Agatha Christie’s Curtain, published in 1975, was the final case for fictional Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot, but the character found a popular second life through British television series Agatha Christie’s Poirot, now entering its 12th season. Although many television adaptations of literary works fall short of their source material, the series’ episodes and feature-length movies succeed chiefly because of the performance of David Suchet as the title character.
The actor wholly embodies the funny little detective for whom “a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound”, and who uses the “little grey cells” to solve cases. Suchet’s research and knowledge of the character likely exceed what was necessary to play him, but the result is that actor and character have by now seemingly merged into one being.
This total immersion ensures a level of consistency despite the series’ revolving writers, directors, and supporting/guest actors. So even when the other components do not all add up, Suchet can be relied upon to give his best. Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Movie Collection - Set 4 presents two new entries—“Mrs. McGinty’s Dead” and “Cat Among the Pigeons”—that place the fastidious detective in environments that both challenge and accentuate his idiosyncrasies.
In “Mrs. McGinty’s Dead”, Poirot accepts a police superintendent’s request to find fresh evidence in the case of young James Bentley, who has been convicted of murdering his landlady—a charlady named Mrs. McGinty. Poirot says he will fulfill this task in order to interrupt his “abundance of leisure”, and the village of Broadhinny certainly tests his comfort.
To convey the characters and setting, director Ashley Pearce and director of photography Alan Almond go a little overboard with close-ups and complicated angles. There are also several moments when the lighting is overexposed—top lighting burns off of the screen in hot spots and halos that approximate the Robert Richardson mode.
Although these techniques could be considered showy means to modernize the “look” of the series, they deliver in a couple of important ways. The askew framing of Poirot in Broadhinny contributes to an ominous tone that heightens the murderous stakes of the plot. Unusual framing from behind seems arbitrary at first, but then a similar composition becomes significant later when someone tries to kill Poirot by pushing him into the path of an oncoming train.
Additionally, a pitfall of detective stories and procedurals is the over-reliance on exposition and dialogue to share information about characters, and that is always a necessary element of Christie’s village and drawing room mysteries – especially in their conclusions. So while the series has evolved into a more presentational style over the years and thus risks alienating purists, these specific developments actually improve upon some of the more traditionally shot Poirot movies in their use of visual (rather than strictly dialogue-driven) storytelling.
“Cat Among the Pigeons” finds Poirot at the Meadowbank School, where his friend Miss Bulstrode oversees a group of female students from wealthy families. A series of murders and assaults shift Bulstrode’s contemplation about her departure as headmistress to grave concern about the safety of those around her and the survival of the school. Naturally, Poirot is able to assist his friend in detecting the various plots and secrets that surround her.
The screenplay by Mark Gatiss has a lot of fun in setting up possibilities for the various “cats” and “pigeons”: Poirot’s peculiarities fascinate the young students, handsome gardener Adam seems to hide a deeper identity, refugee Princess Shaista of Ramat is trailed by danger and violence, and Games teacher Miss Springer alienates the other teachers by persecuting them. Other secrets and suspects are more deeply hidden.
The level of suspicion that Springer (the first victim) raises in early scenes escalates nicely as Poirot narrows down his list to find the deadliest cat. Significantly, the script introduces Poirot into the school environment much sooner than the original book does, and as a result he stays at the center of the action, from before the initial murder to after the final reveal.
The gathering of surviving characters/suspects for the climax of the plot is perhaps the most familiar narrative element of the Poirot books, and in both of these installments Suchet does a masterful job of ratcheting up the tension for his assembled guests and the viewers at home. Suchet embraces the fact that these explanations are necessarily long-winded and he conveys the enjoyment Poirot gains from his center-stage “performances”. Order might be the key to Poirot’s detection, but flamboyance is his preferred method of delivering results.
A bonus disc of Super Sleuths: Poirot takes viewers behind the scenes of the program, providing a history of the series and illuminating interviews with the actors and creators. Suchet speaks lovingly of his character, and he clearly states his desire to film the rest of the Poirot books and stories in order to complete the character.
Main topics of discussion include Poirot’s on-screen evolution, the production values of the series, and the extent to which Christie’s family has been involved with protecting the integrity of her works. All in all, the steadfast classiness of the Poirot productions seems to be a direct result of the care and imagination with which these artists and heirs treat their funnily endearing and entertaining central character.