and while few are as objectionably unscrupulous as Pace, this episode’s critique of the system in which their wealth is made possible still applies. Usually, the show contents itself with criticising the actions of individual characters. Here though, it draws attention to their implication in an unequal and (it is argued) immoral system – a systemic approach conveniently ignored in most other episodes.

Even so, as a piece of television in its own right, I find this instalment of Poirot really enjoyable. The night-time location shooting makes evocative use of the eerie shadows, frosty exteriors and firelight, especially in the events leading up to the murder (the only downside is the distinctly 1990s-looking settlement visible on the hill during the daytime scenes at the station). The guest cast is uniformly excellent and the gusto with which the bit-part actors approach their roles is endearing – they’re clearly relishing their parts. Mrs Middleton gives her short scene absolutely everything she has. Anstruther, the station attendant, speaks his line “Hey! That’s my bike!” as if it’s the high-point of his career (I couldn’t help but be reminded of that Jeeves and Wooster episode where Bertie’s friend has one line in a touring play: “You’ll pardon me for mentioning it ladies, but the house is on fire!”) Even the dog excels.

As an adaptation, however, I’m not sure it succeeds. Poirot’s illness does sort of happen and Hastings is left to investigate for him for a time (although Poirot has far less confidence in his friend here than in the short story). But Poirot questions people in his hotel room and gives his usual lecture at the end. So, the whole point of his illness in the original story – that he can solve a crime without having any direct contact with anyone involved, because he’s that good – is lost here.

The other problem (and it’s hard to see how the scriptwriters could have overcome this to be fair) is that events have to be dramatized for us. As a puzzle it’s actually much more satisfying as an abstract riddle – which of course is fine in a book since books often involve characters telling us what happened with no expectation that we will be shown the events in real time. It’s therefore much easier to have unreliable narration in a book than on screen. In TV you have to show things – a problem the production team run into in ‘The King of Clubs’ and completely fail to overcome in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Because we don’t see the crime or the stuff around it, the audience knows full well there’s patently a major fabrication going on.

Admittedly, seeing the mysterious stranger getting off the train does help – as we see someone suspicious making their way to the house. Even this is weird though. The extra disguises involved compared to the short story mean that we have a faintly ludicrous situation in which the murderer is disguised as Mrs Middleton disguised as a bearded man, pretending to be someone else disguised as a bearded man. We’re straying into the realms of parody here.

Plus, in the short story, Poirot’s reconstruction of the crime is purely hypothetical – no accusation is formerly made because there’s no proof. Here though, this becomes problematic, since Poirot reconstructs the crime in front of the entire cast and explicitly accuses, to their faces, the two people responsible. It’s true that this concluding lecture gives us Poirot’s wonderfully sinister boast that he will make Mrs Middleton appear as if by magic. Even so, it’s lucky Zoe sort of confesses or they’d be in a right pickle. Especially given the seriously far-fetched nature of the set-up.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under 1920s, Agatha Christie, Agatha Christie's Poirot (TV Series), Captain Hastings, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Japp, Poirot Investigates (1924), Short Stories, Short Story

Re-Watching Agatha Christie: The Adventure of the Cheap Flat

Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Series 2, Episode 7

Written by Russell Murray

Directed by Richard Spence

Here’s a bit of trivia. The film that Japp, Hastings and Poirot are watching and discussing at the start of this episode is The G-Men (1935), starring James Cagney, Ann Dvorak and Margaret Lindsay and directed by William Keighley, who went on to co-direct the celebrated Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). I’m not sure why I was surprised to find that this was a genuine 1930s feature film – perhaps because the Poirot production team did such a good job of faking one in “The King of Clubs” it seems entirely plausible that they also did so here. Anyway, there you go.

James Cagney gunning down gangsters is an apt opening for this adaptation, which takes the original story’s concern with the differences (and surprising similarities) between ‘reality’ and popular cinema and really runs with it. In fact, it deals with the idea in a much more sensibly-structured way than Christie’s story. For example, the introduction of a comedy FBI agent allows viewers to come to terms with the Luigi Valdarno strand of the plot much earlier than in the short story. Moreover the episode succesfully treads the fine line between satirising the sensational gangster plots of the cinema and self-mockery of the sensational elements of the plot of the episode itself. Agent Burt’s hysterical insistence that there’s “No such thing as the mafia!” is a case in point. The British (and Belgian) characters’ response to this is to point out that there is, but also to mock the idea that the mafia looks like someone that James Cagey might be called upon to foil with a handy machine gun. Instead, they present them as a prosaic menace dressed up in sensational accoutrements – a menace against whom a more subtle approach is required than Cagney’s (and the FBI’s).

The most obvious example of this is the way in which the logic puzzle of the Robinson’s flat proves key to solving the mystery, rather than the use of guns or fancy surveillance operations. This is signalled at the beginning with Hastings and Japp drinking in The G-Men, while Poirot shuts his eyes in horror and berates the ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ attitude displayed in the film – this is not how good detectives work. Later on, Japp seems to come to the same conclusion, as evidenced by one of my favourite moments in the whole series, when Japp, appalled at Agent Burt’s desire to storm the Black Cat nightclub, literally with all guns blazing, adopts a horrified face before extending his hand in the manner of a teacher who’s caught a primary school pupil stealing chocolate and exclaims: ‘You can’t go waving guns about! Give that to me!’ The American way is to ‘wave guns about’. The British way is to sit down, think it through, then have a quiet word. Arguably, you’ve also got the difference between a lot of British and American crime fiction of the period encapsulated there as well.

