DATELINE: Good Intentions Not Well Done
Milland, director and star.
Alas, Oscar winner Ray Milland loved movies and he directed several feature films and a dozen TV anthology episodes during the 1950s and 1960s. He was not box-office, except as a character actor—and movies had changed.
So, the Welsh actor returned to England to film his final director effort in 1968 in which he also starred as a barrister whose mental breakdown makes him a prime murder suspect. It’s a second-rate court-room murder mystery on the lines of Agatha Christie, called Hostile Witness.
Milland is juicy with those eyes and old Hollywood’s courtly gestures. However, the material (a Broadway murder mystery, no less) lets him down. All the actors are superior Brits like Felix Aylmer as the court justice. Sylvia Syms plays a surprisingly modern career woman working in Milland’s office, removed when Milland arrogantly decides to defend himself in court.
The barrister cracks when his daughter is killed by a hit-and-run driver. It elicits little sympathy from fellow lawyers whom he regularly embarrassed in his court-room victories. His professional colleagues let him stew in his own juices.
The film means to be another Witness for the Prosecution, but even with intelligent actors and directors, they cannot overcome a wild script that uses color-blindness as a red herring and a frame-up as the plot devices.
It just simply isn’t clever enough than to be an overblown film that would soon become a staple of TV made for movies in 1968. It might have made a passable anthology court drama. Within a few years, he gave up all pretense of being a leading man, removed his toupee, and played it as an old reprobate usually.
As it is, with nicely appointed sets, the main action is the second-half in the courtroom with testimony and outrageous and unlikely court etiquette.
We stuck with dapper and aging Ray Milland to see what he tried to do with no budget, no script, and relying on his talents. As he said in an interview, “The problem with being a director is that you also have to eat.” We admire his attempt to make movies no matter what.
DATELINE: Poirot Dandy!
We took in an old TV chestnut from almost twenty years ago, Evil Under the Sun, from the eighth season of the off and on series of David Suchet as it attempted to film every Agatha Christie episode.
This one had the delight of Poirot being sent off to a health spa in Devon to recover from his obese condition.
Miss Lemon (Pauline Moran) insisted that Captain Hastings (Hugh Fraser) accompany him. The classic regulars of the show are here in their element, perhaps beyond their element. Miss Lemon is sent by Poirot all around the countryside to do legwork for the case. Usually, Miss Lemon claims to have filing to do—and must decline any other assignments.
The other stand-up regular is Chief Inspector Japp (Philip Jackson) more respectful of Poirot in later seasons. Though he and Hastings are now semi-regular dinner companions, they are always murder investigators.
The health spa is filled with suspicious and dubious figures who claim the place is the opposite of health. Its torturous steam boxes and daft clientele are perfect candidates for murder and murder victim.
It becomes increasingly obvious to Poirot that the place is ripe for crime, even as he is served various vegetable drink concoctions.
Sometimes murder flows trippingly on Christie’s contrived plots, though this one clunks to a finish, it is still fun to behold. We can see the roots of disgust in Poirot at the human condition, though this low-budget, low-star power TV version is a delight compared to the overblown movie with Peter Ustinov as Poirot.
Most of this is the result of a delicious ensemble cast and a deep dedication to the color scheme of Art Deco.
Gathering all the suspects in the hotel dining room for a big Reveal loses none of its luster for mystery fans. It’s a gem.
DATELINE: Murder Most Foul!
Dames Margaret Rutherford & Agatha Christie!
A little British documentary about character actress Margaret Rutherford is shocking, surprising, and ultimately saddening. If you have forgotten her dotty old ladies, she was the first movie Miss Marple.
The film has the overwhelming title: Truly Miss Marple: the Curious Case of Margaret Rutherford. The actress died in 1972 after a rapid decline in health at the height of her popularity
Agatha Christie was appalled at the folly of turning her aged detective into an eccentric comic actress, but they later enjoyed each other—to the degree that Christie dedicated The Mirror Crack’d to Rutherford.
Her acting career did not fully reach success until after age 40: she was always the costar, whether it was for John Gielgud or Edith Evans. When success came, she played old ladies who were NOT battle-axes. It was an unkind comment by interviewers. Dame Margaret was always a gentle figure of fun.
