David Suchet once again dons the famous mustache as the private detective Hercule Poirot in this new series of adaptations from ITV Studios. All three originally aired over a year ago, but only recently were they released on DVD in the U.S. in conjunction with airing on PBS Masterpiece Mystery. I don’t know why it takes so long to get them over here, but I’m always grateful to see Mr. Suchet as Poirot on the little screen once again.
Three Act Tragedy (screenplay by Nick Dear, directed by Ashley Pearce)
Poirot is visiting an old friend, the renown stage actor Sir Charles Cartwright (Martin Shaw) when a guest of the party dies suddenly after drinking a martini from the same tray that was served to everyone. Poirot does not think it suspicious at the time, as the dead man was old and not in the best of health. However, when another person dies at a party with a similar arrangement of guests, he can’t help but wonder if the first death and the second death were not accidents, and were somehow connected to each other.
Since both deaths appeared to have happened without any possible cause or connection, aside from proximity, Poirot begins to eliminate each of the suspects, with the help of Sir Charles (who thought it was murder all along) and his young friend Egg (Kimberley Nixon). In the end, it seems that help is not always helpful, and that everyone has a role in life and on the stage. Revenge, money, and love are all motivations for murder, but only one of them is the cause this time.
The book this came from does not feature Poirot so prominently. In fact, he doesn’t really come into play until the third chapter and after the second murder. Instead, one of Christie’s other protagonists, Mr. Satterthwaite, takes on the role of observer/aid in the investigation conducted by Sir Charles and Egg. Mr. Satterthwaite is an elderly man with a keen sense of human behaviors — almost a male parallel to Miss Marple, albeit less sharp and too often foiled by his own ego. However, it was simple to merge the plot points that involved both Mr. Satterthwaite and Poirot from the book, and the end result is fairly seemless.
Suchet’s transition from the seemingly confused foreigner to a fierce proponent of justice, even when people he cares about will be hurt, is marvelous. An angry Poirot is nothing to scoff at.
The Clocks (screenplay by Stewart Harcourt, directed by Charles Palmer)
Lt. Colin Race (Tom Burke) is investigating a mole in British intelligence, but he’s too busy playing poker to respond to his fiance’s frantic attempts to warn him that she’s seen the mole attempting to steal some documents from the Dover Castle MI6 secret base. Unfortunately, both she and the mole are killed by a hit and run driver when she follows the mole out of the base.
Later on, Colin runs into, or more accurately, is ran into by a young woman fleeing a house along a street he is visiting, hoping to find some clues about his fiance’s death. Sheila Webb (Jaime Winstone) is hysterical, but manages to convey to him that she discovered a dead body inside the house. Colin sets her down and goes into the house to see for himself, and meets the owner of the house, Miss Pembmarsh (Anna Massey), who has much steadier nerves than the girl outside, and who is blind.
Neither Pembmarsh nor Sheila know the dead man (who has no real identification on him), nor do they know why there were four clocks placed in the room with him, all stopped at the same time. The local police think Sheila is involved, but Colin believes her innocence. He calls upon an old friend of his father, Poirot, to help solve the mystery of the stranger’s death.
Poirot sees through the complicated mess of evidence and “clues” to both uncover the murderer and the mole, as one expects him to do. However, there are many twists and turns along the way, with enough betrayals and misunderstandings to keep it confusing to most of the audience. Two big lessons from it all: always tell the truth to people you love and don’t get your murder cover ideas from the plots of cheap thrillers.
For the most part, this adaptation stays true to the books. There’s a bit more sex, of course. The complex connection of Sheila’s history with the mole are left out, and possibly for the best. That always seemed a little too tidy, even for Christie.
Poirot plays the pivotal role in solving both cases, but there’s enough room in this story to feature Colin and Sheila (and the police inspector played by Phil Daniels) prominently, and the actors shine in those roles. Christie doesn’t always succeed with cloak & dagger plots, but with this screenplay, Harcourt is able to balance the traditional Christie mystery with a little Cold War spy thriller just right.
Hallowe’en Party (screenplay by Mark Gatiss, directed by Charles Palmer)
Ariadne Oliver is a character I can barely tolerate in print, much less on the screen, but her portrayal by Zoë Wanamaker is entertaining enough to get through the movie. Mrs. Oliver is staying with a friend in Woodleigh Commons, and participates in the festivities of a children’s Halloween party, where unfortunately, one of the children is drowned in the bucket used for bobbing apples. Earlier in the evening, the child (Joyce) had claimed to have witnessed a murder that she didn’t know was a murder at the time. No one believed her (she had a reputation of being a liar), but Mrs. Oliver is convinced it’s connected, and implores her friend Poirot to find the murderer.
One of the central features of the story is a garden formed out of an old quary that is supposed to be the pinnacle of talented landscaper Michael Garfield’s (Julian Rhind-Tutt) career. However, while the carefully trimmed greenery seemed like a hint of a grander display, we never really see a garden quite so well formed or as breathtaking as Christie described in the book. It probably would not have added much to the story, but if one is going to go to the trouble of making a movie that features a fantastic garden, then perhaps one might put a little more of the budget into finding a fantastic garden to film in.
Poirot begins investigating several of the unsolved murders in the village, and slowly the pieces come together. His investigations follow the same patterns as in the book, and very little was changed about how events unfolded. In fact, modern viewers may be surprised to see a casual mention of a lesbian relationship from what most view to be a historical piece. The book was published in 1969, and although many of her characters were older and of an older mindset, Christie tried to keep the settings and incidental characters more contemporary.
The audience may be surprised to learn the identity of the murderer, but the motivations of love and money are not unexpected. What seems perfect or beautiful often can hide very ugly secrets.