At the same time, the episode is itself primarily a light-hearted crime pastiche, so it also has a lot of fun embracing those sensational aspects of a Hollywood presentation – although in a delightfully camp and knowing way. To this end, the episode adopts a really interesting stance on how performance can throw light on the relationship between lived experience and cinematic representations of it. Tellingly, for example, although Poirot relates the background to the Valdarno affair in a style ‘that will remind you of your favourite cinema’, what we actually see on screen is a representation (all heightened performance and obviously artificial sets) that could never be mistaken for anything other than our ‘favourite cinema’. This isn’t what really happened, but a representation of events seen through the generic filter of a Hollywood crime thriller. Everything about it deliberately signals its own inauthenticity. These events definitely happened, but not necessarily like this – yet, for those of us who weren’t present, the only framework we have of comprehending them is the popular cinema.

Usually, Poirot works by stripping away these trappings in order to expose the fundamentals of the puzzle plot – in this case the fact that, when all’s said and done, what’s actually happened is that a woman, wishing to send someone else to their death in her place, has contrived a way of installing at an address known to be hers a woman who resembles her sufficiently to fool any would-be assassin. The gangsters, the seedy clubs, the waving about of guns – all this is so much window dressing. No wonder Poirot sees the gangster film, which places these elements first, as vulgar and alarming.

In this episode, however, Poirot’s response to the situation is to solve it by embracing these trappings – presumably for the amusement of Japp, Hastings and the viewers at home. He even goes to the length of stage-managing a fake stand-off with guns and gangsters because, generically, this is the most appropriate ending to the fictional genre his friends seem to have found themselves caught up in. Leading, incidentally, to Agent Burt’s wonderfully cheesy line: ‘This is good. Everyone’s got a heater except the good guys!’

The point, of course, is that Poirot knows it’s all fakery, all besides the point of the true nub of the matter – which is that one human being has cold-bloodedly plotted the murder of another. But he arranges the show for our benefit because, let’s face it, much of the appeal of these early episodes of Poirot lies in the window dressing: the costumes, the period detail and so forth. The gangster plot here serves a similar function to these extraneous but pleasurable elements and, at the end, Poirot has exposed it for what it is: enjoyably camp silliness replete with questionable accents, sumptuous costumes and appropriately ostentatious props – distractions from the puzzle they embellish, but no less enjoyable for that.

Another most enjoyable example of this conscious, camp performance (calculated at once to expose and revel in the empty triviality of the thing performed) is Miss Lemon’s masquerading as a journalist for The Lady’s Companion sent to interview the Black Cat club’s new singer-in-residence. Even the name of the periodical is exquisitely chosen, providing a delightful contrast between an implied middle-class stuffiness and the sensational dinginess of Life Upon the Wicked Stage. Pauline Moran is a delight in these scenes and I for one feel that ‘Felicity Lemon: Private Investigator’ is a spin-off series that needs to happen!

The one change from the source material that I didn’t like was having Poirot present at the party the where we first meet the Robinsons. I prefer the short story’s use of Hastings solo, demonstrating that he does have a life beyond his friendship with Poirot. All in all though, this is an excellent episode, whose minimal deviations from Christie’s story are generally for the better.

3 Comments

Filed under 1920s, Agatha Christie, Agatha Christie's Poirot (TV Series), Captain Hastings, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Japp, Poirot Investigates (1924), Short Stories, Short Story

Re-Watching Agatha Christie: The Million Dollar Bond Robbery

Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Series 3, Episode 3

Writer: Anthony Horrowitz

Director: Andrew Grieve

51 mins

 

It’s been a while since I updated this blog and, consequently, a while since I’ve watched an episode of Poirot. Coming to this adaptation after a break from the series I’m reminded again of just how sumptuous the production design was – particularly on these earlier episodes. In the opening sequence here, for example, we get a beautiful recreation of the London Underground replete with vintage wood-panelled escalators. This must have cost a pretty penny and I wonder whether the later episodes would have been able to afford such a fantastic reproduction of a 1930s tube station?

While it’s an impressive recreation, ‘beautiful’ is perhaps the wrong word – it is, in fact, expensively and impressively drab. The rain falls drearily, the station is occupied by a string of sombre commuters who venture into the elements sporting identical black umbrellas which render them anonymous in the throng. The small-talk is deliberately low-key (“terrible weather, Mr Shaw”) and it really is reminiscent of the streams of desolate office-workers who populate T.S. Eliot’s modernist poem The Waste Land. This will come back to haunt the episode’s conclusion, when the guilty Mr Shaw tells Poirot that, although he will surely go to prison, it couldn’t be worse than ten years working in a London bank.

Even so, this is not to say that there isn’t camp fun of a superficial kind to be had here. I particularly like the flower seller who confronts Shaw after he has just narrowly avoided being hit by a passing car: “’e done that on purpose!” he cries; then, after failing to elicit a reaction, his arms akimbo he continues: “’e was tryin’ ta kill ya!”