Her biggest break came with Noel Coward in Blithe Spirit, a role she almost refused because she thought it might demean spiritualists (as she was a believer).
Her indomitable English grand dames gave way in old age to the Christie character, though Margaret hated the word “Murder” in the titles of the four grand Miss Marple movies. There was a reason for her sensitivity: her father murdered her grandfather, and later, likely as a result, her mother committed suicide.
Yet, Rutherford herself was the ultimate woman of kind hearts and coronets. If there was a downside, it was her growing periods of depression. It was a losing battle, especially when dementia added to her woes.
She briefly went to Hollywood with Burton and Taylor in The VIPs and won an Oscar as a supporting actress. The Oscar disappeared after her death, stolen and on the black market, sold by a conniving housekeeper.
Miss Marple’s little murder mystery movies remain delightful, owing to Rutherford’s charismatic personality.
DATELINE: New Version of Classic Tale
Amazon Studio has produced a 2019 remake of the ABC Murders by the foremost crime novelist. Alas, this version of the classic story is libel against the author and defamation against Hercule Poirot.
Go back to watch last century’s episode with David Suchet.
This time we have John Malkovich with shaved head and imperial beard. This is not as offensive as the handlebar mustache of Kenneth Branagh recently in Murder on the Orient Express. It is, however, the victim of Just for Men: yeah, Hercule colors it, sometimes.
This mystery is in three parts that grow increasingly distant from the Christie canon. You may well ask who is meant to be audience for such a tale: it offends the millions of diehard fans who know what to expect, and it misleads new younger fans from what Christie is all about.
There is no humor, no clever twists, no plot maneuvers. here. By the third episode, you may well drift away. Worse yet, this is an aging Poirot in 1933 who has no Inspector Japp, no Miss Lemon, and no Captain Hastings, to help him.
Indeed, he must deal with a new Scotland Yard detective who is unsympathetic and hostile. Disrespect of a senior who was once glorified for his achievements may be an interesting idea, but not here.
The cast features Eamon Farren who has impressed us in previous roles as a most peculiar bad guy. Here, he is either suffering a brain tumor, or has played NFL football. It’s the 21st century—and you know what excuses murder nowadays.
We had no idea that there was so much kinky-dinky stuff in Agatha Christie, and neither did she.
Also aboard is Rupert Grint, though he has aged worse than Malkovich’s Poirot.
This Poirot is not fastidious, prissy, or clever. One character notes that he walks like he has sore feet, though we never see that foible.
What a disappointment, or do we mean travesty of the original story?
DATELINE: Another Christie Version
Before we tackle the newest Orient Express by Branagh, let’s look at the oldest version.
The star-studded Sidney Lumet version took Agatha Christie out of the hands of 1960s-style Margaret Rutherford and Miss Marple. Murder on the Orient Express is bumpy in the night.
Indeed, the cast is spectacular, one of the last gasps of Old Hollywood gone mad. The suspects are so rococo and bizarre that they make Albert Finney’s weird Poirot look positively like Sam Spade crossed with Richard III.
As the names of stars pass in the opening credits, your jaw may drop. Bacall, Bergman (Bogart’s leading ladies), Perkins, Connery, Gielgud, Redgrave (later to play Christie herself), Widmark, and stellar second bananas too, like Balsam, Bisset, and let’s catch our breaths! Wow.
Lumet is not so much interested in atmosphere as glamour.
If Margaret Rutherford had not died the year before the film, she likely would have been cast in it too. Christie never liked the idea of Miss Marple joining forces with Hercule—but in this sort of movie, you almost expect it.
The new auteur Kenneth Branagh version cannot touch the sheer aristocracy of actors in this film. You have to savor each little gem from Lumet’s cast, as these great stars finally can play it to the hilt one last time and first time as an ensemble.
Agatha Christie was the Shakespeare of crime plots—and so we will have more remakes. After all, we have seen about seven great Hamlet movies. Christie cannot be far behind.
