Three Trips to Agatha Christie-Land: ‘Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Movie Collection Set 6’

Seldom has an actor become as closely identified with a role as David Suchet has become with Hercule Poirot. It’s not so much that Suchet’s talent or his experience is limited—he’s a noted stage actor and has appeared in numerous films and television programs outside the Christie canon—but that his characterization of Poirot is so complete that it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the role.

Suchet’s portrayal as the Belgian detective is the centerpiece of the three mysteries in set 6 of Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Movie Collection, now available on DVD from Acorn Media. The subtitle is accurate because although originally shown on television these episodes are shot in a cinematic style which makes them feel more like 90-minute movies than your basic TV programming. All three follow a familiar formula: dark deeds occur in an apparently ordinary milieu among a cast of comfortingly familiar character types, we are presented with a mix of real clues and red herrings, and after some complications and confusions Poirot calls all the principals together to deliver a Thin Man-like summation of the facts of case and his conclusions.

Needless to say, he is never wrong at this point, however many wrong turns his famous “little grey cells” may have taken in the course of the investigation, and that is one of the features which makes these stories such great escapist material. Yes, terrible events have occurred and we’ve been forced to acknowledge the darkness which may be hidden behind the smiling countenances of our fellow men but by the end of the story everything is set to rights again.

Three Act Tragedy opens and closes in a theatre as if to emphasize Poirot’s love of the dramatic (as portrayed by Suchet, he clearly loves holding center stage when delivering his “closing statements” enumerating who did what to whom and how) as well as the delights which can be found within the blatantly artificial conventions of the detective story. The case involves a series of mysterious murders, beginning with the Reverend Stephen Babbington (a man whose picture should be in the dictionary next to “inoffensive”) at a dinner party hosted by retired actor Sir Charles Cartwright (Martin Shaw). Kimberly Nixon co-stars as Sir Charles’ love interest and Jane Asher and appears in a supporting role.

Peter Greenhalgh’s cinematography in this episode continually draws attention to itself, particularly its use of lighting which, in keeping with the theatrical theme of the story, seems more like stage lighting than the invisible style favored in most movies and television episodes. These techniques emphasize that the story we are seeing is a construction and the characters fictitious creations whom we consent to believe in for the course of the film because we trust that Dame Agatha will reward our faith with a satisfying payoff.

Wartime intrigue is at the heart of The Clocks: the episode opens with a dramatic shot of the White Cliffs of Dover followed by one of Dover Castle where MI6 has set up shop. Soon we learn that a map which displays the minefields between Dover and France, and which the Germans would of course love to get their hands on, has disappeared. Meanwhile a corpse has turned up in the home of a blind woman (Anna Massey) and around it four clocks have mysteriously stopped at 4:13. This episode feels less unified than Three Act Tragedy: there are two plots running in parallel and a slew of secondary characters which clog up the screen in a way that they don’t in the novel but some excellent location shooting and a fine cast including Jaime Winstone (Ray’s daughter) and Lesley Sharp makes it enjoyable all the same.

Atmospheric cinematography and sound is the strength of Hallowe’en Party whose action begins at a children’s party where one girl brags that she has seen a murder and is shortly thereafter found face-down in the apple bobbing tank. The other children were playing snapdragon at the time, a game which involves setting a tub of brandy on fire and then snatching raisins out of the flames (don’t ask me, I’m an American) and is usually played with the lights off to heighten the dramatic effect. So nobody saw or heard anything (lots of shrieking attends a game of snapdragon as well) and while the deceased child was sometimes irritating, it’s not at all obvious why anyone would want to do her in.

Poirot’s investigations take him deep into the dark heart of a picturesque English village where this was hardly the first murder committed and where inheritance fraud, infidelity, and xenophobia all rear their ugly heads. There’s even a hint of a lesbian affair although this plot strand is unfortunately not developed. Zoë Wanamaker co-stars as Christie’s alter ego of sorts, the detective novelist Ariadne Oliver.

My only complaint with Acorn’s presentation of these episodes is that the DVDs contain no extras. Otherwise the images and sound are sharp and clear and the set makes a nice addition to the library of any fan of the classic British mystery.

RATING 7 / 10