This attempt on Shaw’s life is one of the more successful ways in which the episode embellishes the plot of Christie’s original story. It’s an interesting idea and actually a rather good red herring, the idea being that Shaw is attempting to frame Ridgeway for the theft of the bonds by faking his own attempted murder, as well as to have the apparently less trustworthy younger man replace him on the voyage with the bonds. This makes even more sense as, in the TV version, Ridgeway is heavily in debt from gambling – a subplot that is also cleverly developed into another red herring when Poirot arranges for Ridgeway to be arrested in order to keep him safe from debt collectors. Ridgeway, incidentally, is played by Oliver Parker, now a film director whose dubious credits include the two most recent St Trinian’s movies and the 2009 adaptation of Dorian Gray (which, perhaps to my shame, I actually quite like).

Less clear is the reason why, in the TV version, Poirot is engaged before the bonds are stolen. It’s never really explained, although I suppose it’s probably to check over the security arrangements. After all, the head of security at the bank is the incompetent McNeil, whose hubris is a treat: ‘Not so much as a paperclip’ has gone missing on his watch, he proudly boasts; to which Poirot replies icily, damning with faint praise: ‘If such a thing were to happen, Monsieur McNeil, you would be just the man for the job.’ He’s not wrong. When Shaw’s poisoned, McNeil ascertains that Ridgeway was the last person in Shaw’s office before the coffee was drunk. But since the coffee was served by a maid, and drunk immediately, how could this possibly matter? And how exactly was this ‘faked’ as Poirot later explains? I’m not saying this is a plot hole exactly – but it’s certainly a narrative gap. Which, I guess, if I’m being kind, is at least in keeping with the modernism of the era in which the story is set.

McNeil’s hastiness is important as it helps to explain why Poirot goes with the bonds and not McNeil. This is another embellishment on the book, in which the word-count prevents Poirot from taking to the waves. It gives us the rather sweet scene in which Miss Lemon helps Poirot pack, as well as the equally pleasing glee with which Hastings learns he’s to travel on the Queen Mary. Inevitably, Poirot is not seasick (despite his reservations) while Hastings is. Or maybe it’s the bad oyster he claims to have consumed. Or maybe it’s that narrative gap again. Either way, the ‘calf’s brains’ scene is amusingly acted by Suchet and Fraser. Moreover, the way in which Poirot sees the trip on the liner as merely a pragmatic means to the end of fulfilling the task with which he has been commissioned is very much in keeping with his no-nonsense attitude to crime. While the liner is swathed in media attention and glamour, Poirot is unfazed and unimpressed, seeing only a set of facts requiring the application of order and method.

Said ‘media attention’ is effectively portrayed through fake newsreel footage covering the maiden voyage, and featuring Poirot himself, accentuating his status as a popular celebrity. This celebrity status helps to explain why the police on the quayside arrest Ridgeway simply because Poirot tells them to (‘If you say so, sir!’)

The switch from black and white newsreel footage, which fades into the colour of the ‘present’ aboard the ship, is a particularly neat trick, reminiscent of Gary Ross’s Pleasantville (1998), which similarly uses the gradual application of colour to denote the move from media representation to the more complex reality of lived experience.Here, while the black and white newsreel is the media façade that’s meant to add ‘colour’ to proceedings, the real story is far more colourful than the bland pleasantries of the newsreader. At the same time, of course, it offers, not so much the transition from representation to ‘reality’, but rather a transition from one media representation to another – from the chipper news footage of the 1930s cinema newsreel to the (relatively) greater sophistication of the 1990s TV crime drama.

Yet, while having Poirot and Hastings accompany the bonds is a natural development for a writer seeking to dramatise the story as a fifty-minute film, it is nevertheless here that the episode loses something in comparison to its source material – at least for me. The stuff about asking ‘Miss Brooks’ the time is a clever clue and plays fair with the viewer, allowing them to come to the same conclusion about her real identity as Poirot does. Her performance is also gloriously over the top – indeed, given the Dolly Parton impression, Miss Brooks’s comment about the orchestra ‘going overboard’ is a bit rich. It also allows a lightly done comment on the performativity of beauty, which so unsettles Hastings and which reminded me of an intriguing paper on Evil Under the Sun given by Jamie Bernthal at the recent Agatha Christie conference at Exeter University.

But, I miss the red herring about the ship getting in earlier, which is rendered redundant in this version by Poirot’s presence on board and by the Miss Brooks subplot. In fact, what these embellishments really throw into relief is that no one constructs a convincing mystery puzzle like Christie – and one tampers with her plots at one’s own risk. As I noted earlier, the Shaw subplot is superficially clever, but brings its own problems (how exactly do you ‘fake’ strychnine poisoning?) Also, the ending suffers from the lightness of touch that all-too-often intervenes to magically render the ‘good’ characters happy at the end of the episode (although Christie is not above doing this herself on occasion of course). This may leave Sunday-night audiences with a warm glow at bedtime, but it’s often a bit too convenient and never more so than here. Indeed, I can’t help but wonder if the question on everyone’s lips at 9pm on Sunday 13 January 1991 was: ‘Who in their right minds would make Ridgeway joint general manager?!’