We do condemn the music score that lightly sounds over the credits at the end—which is completely wrong for the mood of the film.
DATELINE: Another Remake on the Horizon
Best Version of Murder on the Orient Express
The David Suchet version of Murder on the Orient Express is a completely different movie than the glitzy Hollywood all-star version of the 1970s. It is utterly dark. And it is far more cynical than the Christie novel, but is faithful next to the newest star-cartoon vehicle coming out soon with Kenneth Branagh as an unconvincing Poirot.
The teleplay version created a stunning, dank and dark 1930s. Perhaps this was what Agatha Christie intended in far more subtle manners.
From the opening scenes of Belgian detective Hercule Poirot being blood-splattered by a suicide to witnessing a stoning of an unfaithful wife in Turkey, the adapted version is far more than an entertaining murder mystery. It is a chilling morality play. It’s a play against films like Twelve Angry Men with a twist.
The Suchet version plays far more on the American nature of the melting pot of train travelers on the Orient Express. As one who defends the justice system, Poirot becomes alarmed, then horrified by the story’s unraveled mystery.
You won’t find the big names of the Albert Finney-Poirot movie. Here you will find Barbara Hershey, Toby Jones, and Hugh Bonneville, if you like name stars, but actors like Brian J. Smith as the victim’s secretary carry a heavy load.
Poirot loses all faith in humanity, and Suchet’s suffering face drives home the horror. In fact, his mustache does not turn off at the ends as much as the earlier shows.
A new version is forthcoming, directed by Kenneth Branagh who plays a flinty version of Poirot, rather unfaithful to the novel. Branagh’s mustache of Poirot is deplorable!
In the protracted series, the Orient Express episode was from the 12th season when the Belgian sleuth seemed bereft of all hope, as if a lifetime of dealing with murder finally sapped him of purpose and optimism. The original tale took its core from the Lindbergh kidnapping case, but became something else in the hands of Dame Agatha.
This compelling little Suchet film is brilliant, but a cold indictment of cruel justice among civilized people. The stark white snow drifts that stall the train on its journey contrast with the dark inner lives of the passengers.
If you want escapist fare, turn to the Hollywood version of Christie’s Orient Express. If you want catharsis, turn to David Suchet’s incisive portrayal of despair.
This blog entry is another in a series on Agatha Christie.
DATELINE: Giants in Separate Corners
Recently the question came to us: Why did the two great forces of mystery and suspense never collaborate?
The answer may be surprising. They were both highly successful, popular and beloved: one in film and one in literature. They were both British, lived and died around the same time, and trod the same grounds of creativity.
A few claim Hitchcock was a misogynist: but his greatest collaborators were women (apart from his wife Alma). He enjoyed the works of Daphne DuMaurier (Rebecca, The Birds) and Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train).
Apart from that fact, both Hitch and Agatha loved to use the setting of trains for their greatest works! Hitchcock could have directed Witness for the Prosecution in 1957, his peak, and most think he did direct it: but it went to Billy Wilder who used Hitch’s techniques to great effect. Hitchcock could have directed Ten Little Indians in 1945, but chose to avoid the Christie works altogether.
Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut that he disliked the genre of the ‘who done it.’ He found it antithetical to his idea of what made for cinematic story-telling. He likened the genre to a crossword puzzle, with revealing clues as the main point of the story. It was bread and butter for Christie, but Hitchcock hated the notion and revealing the killer at the end of the story.
You may think two of Hitch’s intriguing films, at the least, were of the who done it school: Psycho actually revealed who the killer was, but not in the way you expected it to be in the final reel. Stage Fright was one of Hitch’s least favorite films and he filmed it because he was told it was a Christie story, but turned out to be one of his weakest entries.
In Shadow of a Doubt in 1943, Hitchcock had two minor characters discuss how to murder each other—and referred to Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective of Christie, in less than flattering terms.
It’s almost tragic that Hitchcock did not direct Witness for the Prosecution or Murder on the Orient Express to see how he might have handled the material. Both films are brilliant stories and wonderful films, but the echoes of Hitch are omnipresent.
