Update to Poirot Movies (David Suchet)

In a previous post, I reviewed David Suchet's Poirot movies (I'm a big fan of the series). Here is that list updated (there are some spoilers):

Previously Unreviewed:

Appointment with Death

Although the script takes liberties, creating new murderers (from extant characters), I didn't mind so much. For one, this particular story varies considerably between the book version and Christie's own play. For another, the new murderers make sense given the victim.

The only issue I have is, What is Tim Curry doing in this movie? His part is fairly irrelevant. I can only imagine that he offered, and the Poirot people just couldn't turn him down. I mean, would you turn down Tim Curry?

But he is the type of actor who needs to be cast completely correctly and then used completely correctly. He wasn't here.

Murder on the Orient Express

I was somewhat worried about this one. How can any version top the 1974 Albert Finney version? I think Suchet is just as good a Poirot--better in some ways. But the 1974 movie is in itself a tour de force.

The clever Poirot writers solved the problem by examining the plot from a completely new direction: are the conspirators justified? This question haunts the narrative, and Poirot is the right character to contemplate it. The result is a rather dark movie, but one that still keeps mostly to the plot.

Hallowe'en Party

A surprisingly good production with perfect casting of the Judith and Miranda characters (played by Amelia Bullmore and Mary Higgins). I also really enjoyed seeing Zoe Wannamaker again. She has great acerbic delivery.

However, the movie does indicate how/why movies develop completely different tones/auras from their books; it occurs when the movie script fails to take context into account.

In the book Halloween Party, there are a number of dead bodies. There is also a reference to a woman possibly being a lesbian.

In both cases, the material is there, but taking it out of Christie's context gives the movie an odd, unbalanced feel.  The dead bodies in the book have mostly happened in the past; there's an almost unreal quality about them (which is part of the ambiance). By constantly showing us the dead bodies, the movie becomes . . . well, kind of silly. It's one thing to have a cozy village mystery with a couple of deaths; it's another to have a cozy village mystery with people dropping like flies. It's the freaking Black Plague! It is also the reason I had to stop watching Midsomer Murders. I adore John Nettles, but the writers were killing off so many people per episode, there wasn't anyone left to blame or investigate or even care.

The second issue--the woman who might be a lesbian--appears in the book but in a comment by a teenage boy who is trying to act grown-up around Poirot. Making it a central issue in the movie was pointless.

I say this at the risk of appearing seemingly intolerant, so . . . I'll just keep going: British television is obsessed with lesbians. The current Miss Marple series has them falling out of every cupboard. And it's bad art.

It is one thing to add in a gay couple for the sake of a story; it's quite another to add them in as some kind of token gesture. The Inspector Alleyn movie Death at the Bar turns two of the main male characters into a gay couple, and it actually makes a ton of sense. The Toby Stephens' character in Five Little Pigs is portrayed as gay, and again, it makes sense (and Toby Stephens does a marvelous job conveying both his affection for the dead man and his self-contempt of what that means).

But sometimes this type of political correctness just gets silly.  It also doesn't achieve its purpose--at least with someone like me--because if so-called politically correct tolerance entails creating badly written scripts, then  it should stop. (And it's faux tolerance to begin with since no Christie movie--no movie in existence actually--can successfully represent every group/religion/political organization. The end result of so many lesbians but not, say, Mormons is to think that maybe someone in British television has an agenda. That's not tolerance; that's just annoying.)

The Clocks & Three-Act Tragedy

I combine my review of these because they are fairly boring books but fairly respectable movies. The Clocks movie does highlight one of the flaws of the Poirot movies: in an effort  to remain chronologically consistent with the series, the later books are not set in the 1950s and 1960s but in the 1940s. This is very sad since Christie did a great job "modernizing" her novel settings while her detectives remained (deliberately) the same. Miss Marple and Poirot had to adjust (with some success) to a rapidly changing culture. Great fun!

But The Clocks movie, instead of being placed in the 1960s, is placed pre-WWII, creating a bewildering change in tone from the book.

Still, the Colin and Sheila characters are done well. And the basic plot is kept which impressed me. One huge change is made to one particular character, but I'm guessing the script-writer went, "That's WAY too much of a coincidence" and left it out. I don't fault the script-writer. 