2 Comments

Filed under 1920s, Agatha Christie, Agatha Christie's Poirot (TV Series), Captain Hastings, Hercule Poirot, Poirot Investigates (1924), Short Stories, Short Story

Re-Watching Agatha Christie: ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’

Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Series 2, Episode 8

Screenplay by Clive Exton

Directed by Andrew Grieve

52 mins

As the ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’ is one of my favourite Poirot short stories it should come as no surprise that this adaptation is also one of my favourite episodes of the Poirot TV series. Not only is it stylishly directed by Andrew Grieve, but the slight tweaking undertaken to ensure that the plot fits into the political context of the mid-1930s (as opposed to the mid-1910s) helps to resolve some of the annoying jingoism of the original story – even if it does add a number of inconsistencies, which it’s best not to think too much about!

The episode opens at Charing Cross Station with Japp and a group of civil servants anxiously awaiting the arrival of the PM’s car, following the apparent attempt on his life. A newspaper stand displays the headline: ‘Disarmament: Prime Minister to Speak’, alerting us to the changed political context of the adaptation. No longer intent on prolonging a World War in the hope of securing a victory for Britain and its allies, the threat is now that the Prime Minister will not be around to avert a second war. ‘His is the one voice that can unify Europe and stop Germany re-arming’, we are informed at one point. Others might disagree, but I find this a more palatable motive than Christie herself offered. Even so, it might be argued that the very thing that makes this motive tense and dramatic (that we know the consequences of Germany re-arming better than most ordinary denizens of 1936) is undermined by the irony that this benefit of historical perspective is also, ironically, the very thing that makes the entire affair ultimately redundant – modern viewers, after all, also know that the Prime Minister will fail.

While the anti-pacifist context is altered, however, the theme of the obtuseness bedevilling the John Bullish nationalism of the English establishment is retained to amusing effect. I love the way the ‘attack’ on the PM is described in the papers, for example: ‘It just calls them “ruffians”. In the next paragraph is says “thugs”.’ The self-congratulation that accompanies the ‘rescue’ of the PM from his would-be attackers is also ironic given that this is actually a dupe, a fake display of daring-do designed to appeal to the English love of decisive action: “Well done Commander Daniels. Well done!” says the traitor’s superior, his stiff upper lip visibly wobbling into the ghost of a hubristic smile. The theme of Poirot’s quiet intellectualism versus the unthinking action is also humorously driven home throughout the episode. ‘I don’t want method, I want action!’ cries a disgruntled foreign office official at one point. Informed by Japp that Poirot is thinking, he exclaims: ‘Thinking? What’s he doing that for?’

As in the short story, therefore, Poirot is the antipathy of this appeal to outward decorum and bravely heroic action. The comic subplot (if it can be called that) involving Poirot’s visit to a working-class tailor of some genius, rather than to a posh purveyor on Saville Row emphasises the point – it is the genius, the little grey cells, that matter and not the outward show of tradition and convention.

Japp’s expanded role is also welcome, since it allows the episode to reiterate effectively the function he plays in these narratives – welcome because it shows how Japp is not an idiot plod (to which Lestrade is often reduced in the Sherlock Holmes stories), but rather a sort of mediator between Poirot and the establishment, harbouring an admiration and respect for his friend’s purely cerebral approach but unable to pursue such a line himself because of his beaurocratic training and an emphasis on procedure and visible results. Japp defending Poirot on the phone is thus not only a very sweet moment, especially given his own frustration, but also helps to signify his role as the man of ‘action’ that helps to translate Poirot’s thinking into practical application – a reciprocal relationship, a different way of doing things that renders the contrast more subtle than the ‘police bad’/‘detective good’ dichotomy of many tales in the genre. The old adage that the police ‘would only hamper my investigations’, the fodder of many a crime fiction spoof, does not apply here.

Indeed, all of the regular cast are given a nice moment to shine. Hastings gets one of the series’ most enjoyable car chases, whilst Miss Lemon gets a charming moment of comedy as she completely fails to remember the name of the house for which they are searching. The actors clearly relish the opportunity as well, with David Suchet’s accent unexpectedly wandering into Allo’ Allo’ territory as he follows Hastings’s progress from his flat: ‘You’ve lost ’er? [aside] ‘E’s lost ‘er!’

As mentioned above, another asset is the film-like quality afforded by the leisurely pace and the stylish directorial touches. Poirot takes more than a minute of screen time to enter the Foreign Office and arrive at the office of Sir Bernard Dodge, all the while accompanied by the strains of Big Ben and camera angles that linger over the grandeur of the Westminster architecture. It is a visual key to the episode – the little Belgian modestly waddling along the imposing corridors of power gives lie to what subsequent events will prove to be the case: that it is the physically unprepossessing intellectual who will ultimately triumph, rather than the outwardly impressive accoutrements of the establishment. This is important because although, as in the short story, we are told that the Destroyer is waiting to convey Poirot to France, we don’t get to see it (presumably for budgetary reasons) so it’s nice to get this point of futile show versus mental activity signalled visually in a different way. Another really impressive shot involves the camera panning down the outside of a building, tracking the protagonists’ conversation as they proceed down a flight of stairs inside. The wintry exteriors are also very atmospherically captured as are the cool shots of vintage cars racing through the night (an image I always associate with the Poirot stories and the TV series in particular, viz the picture at the top of this blog!) Although is that really the main road from Windsor to Datchet? If so then the M4 has a lot to answer for. Such is the price of progress!