So, we were left without any collaboration between the two greats of 20th century murder mystery. It’s not much of a mystery, but it is a tale of audience misfortune.
DATELINE: A Worthy Series
Suchet as the inimitable Hercule
David Suchet’s bravissimo performance over two decades as Hercule Poirot might be appreciated many times. This week we took in The ABC Murders again.
The climactic murder scene takes place in a cinema where Hitchcock’s Number Seventeen is on the screen as a backdrop for the serial killer. We suspect the Master of Suspense would approve.
The Agatha Christie story became the first full-length movie episode from the delightful TV series. For that reason alone, the plot is clever and intriguing. Christie uses a device that brings together the grieving family of the serial ABC serial killer as Poirot’s band of intrepid sleuths.
The notion that the victims’ family would want to take an active role in catching their beloved one’s killer is compelling, even if Inspector Japp (Philip Jackson) is exasperated by his friendly nemesis with the mincing steps, and obsessive neatness.
Poirot’s demeanor as a private investigator remains firm in its resolve, but already we begin to see in the nuances of Suchet’s performance that Poirot is beginning to become jaded and horrified by the endless murders he deals with.
Indeed, this serial killer sends Poirot a series of letters, challenging him to stop the carnage. It becomes so personal that the Belgian detective is more distracted by his moral repugnance.
As his aide-de-camp Captain Hastings, Hugh Fraser matches Suchet as the obtuse man of action—as they both seem weary from four seasons of sadistic killers. Pauline Moran’s Miss Lemon, Poirot’s dedicated secretary, is absent from this episode.
Christie had such brilliant creativity in finding ways to develop characters and contrive plots that are truly mysteries to entertain an audience.
Over the length of the Poirot series, bringing all the stories to film (something the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series could not do), is a monumental achievement, matching the flavor of the literature of the Christie stories with film plays. A large debt is owed to Suchet, the driving force behind the detective.
DATELINE: TV MASHUP
Agatha Christie’s posthumous novel about the end of Poirot fits the long-running series with David Suchet.
Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case is a disturbing and cynical finish to the great detective whose use of “little gray cells” so enchanted murder mystery fans.
Over the years, the detective (perhaps like his creator) had grown tired of the evil and murderous ways of sociopaths. So, Christie had Poirot in his ill health tackle the ultimate serial killer in the location where he had solved his first case thirty years earlier.
Captain Hastings (Hugh Fraser) returns for a last hurrah—and turns out to be nearly as dangerous and suspicious as any other suspect.
Confined to a wheelchair and looking exhausted with his heart condition, Poirot seems less the agile crime solver in 1949. He seems doomed, likely a victim as much as the detective he always epitomized.
Indeed, Poirot’s anguish over his own role in murder has driven him to religion—as he grips his little rosary beads, fearing killers had driven him to do their bidding.
Nevertheless, the little Belgian has a few tricks up his sleeve as he will stop a serial killer from continuing his cruel murders that misled police to arrest and courts to convict the wrong people.
As a moral man, Poirot may be more distressed over what he must do than his audience. He feels his showboating style has returned and for that he is most guilty.
The final case for Hercule Poirot is brilliant, and he is equal to the task. Older and wiser than when he made his trips down the Nile or on the Orient Express, Poirot came to the end Agatha Christie wanted. She saved her best for the last.
DATELINE: TV MASHUP
In the penultimate movie about Hercule Poirot, the creators and David Suchet try to cram a dozen stories into one film.
Based on The Labors of Hercules, the stories meld into one over-plotted extravaganza that has too much weight on the back of its aging detective.
You still cannot do better than having Agatha Christie mixing wit and wiles into a concoction that is a mixologist’s dream cup of hemlock.
The stories originally meant to serve as epical parallels by Agatha Christie to the demigod Hercules and her personal little man, Hercule. Instead the murder weapon is an “objective correlative,” according to one villain, mocking T.S. Elliot and literary pretense in a crime novel.
Christie even takes on Sherlock Holmes with a dog that does not bark in the night at a would-be rapist.
The movie remains stylish, set in a 1930s Swiss hotel cut off by avalanche, trapping murderers, victims, and Poirot, in a dizzy dance of death amid the sumptuous setting and bad paintings (a clue, not a red herring).