Three-Act Tragedy is extremely well-done. It is much better than the 1980's version which is so boring, I've never seen it all the way through because I fall asleep, and I am NOT the kind of person who falls asleep watching movies. So Suchet's version is a vast improvement. And Martin Shaw does a magnificent job.

So, will they do Curtain?

Prior Reviews:


Peril At End House: The first Poirot/Suchet movie keeps the order of events and the identity of the murderer. It also retains the aura and theme. It isn't the best out of the first set but worth watching.

Mysterious Affair at Styles: This is one of the few movies that actually makes more sense than the book. Mysterious Affair was Christie's first book, and it is rather difficult to follow. In general, although Christie throws out lots of red herrings, her explanations are always crystal-clear. If you have difficulty following the clues in the book, check out the movie: it helps.

The ABC Murders: The best of the first set, really excellent. It demonstrates a great appreciation for the book--everything is spot on.

Death in the Clouds: Okay, but surprisingly boring. Well, its setting revolves about tennis, so what do you expect? Doesn't play havoc with the book at least.

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe: Pretty good, but then it has the amazing Eccleston and the equally amazing Peter Blythe. It also has one of Christie's better double-identity tricks; even if you figure out the double-identity, you won't be sure what it is being used for immediately.

Hercule Poirot's Christmas: Okay, but something of a disappointment for me. This is one of my favorite books, and although the murderer's identity is kept, a missing character changes the overall aura of the piece.

Hickory Dickory Dock: One of the few movies I think is more interesting than the book. It does an excellent job retaining the aura of student life from the book plus it uses Miss Lemon absolutely correctly. Colin Firth's brother, Jonathan, stars. Yeah, that's right, the brother who WASN'T Darcy. Still, he's managed to have a fairly successful career, and there's something to be said for NOT being the typed-cast brother. For Life fans, Damian Lewis also stars and does a great job.

Murder on the Links: Well-done if a little dull. Retains both the plot and aura of the original.

Dumb Witness: Well-done if a little dull. The dog is cute.

This concludes what I think of as the first set although I believe the above movies are sold in two sets. However, there is a four-year difference between Dumb Witness and the next movie; also, the feel of the movies changes, hence the separation here between "early" films and "later" films.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd: Not bad. The first-person voice-over differs from the book for obvious reasons. It kind of works. Basic plot points are retained. All in all, an okay production.

Lord Edgware Dies: Extremely well-done. Helen Grace as Jane Wilkinson does a superb job. Plot, murderer, and aura are all retained. The best movie since The ABC Murders.

Evil Under the Sun: Okay movie, but the femme fatale isn't done correctly. I'm not sure the writers understood Christie's character. She's supposed to be THE woman that women-love-to-hate, the bad girl who breaks up marriages except . . . strip away the glamour, and she's actually rather pitiable. For a better rendering of this character type, check out the series episode "Triangle at Rhodes."

Murder in Mesopotamia: I think I would like this movie more if it wasn't one of my favorite books. The book is told entirely from the nurse's point of view, and the nurse has a very distinct voice and perspective. She makes the book live. The movie, however, is told all from Poirot's point of view. I understand this on one level; the writers have to use the guy who is being show-cased. But it is still a disappointment. That said, the movie is worth watching. It keeps the main plot points and the aura.

Five Little Pigs: This is one of the best of the later movies. It is the most artistic of the films and effectively captures a nostalgic aura that works well with the plot. It keeps the plotting of the book as Poirot questions each "pig" in turn. There is a subtle change regarding the Philip Blake character (played by the superb Toby Stephens). However, the change actually makes sense and doesn't play havoc with Christie's text at all. The actor who plays Amyas Crale isn't at all how I see Amyas Crale physically, but he captures the character.

Sad Cypress: Overall, the plot is well-rendered. However, a major change between the book and movie tells me the writers missed the point. I discuss that change more in my post "Thoughts on Agatha Christie and Literature".

Death on the Nile: Better than the 1978 version. Plus the 2004 version has JJ Feild! It's such a sad movie, I rarely rewatch it. Plus none of the movies has my favorite line. When Jacqueline is speaking to Poirot at the end of the book, she says, "I followed a bad star," and then she mocks a line given earlier in the book: "That bad star, that bad star fall down." When I read Death on the Nile as a teenager, that line captured the essence of Jacqueline's character for me.