One thing that did strike me is the way the TV adaptation has a different relationship, on a narrative level, to the presentation of space and time. In the short story, Poirot’s pointless trip across the channel and back again is a humorous device used to signal the futility of the frantic physical effort of his English employers. On paper, this can be accomplished easily enough in a couple of paragraphs – a journey that covers several hundred miles and taking a number of hours in practice can be conveyed quickly and easily in the telling, echoing the ostentatious might that can easily ‘convey’ Poirot across the sea in an instant. On film, this is not the case – the difficulty involved in visualising such scenes would inevitably end up making them look pretty spectacular and belie the point being made, so it makes sense to ditch the journey to France. On the other hand, Poirot’s search of the cottage hospitals (which takes a few lines in the short story) is laboured over in the adaptation precisely to dramatise the impatience it evokes in Poirot’s employers – something we are briefly told in the short story. It’s a consummate example of a change in the narrative from page to screen making complete sense dramatically as the story shifts between mediums.

It isn’t a total success though. The subplot regarding Daniels’s ‘divorce’ is a good addition and is much more satisfying than the short story’s logic of ‘he has a German aunt so that explains everything’. Yet, no really convincing replacement is found for the espionage motive of the original story, clunky though it is. Instead, the Irish Home Rule strand of the original plot is lifted from red herring to fully-fledged motive. This is convincing as far as it goes. The Home Rule plot highlights what is the traitors’ real grievances, namely British imperial hubris: ‘Anyway what’s it got to do with Britain if Germany re-arms?’ Moreover, a ‘strong element in Ireland that does not care if Germany re-arms so long as it hurts Britain’ is certainly a fair assumption of a particular kind of nationalist politics in several Celtic nations during the 1930s and 1940s and so it isn’t hard to believe the lengths to which Daniels’s wife will go. But when applied to Daniels himself it falls down somewhat and becomes horribly convoluted and hard to follow. So… his dad’s career was ruined by Asquith, who approved of home rule… so he was easily persuaded to turn traitor… even though a different PM and a different political party are now in power. Or something? As I said earlier, probably best not to think about it.

Another disappointment is that the Home Rule motive should afford a great opportunity to use the driver Egan as a red herring, as in the original tale – since he, and not Daniels, is the obvious candidate for an Irish traitor. Egan’s lodging is full of Catholic tat, he has an Irish landlady and disappears from the plot halfway through, so the opportunity for such a red herring is certainly there. Yet, he’s never mentioned again! Unless it’s him who appears to aid Mrs Daniels at the end? Again, it’s not clear – and I’m speaking from the perspective of someone who was studying it all very closely in order to write it up on this site. For the general viewer it must have been pretty incomprehensible.

Dramatically, however, it does manage to be exciting enough (and just about clear enough) to be enjoyable and the direction, pacing, characterisation and performances are all top notch. I could argue that the episode shows its hand too early regarding Daniels’s guilt and goes against its own dramatic grain by substituting action-packed car chases for properly thought out explanation – but this is really a minor quibble. Ultimately, like the short story on which it is based, this is brilliantly orchestrated entertainment.

Leave a comment

Filed under 1920s, Agatha Christie, Agatha Christie's Poirot (TV Series), Captain Hastings, Poirot Investigates (1924), Short Stories, Short Story

Re-Watching Agatha Christie: ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’

Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Series 3, Episode 6

Screenplay by David Reniwck
Directed by Renny Rye

Watching the adaptation of Christie’s The Big Four on ITV last week, with its reunion of Poirot, Japp, Hastings and Miss Lemon, really brought home how vintage these early 50-minute episodes are. It’s over twenty years since they first aired and more than a decade has elapsed since Poirot’s companions last accompanied him onscreen. It can’t be denied that it was good to see them back – but it’s also the case that their relentless appearance as a regular cast in the early years of the show is also a sign of the producers’ desire to set up a cosy sense of familiarity to Poirot’s exploits. This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand a huge part of the appeal of these early Poirot episodes is this very cosiness. And this is not always an unfair representation of Christie’s murder-plots, which are often reassuringly preposterous and just as reassuringly resolved, all the loose ends tied up as our band of light exorcise the evil in their midst and enable normal life to continue unaffected. It’s a cathartic experience. At the same time though, the relentlessly ‘cosy’ approach which becomes almost a house style in the early TV episodes can end up rendering the stories somewhat anodyne, introducing needlessly silly subplots which, although enjoyable in themselves, end up getting rid of any subtlety in Christie’s originals. This doesn’t happen often (and, to be fair, it could be said that similar problems of subtlety arise in later episodes which regularly introduce an often equally relentless sense of doom to proceedings) – but when it does happen, it can lead to a very frustrating experience. Watching David Renwick’s adaptation of ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’ is, for me, just such an experience. Not, it must be said, as frustrating as having to sit through the interminable anti-piracy add that Granada Ventures has seen fit to include on every single disc in the Poirot box set – but pretty frustrating, nonetheless.