Keeping with the tenor of the previous seasons and movies, Poirot is nothing short of suffering myasthenia gravis: depressed more than usual at the death of a client he failed to protect.
The cynicism about killers and the human race seems to be pushing Poirot closer to his end of career case, coming up next. Psychopathic villains in this tale bait Hercule for his ego and his inadequacy. Poirot may well have been at the murder game far too long.
The climax almost comes across as a Marx Brothers comedy (think Go West) with every bad guy holding a gun on a hostage at the same time in the same room as Poirot tries to explain the crime and how it was accomplished.
Devotees of Belgian gray cells will savor every moment.
DATELINE: TV MASHUP
We don’t like many TV shows.
So, when two of our most favored go off into the sunset on the same week, we are about to suffer severe withdrawal symptoms.
After seven seasons of up and down dead people, the HBO vampire show called True Blood is about to send people to the real eternity: cancellation at the end of August, 2014.
And, over on the other side of PBS, the epical rendering of all Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is coming to a close after 13 seasons over 25 years. It happens the same week as the ending of the vampires.
The two shows dealt with death in quite different ways. At first Hercule Poirot handled stylish murder cases with all the aplomb of a game show host. Over the years, he grew a little nauseous from all the murder—and he took upon a decided cynical attitude toward human nature.
On the other hand, True Blood began as a scary idea of dead people tormenting a small Louisiana town. Over the years, these dead people became oversexed corpses who seemed to have more life than living people. Necrophilia was never so attractive, and the show turned into a romper room for seeing dead people.
Both shows started with a core cast that usually ended for the supporting players with a fading from the scene. On True Blood, being dead never helped much: they could always bring you back. On Poirot, the beloved sidekicks went off the map as the detective became a more solitary and depressed character.
Now the only ones who will be depressed are the legion of fans.
We suspect True Blood will be able to have offshoots and sequels, returns and resurrections. Alas, for David Suchet’s Poirot, the end is final. The actor managed to film all the Christie stories. There are no more second acts.
In both shows, the protagonists aged rather markedly. Poirot looked more tired after 25 years. The aging vampires also looked like the crypt was closing on them.
We hate to think how much we have changed over the lifetime of these shows. We always felt like we had stayed the same while the series aired. Now we know that time has passed and the enjoyment of those classic episodes will be a memory without new episodes.
DATELINE: MOVIE MASHUP
We offer two reviews for one on a remake and an original.
The second of the final season movies for Hercule Poirot (David Suchet) is another of the more cynical murder novels by Agatha Christie. This one is Dead Man’s Folly, and again Poirot is roped into a solving a murder that his old friend Ariadne Oliver (Zoe Wanamaker) thinks is about to happen at a lovely English garden estate.
The photography is grand and lovely, making even unpleasant areas of the estate (like the murder scene) seem beautifully presented. Alas, as Poirot notes, the wicked killers are about as unpleasant as you can get.
Worse, the victims are more innocent and more cruelly dispatched. No wonder Poirot (and Christie) was starting to lose the taste for solving the murder game. Even his writer friend (a Doppleganger for Christie herself) disparages the writing process for murder mysteries. It’s a task to do it.
The film features some of the best British actors in suspicious roles—from Sean Pertwee to Martin Jarvis. Sinead Cusak is among the most striking characters as she plays Mrs. Follat.
This story falls into the latter period of Suchet versions of Poirot in terms of the darker side of human nature. Indeed, even Poirot himself seems to be losing his dapper nature and politesse in the face of increasing deadly apathy.
We can see why the series, after 25 years, is running to its inevitable closure. It mirrors Christie’s own mixed feelings about the lark of being a murder mystery writer.
Nevertheless, for devotees of the genre, this cannot be missed and won’t be disparaged here. We too realize the clock is running down on the Poirot stories—with their art deco, 1930s classy style.
Nearly 30 years ago Peter Ustinov took up the characterization of Hercule Poirot in a grandfatherly, quaint depiction. There was none of the effete snobbery and disdainful condescension you would find soon in David Suchet’s version.