The Hollow: Pretty good. Like with Death on the Nile, it is missing some good lines from the book. Otherwise, the characters and plot are skillfully handled. It is also very sad. But then, so is the book!

The Mystery of the Blue Train: Not bad although I'm not as familiar with this book as the others. A romance change is made that I dislike (this becomes more common in the later movies).

Cards on the Table: Great book. So-so movie. A number of fundamentals are needlessly changed (this becomes more common in the later movies). The motive for the murder is changed but not the murderer. It kind of works.

Actually, I think the movie would be a dud if it wasn't for the awesome Zoe Wannamaker. She plays Mrs. Oliver; she doesn't look like Mrs. Oliver, but she captures her character exactly (and it's Zoe Wannamaker!). Alexander Siddig makes an appearance as Mr. Shaitana and does a great job (he also reminds you how tall he is; in Deep Space Nine, he is one over-6-foot man amongst many over-6-foot people--except for Nana Visitor).

After the Funeral: One of my favorite movies though substantial changes are made to Susannah and George's characters. I like the changes, and I don't think they undermine anything. The clever motive and clever murderer are retained, and the clever murderer is done exactly right.

Taken at the Flood: Surprisingly well-rendered. This is Christie's scary psycho piece, and Elliot Cowan as David Hunter, the psycho, is chillingly good. By the way, this movie captures Christie's ideas of emotional (and sexual) enthrallment (see my comments about Sad Cypress). A romance change is made that I regret, but I can understand why the writers did it.

Mrs. McGinty's Dead: Well-rendered. This movie also retains very funny dialog from the book. One is the argument between Mrs. Oliver and Robin about the adaptation of her books to plays (Agatha Christie used Mrs. Oliver to spout off about writing); the other is Poirot's line to a suspect: "It is amazing to me that you could be hanged because you do not pay enough attention to the things people say to you!"

Cat Among the Pigeons: I admit this is one book I would be tempted to play with if I were the writers. I have this entire subplot involving Adam and Julia. However . . . in terms of faithfulness to Christie's vision, the movie is pretty good. The plot and murderer's identity are retained but not, I think, the aura. The removal of one character kind of destroys the original feel. Also, although Harriet Walter does a magnificent job as Miss Bulstrode, I'm not sure she is the Miss Bulstrode of the book, and this kind of matters.

Third Girl: Tremendous disappointment! The movie destroys the book. The book is extremely well-plotted and very clever; the resulting movie-mess is just that: a mess. Things happen for no good reason. The new motives are slender and convoluted. The double-identity (a Christie special) is disregarded. Mrs. Oliver is misused. Doctor Stillingfleet, a very important character, is discarded. The entire ambiance as well as the book's time period have been thrown out. Jemima Rooper, who I quite like, is completely wrong for the part of Norma. The movie is a huge wreck.

I can only assume the recent Miss Marple people took over. Please, if you don't admire Christie enough to reread her books several times, savoring her plots and characters and recognizing her for the incredible craftswoman she was . . . if you are arrogant and blind enough to think you can "improve" on her plots, stop producing Christie movies!

2 comments:

  1. calvinist preacher9/27/2011

    I started watching the Suchet Poirot series years ago and have liked them (I have the 3+ episodes and the earlier movies), but I haven't liked the later ones primarily because they lose that aura you speak of from the books.

    I imagine, for instance, some producer looking over the script and saying, "Looks tops alright, but it's missing that edge. Think you can sex it up just a bit?" Hence the fixation on being lesbian in Hallowe'en Party, the introduction of an explicit sex scene in Sad Cypress, and so on. It just detracts from the overall effect.

    We live in an age when the word "discreet" is apparently incomprehensible, but that aura of discretion, where dark secrets are hinted at but not explicit, is essential to understanding St. Mary Mead and Miss Marple, as well as Poirot.

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  2. There's a lot to be said for the understated and unsaid. In general, I like my problems to be spelled out, but a lot of extra information can be conveyed indirectly. Take the awesome Lion in Winter where a plethora of information is conveyed through implication. This makes sense; a more "modern" approach where Henry and his family go to therapy and spill all would undermine the family's character.

    As John Castle's character says, "I know. You know I know. I know you know I know. We know Henry knows, and Henry knows we know it. We're a knowledgeable family."

    It's the indirectness that makes that such a funny line.

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