Before explaining my problem with this episode, however, I’ll give credit where it’s due. The additions to the script are entertaining, not to mention very funny. The subplot involving the apparent haunting at the Manor is very reminiscent of E.F. Benson’s ‘spook stories’, revelling knowingly in the cliché of the ‘old dark house’, whilst also evoking some genuinely creepy imagery (a ghostly face in the branches of a tree, a mirror dripping with blood). It’s also a decent red herring to boot. The subplot involving Naughton, the innkeeper who writes mystery novels on the side, is also very amusing. In this version of the story, Poirot and Hastings are called to a small northern town by a letter apparently entreating the detective’s help in a local murder. When Poirot arrives, however, he finds that Naughton’s letter refers not to a series of real killings, but to the plot of his new novel, with which he has got a bit stuck and with which he hopes to enlist Poirot’s help. The look on Poirot’s face is priceless and Naughton’s hapless interruptions during the investigation are also well-handled. Particularly funny is the conversation at breakfast where a three-way exchange of information involving Grimsby, the ghost at Marsdon Manor and some fresh kippers leads to some predicable, but amusing mix-ups (‘You mean it is… crawling with the spirits of the living dead?’ ‘Grimsby?’ ‘Marsdon Manor!’)

Visually, too, the episode is a delight. The autumnal ‘haunted’ woods around the Manor are beautifully captured and the scenes of the ‘haunting’ itself are handled in quite a creepy way. Creepier still is the image of a roomful of people wearing gasmasks, suitably exploited during a second attempted murder (which doesn’t appear in Christie’s tale). Other visual touches are also highly effective. Maltravers’s distinctive look – scarf, long coat, hat, shambling gait – helps us to recognise him as he apparently stalks the lawn during the climactic ‘ghost’ scene. I also liked the way that, at dinner, Poirot and Hastings have wine, while the more down to earth Japp has a glass of beer next to his plate. It isn’t commented on, but it’s a nice touch that reinforces what we have come to expect from these familiar characters.

All this helps to make the film enjoyable enough in and of itself. And yet, as an adaptation of one of Christie’s most effective short stories, I can’t help but find it frustrating. Christie’s story has the wonderful central conceit of the murder suggested by a suicide, carried out as a mock-suicide and then made to look like natural causes. Add to that the psychoanalytic way in which the murder is suggested and reconstructed through a carefully deduced association of ideas and you have a whole host of interesting features – all of which are pointedly ignored in David Renwick’s adaptation!

Now, obviously, the plot needs to be expanded to fit the fifty minutes of screen time, but the fact that Renwick has ditched all of the novel’s subtleties in favour of a whole host of brash new images and clues (broken eggs, a full-blown haunting, a mysterious painting and a second murder) whilst only retaining the culminating ghost scene, the original motive and the central love triangle from the original plot, does rather imply that it is only the ghost scene that interested him. It’s as if the richness of the story, the chilling effectiveness of the human element in the murder, totally escapes him and he focuses instead on the cheap thrills of the ‘spook story’, choosing to make that the basis of the episode and not the psychological complexity of the way in which the murder was suggested. So, for example, the rook rifle is still the murder weapon, but for the purely technical reason that it leaves a small bullet wound. In the novel, the rook rifle is also significant because it leads directly to the utterly horrible way in which the murder is committed as Mrs Maltravers tricks her husband into showing her how one might use it to commit suicide. One would have thought this would have made for compelling and suspenseful drama – but no. In this version she just wanders up and shoots him. Although, in fairness to Renny Rye, the direction restores some of the original horror to the scene by focusing on the eyes of the victim and of the killer – emphasising horrified pleading in the former and ruthless determination in the latter.

And these new additions lead to some worrying internal inconsistencies. Why, having played her own game of fake haunting for so long, would Mrs Maltravers now break down at the sight of her dead husband walking towards her across the lawn? Surely this version of the character, utterly sceptical and obviously intuitive in her understanding of people’s susceptibility insofar as ghosts are concerned, would suspect immediately that a trick was being played? In the short story, the ghost scene comes out of the blue, so you can see why Mrs Maltravers, already wound up from having killed her husband, would be in such a state – plus it makes thematic sense as a figurative ‘talking cure’, which continues the psychoanalytic strand of the narrative. Here it’s just a shallow dramatic device that works only on the most superficial level, and which fails to live up to the psychological complexity of the original story – and when you’re chastising someone for failing to live up to the psychological complexity of an Agatha Christie short story you know they’re in trouble! And speaking of psychological realism, are we really supposed to believe that Poirot would have mistaken Naughton’s letter for an account of a real murder – especially when Naughton says in the letter that he’s talking about a book?

Another frustrating inconsistency is the way in which the murder weapon is suggested by a newspaper report about the suicide of a farmer, rather than by a story told by Black at dinner. This appears to be a direct adaptation of the suggestion idea in the original story. But it’s a bungled one. Again, Renwick clearly doesn’t understand the sheer finesse of the suggestion in Christie’s story, where the recounting of the suicide anecdote leads the killer to stage a suicide for, we must assume, purely arbitrary and sadistic reasons (since she then decides to pass off the ‘suicide’ as natural causes). That Renwick misunderstands the significance of this comes from his having Poirot state that Mrs Maltravers killed her husband in ‘exactly the same way’ as in the newspaper report. Well, she does in the original story, but in the absence of the restaged suicide this is not the case in his script. One can only assume, then, that Renwick saw the simple fact of the murder weapon as being the significant plot point here – and not the more subtle idea of the sadistically restaged suicide. All of which results in a superficially entertaining episode, but one which is nowhere near as unnerving or satisfying as the story it’s based on.