In 1989 Suchet’s mincing little man with the little gray cells came on television as an accurate shadow of what Agatha Christie created. Ustinov did a few feature films and took his Poirot to the bank.
Safe and almost cuddly, the first movie production of Dead Man’s Folly suffers from the insufferable entertainment of Poirot. Murder is indeed a game in this Christie tale (as myster writer and nemesis Ariadne Oliver creates a murder hunt for the idle rich to play).
This time to insure a few guffaws, Jean Stapleton limns Ariadne, the bubble-headed mystery writer, less severe than Zoe Wanamaker’s acidic Christie imitation. And the early version throws in Captain Hastings for comic relief to a comic figure.
Suchet’s later mysteries eshew the humor and stress the wicked unpleasantness of murder.
The Ustinov version has a few gems in it. Just back from the Raj, Tim Piggot-Smith and Susan Woodridge team up after their artistic work in Jewel in the Crown. Here they seem to be slumming as Sir George Stubbs and secretary.
As in many remakes, we wish we could pick and choose a la carte from the two movies to make one better film. Each movie has its merits and its detractions. Yet, we must side with Suchet’s series where overall movie productions transcend made-for-television entertainment. Yet, Christie’s wit and clever plotting remain unparalleled.
DATELINE: TV MASHUP
Our Big Four After 25 Years!
After 25 years and thirteen seasons, Hercule Poirot’s final five episodes will come across American television on Acorn Network.
David Suchet has played the iconic Agatha Christie detective for every episode—every short story and novel has been dramatized. In the past decade the tales became far more pessimistic as Christie also seemed to find murder less entertaining than her earlier tales.
Also for the past decade, Poirot’s charming gallery of supporting characters did not enter the proceedings.
Now, in The Big Four, Miss Lemon (devoted secretary), Captain Hastings (his sidekick), and Inspector Japp (his Scotland Yard contact), all return for a last fling. They also gather for his funeral.
It is perhaps amazing that after 25 years the actors are all still around and able to resume their roles. They look fairly well for their advanced age. Even Suchet as Poirot has gone from youthful to obviously an elder on the lines of old Miss Marple.
Of course, Poirot is timeless—and always dyed his hair and looked fairly rotund and dapper. So, Suchet has held firm in that regard.
The final movie versions of the Christie stories are perhaps not the best of Christie mystery, but her remarkable ability to tantalize has been well met by a brilliant production, worthy of feature film. Alas, the audiences of a generation ago are no longer interested in this kind of murder mystery sophistication.
This is a character tale, set before World War II, and the storyline is not particularly credible, but what a joy to have all the characters re-unite at the end of the run.
We wouldn’t have changed anything and accepted gratefully what David Suchet and company gives us. We have been there for a long journey, reaching the end destination. It is sad and joyful.
DATELINE: FROM FOWL RAVENS TO A MOUSE
The black birds of Baltimore are waiting to pluck out the eyes of the New England Patriots.
Once again, Edgar Allen Poe’s favorite nemesis readies his nevermore patter to give an ending to the Brady Bunch of 2013.
The best laid plans of mice and men have gone the way of Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap.
It is not Poe who mocks the Patriots, but Bobby Burns. Some of you may think he used to be quarterback for the Ravens, but he played most of his career with Gumtree Glasgow.
The Patriots have indeed become a timorous beastie, ready to be chased around the field by Ravens with murdering pattle. What panic is in your breastie, receiving corps? Your little Smurf house of Minitron is near in ruin.
You are turned out, Patriots, for all your trouble without home field advantage.
It’s silly how the winds are strewing the summer’s potential into an injured reserve listing. And bleak December’s winds ensuing are both bitter and keen.
But, little mice of Foxboro, you are not alone in proving foresight may be in vain.
The field has been laid bare and wasted with weary winter coming up fast on Coach Belichick. Now the hoar-frost cold and winter’s sleety dribble have undone Tom Cat Brady.
We must cast our eyes with grief and pain on prospects dreary.
The best laid schemes of offensive and defensive coordinators often go askew. Mice and men are like that sometimes.