[24 May 2004]
If you’re a fan of probably the most popular murder-mystery author of the 20th century, welcome to the motherlode. Sort of. The Agatha Christie Megaset is stuffed to the breaking point with 13 full-length (give or take a few minutes) cinematic versions of some of Agatha Christie’s most famous works—including Evil Under the Sun (1982), The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (2000), and The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side(1992)—all pressed neatly into nine DVDs. Although the collection is more heavily weighted toward the Miss Marple series that aired on BBC during the 1980s—the spinster sleuth gets nine cases—David Suchet’s 1990s Hercule Poirot does get his time in the suspense spotlight.
To be frank, A&E has pulled a clever marketing maneuver by splitting this megaset between Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Rather than collect only the more popular Poirot works together, A&E has decided that the money issues are better solved by mashing them together in a clumsy box. It’s a tried-and-true practice in the mediasphere and I don’t want to give the impression that it’s a cheat—it works or at least it moves units, after all. But let’s just be clear from the outset about what this megaset is all about.
Although the Hercule Poirot series had a successful seven-year run on the BBC, the Miss Marple films starring Christie’s personal favorite, Joan Hickson, ran through all 12 of the Marple novels, yet it is so far Suchet’s Poirot that has seemingly outshone his counterpart in crime-solving. Of course, this is close to one of those blanket generalizations that can infuriate Christie fans, but I’m not trying to be critical of Hickson’s excellent performances (which translate Christie’s conception of Marple much more capably than the lightweight and too young Angela Lansbury). It’s just that Poirot, as a literary and cinematic figure with no small number of quirks and moments of brilliance, is simply much more compelling. Don’t kill the messenger.
The bummer here, however, is that Suchet is but a shadow of Albert Finney’s peerless Poirot from Sidney Lumet’s amazing Murder on the Orient Express (1974). Finney expressed Poirot’s hilarious idiosyncrasies, laborious rituals and masterful power plays more capably than anyone—whether you’re talking Suchet, Peter Ustinov, Austin Trevor, Zero Mostel or even, bizarrely enough, the late Tony Randall (who played the Belgian sleuth in Frank Tashlin’s riotous 1966 film version of The Alphabet Murders ). These tendencies are what has ultimately separated Poirot from so many other run-of-the-mill detectives (save perhaps Sherlock Holmes, especially the one addicted to heroin in Herbert Ross’ The Seven-Per-Cent Solution ) who simply showed up and had everything figured out ahead of time.
(For more on this banal detective trend, stop reading this and rent Robert Moore’s film version of Neil Simon’s unbearably funny Murder By Death immediately. James Coco’s Poirot is probably better than Mostel, Ustinov, and Randall’s combined).
This is not to say that Suchet’s Poirot is a bore. On the contrary, his popularity was powerful enough to give the BBC several years’ worth of programming. His calculated cool at the center of a multi-layered melodrama on an isolated resort in Evil Under the Sun and his grace under international pressure whilst in the Middle East in Murder in Mesopotamia (2001) is passably entertaining. But unlike Finney’s detective, Suchet’s Poirot seems merely to wander right into all the evidence he needs. That may perhaps be more Christie’s problem than Suchet’s—indeed, Murder on the Orient Express‘s (1974) extended interrogation scenes are twice as gripping as Suchet’s open-eared wanderings around Evil Under the Sun‘s high-end health getaway on the Devon Coast.
Which brings us to the Marple contributions to the megaset, which include A Caribbean Mystery (1989), The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, Sleeping Murder (1987), 4:50 From Paddington (1987), The Moving Finger (1985), At Bertram’s Hotel (1987), Murder at the Vicarage (1986), Nemesis (1987), and They Do It With Mirrors (1991). Christie herself tabbed Joan Hickson as her quintessential Marple in 1962, far before the actress was even old enough for the part. This makes complete sense, since it has long been a literary trend to assert that Marple is Christie’s fictional counterpart; most of the Marple books were written after 1950, when the author was well into her 60s (she died at the age of 86 in 1976). In other words, Agatha Christie knew better than anyone who could best flesh out—literally—her senior citizen sleuth.
Hickson’s staid demeanor and seemingly effortless grace are well used in the BBC’s Marple mysteries, but by the time Christie had written the Marple books, the world was not what it was when she put together the far more threatening Poirot mysteries. Things were much calmer for England after two world wars, and the Marple mysteries express that reality by cycling through banal crimes like poisoning, haunted houses and the occasional shooting. To be fair, Sleeping Murder was written during the war, but it was in a vault and didn’t see the light of the day until 30 years later. The point is that Miss Marple, as much as fans have come to love her over the last century, is an armchair detective for armchair crimes. Christie’s earlier work is far more riddled with threat, intrigue and conspiracy, and it is that work that has and probably always will withstand the test of time.
Just be aware of this as you decide to drop a whopping $140 for what, all issues aside, remains four moderately entertaining Poirot installments squeezed in between a handful of quickly aging Marple whodunits.