The final image of both versions sums up, for me, the disappointing contrast between the superficial, anodyne cosiness of the TV adpatation and the chillingly open-ended literary original. In the former, we end with Poirot at the local waxworks museum (apparently every small northern town should have one) trying to get his friends to admire the wax model of himself prominently on display – only to have them pull his leg and comment instead on the model of Charlie Chaplin nearby. It ends, in short, on a note of reassuring jocularity – the murder is explained, the motive detected, prosaically understood and the killer jailed; normal life is resumed, its demons exorcised and we can enjoy a good joke among friends. The original short story ends differently. Yes, the killer has been brought to justice, but the final image of a woman who feels compelled not just to kill her husband, but to do it in such a psychologically disturbing and arbitrary way (tricking him into putting the barrel of the gun into his own mouth, for goodness’ sake) is altogether more unnerving – it is the revelation of this final chilling detail that forms the story’s climax. Here, the bringing of the perpetrator to justice is no reassurance – it isn’t even, one feels, the point. In psychological, as in structural terms, this resolution is no resolution at all and therefore no catharsis. We are simply not allowed, as we are in the TV version, to pretend that the ‘normality’ to which life has now returned is somehow suddenly rid of such horrors. Instead, it emphasises that these still lurk in the dark unconscious beneath the surface of the everyday. Cosy it most certainly is not.

1 Comment

Filed under 1920s, Agatha Christie, Agatha Christie's Poirot (TV Series), Captain Hastings, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Japp, Poirot Investigates (1924)

Re-Watching Agatha Christie: ‘The Adventure of the “Western Star”’

‘The Adventure of the Western Star’ (1990)

Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Series 2, Episode 9

Screenplay by Clive Exton

Directed by Richard Spence

50 mins

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…

4 Comments

Filed under 1920s, Agatha Christie, Agatha Christie's Poirot (TV Series), Captain Hastings, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Japp, Poirot Investigates (1924), Short Stories, Short Story

Re-Watching Agatha Christie: ‘The Plymouth Express’

 Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Series 3, Episode 4

 Screenplay by Rob Beacham

Directed by Andrew Piddington

 

This is a faithful adaptation of the Christie story in terms of plot, with only a few minor changes: Halliday and his daughter are Australian rather than American; the red herring of the newspaper is slightly different and is changed from a mere alibi to a premeditated attempt to lay suspicion at the door of both the Count and Rupert Carrington equally. The Count’s role in proceedings is also expanded into a full-blown subplot in which he is fraudulently dealing in shares pertaining to Halliday’s mining company – a conspiracy that means he is in England at the time of Flossy’s death. The plot is expanded to fit the fifty minute running time as well, so that Poirot is called in by Halliday not to investigate Flossy’s murder (at least not initially) but to ‘vet’ the Count’s suitability as a husband. Otherwise, the plot stays extremely close to the original short story – the murder is even discovered by a young naval officer, a detail that could easily have been changed without anyone noticing.

 It’s in the tone of the piece that the adaptation really differs from the original story. While Christie is rather crassly unsympathetic in dealing with the brutal murder of a young woman, the TV version goes to great lengths to bring out the horror and grief of the affair. It does so by deftly drawing our attention away from the sensational aspects that the short story revels in, presenting it instead as a piteous domestic tragedy with which we can easily empathise.

 In particular, Halliday’s position as a single father doing his best to raise a daughter on his own is dealt with in much greater detail than is his status as a ‘self-made’ millionaire (we get no real indication of how he made his millions, only that he is now in the mining business). True, the adaptation retains the original story’s idea of rich folks’ distance from ‘real’ problems – the maid is deservedly contemptuous of the Count’s silly message to her mistress, which she is forced to read aloud. But the single father/only child thing helps to override this and to make one more sympathetic both to the millionaire and his spoilt daughter on the level of common (and therefore relatable) human experiences, rather than as ‘othered’ socialised abstractions. To put it another way, where the short story is ‘us and them’, the adaptation challenges the viewer to expand its definition of ‘us’. The way the press flock around Flossy’s body (contrasted with Hastings, Japp and Poirot’s solemn and respectful examination of the corpse) helps to demonise further those who would play up these people’s difference from the rest of us. I love the scene when Halliday tells Poirot: ‘You find the murderer Poirot; I’ll make you richer than you ever dreamed’. The delivery conveys such helplessness at the very same time as it demonstrates how powerful Halliday’s money makes him. The idea of death as a great leveller is very movingly conveyed – money is all well and good, but it doesn’t make grief any easier to bear.

 More fun is to be had with the Count, who might as well be called Dracula so stereotypical is his aristocratic villainy. Come to think of it, maybe we’re meant to make a very middle class distinction between the self-made millionaire and the hereditary peer? Be that as it may, the Count’s villainy is deliciously camp. He plots cryptically in a darkened room with a taciturn old banker, refuses to drop his cigarette even whilst running away from the police and nonchalantly declares himself to be ‘devastated’ by the tragedy of Flossy’s death in a deadpan manner that suggests nothing of the sort! Frankly, if he had a moustache, he’d be twirling it. The episode even acknowledges this metafictionally – at one point Hastings awkwardly tells Poirot that the Count is very much of what you’d expect from his ‘type… of Frenchman’. Poirot agrees, confirming what we can all see plainly: ‘He is typical of his type’.

 The regular cast are very well served in this episode. Miss Lemon isn’t in it much, but she not only gets a wonderful line (‘Difficulties were made to be overcome, Mr Poirot’) but also gets to make quite an entrance in her marvellous period dress, complete with fashionable haircut and glasses. On a more serious note, Japp is very much Poirot’s respected colleague in this episode – unlike the bizarre rivalry mentioned in the short story, they willingly collaborate here on what both agree is a serious case with little time for frivolity. Hastings also gets a nice scene in a bar where he befriends Flossy’s husband in order to discover any motive he might have for his wife’s death – he isn’t quite the bumbling fool he sometimes comes across as and that’s welcome, however endearingly he plays that role.

 Japp and Hastings’s mutual relationship to Poirot is also brought out by a nifty piece of direction. Hastings and Japp are framed either side of Poirot, arguing about which of their two favoured suspects is the most likely culprit, only to shut up immediately as soon as Poirot intercedes. As Poirot gives his speech, the three pass through a set of double doors, which Japp and Hastings open together in order to let Poirot through – a nice metaphor that illustrates not only their mutual respect for the Belgian, but also their mutual status as his practical helpmates in crime-solving.

 Another scene illustrates the way in which Japp acts as a mediator between the active, physical duties of the jobbing policeman and the intellectual endeavours of Poirot’s little grey cells. As a senior police officer, Japp is a mixture of the two – he has to take practical considerations into account (the need to gather tangible evidence, to be seen to be making progress and to do the actual dirty work of pursuing and arresting criminals), but also represents the ‘brains’ of the whole operation – an aspect with which Poirot often helps out. This is summed up visually on screen in Poirot’s skilful undercover chat with the suspected jeweller. The intellectual duties over, Poirot is able to confirm to Japp that this is the man they’re looking for – which is Japp’s cue to gather a troupe of constables, force entry to the jeweller’s establishment and make the arrest. Hastings and Poirot look on with a pained expression at this, before turning away. It’s a good way of showing how, for all his keen moral sensibilities, the game of detection is, for Poirot, very much an abstract one – his hands never get dirty.

 That isn’t to say that Poirot’s notorious sense of evil is not very much in evidence here. It may have deserted him in the short story, but here he is keen to point out just how callous and horrible this particular murder actually is. The murder itself is reconstructed in gruesome, bloody, fashion – gratuitously so really. But this serves to make the point viscerally – unlike in the short story, where the murder remains an abstract logic problem, here we’re not allowed to forget the sheer cold-blooded brutality it represents. To cap it all, Poirot then describes the action of knifing a woman to death in great detail, just to drive the point home (if you will). Seriously – it should come with a trigger warning.

 Tonally different to the short story, then, this adaptation is very much in the spirit of Christie’s moral framework – albeit at the more acceptable end of her rather uncomplicated belief in inherent evil as a dangerous reality. It is according to their inherent capacities for empathy (the mark of the ‘good’ person here) that the characters are eventually set up to be judged. The murderers are at one end of this spectrum, with Halliday and Carrington at the other – both have their flaws, but their disgusted spurning of Flossy’s diamonds demonstrates that their moral compass is pointing the right way. The Count, however, with his dispassionate attitude to even this most self-evidently evil of actions is somewhere in between – not as bad as the murderers, it nevertheless makes Japp determined to punish him for remaining resolutely unapologetic in the face of such manifest grief. Ostensibly, he is arrested for fraud, but one really gets the impression that his true crime is not to acknowledge the grieving father by saying sorry…

 Then there’s the final scene, in which Halliday’s letter is read out in voiceover, as Poirot hands Miss Lemon the cheque he has received in payment. Poirot is embarrassed at having been paid so much – and Miss Lemon’s reaction is very telling. Looking at the generous cheque, she is moved to comment of Halliday: ‘the poor man’. It’s as if the fact that Halliday is so grateful that he feels compelled to pay an enormous amount to Poirot is indicative not of how much money he has to give away, but rather of how little it actually matters to him any more. It’s a much more realistic ending than the flippancy we get at the short story’s conclusion.

 I’ll be honest though. While I admire this episode a lot as an adaptation (the direction is particularly good) it isn’t one that I particularly enjoy. Until now, I had thought this was because it was simply dull, like the short story – but I’ve changed my mind on this matter. The episode is dreary, but it’s a dreariness that’s depressingly appropriate to the tragedy of the story. This is admirably in keeping with the way in which the adaptation determinedly downplays its potentially sensational aspects to hit you with the sheer misery of the situation. It’s almost as if it’s defying you to enjoy it. Although I think it succeeds in this defiance, I’m in the paradoxical position of not being sorry that it does.

Leave a comment

Filed under Agatha Christie's Poirot (TV Series), Captain Hastings, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Japp, Poirot's Early Cases (1975)