Ledoux: The Best Of Agatha Christie In Film

By MILES LEDOUX
​Los Alamos
 
Mystery author Dame Agatha Christie published her first novel in 1920. The first film adaptation of her fiction appeared eight years later, with the silent movie, “The Passing of Mr. Quin.” The movie is based on the first short story featuring Christie’s recurring character, Harley Quin— not to be confused with the Batman villain of the same name. Since then there have been countless adaptations of her work from all over the world, in many different languages.
 
The most recent English-speaking Agatha Christie movie to hit the silver screen was one of the numerous adaptations of the novel, “And Then There Were None,” in 1989. This fall, two new Christie feature films are due to come out: “Crooked House,” starring Glenn Close, and Kenneth Branagh-directed “Murder on the Orient Express,” starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Derek Jacobi, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench and many others. This is a treat that Christie fans have been awaiting for nearly three decades; many of us are likely celebrating by re-reading her books and re-watching our favorite mystery movies. But what about those who are unfamiliar with Agatha Christie? This community of fandom thrives on growth, and so I invite anyone who is new to this niche in the mystery genre to explore the following films and TV adaptations—a crash course in Agatha Christie cinema, if you will.
 
First of all, meet Hercule Poirot, the quirky but endearing Belgian detective who brought Dame Agatha so much fame (as Sherlock Holmes did for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). Poirot appeared in 33 novels, one stage play, and 48 to 58 short stories (depending on which ones you count). He is the investigator of the Murder on the Orient Express, portrayed, in the upcoming new release, by Kenneth Branagh (he’s the one in the trailer with the huge mustache—Poirot’s trademark). Poirot has a knack for seeing things just a little bit differently from everybody else. While other investigators tend to readily accept certain apparent aspects of a case, Poirot is more hesitant to accept what a situation seems to be before seeing absolute proof. He often finds significance in minuscule details that others would dismiss (a chair moved for no apparent reason, for
example), earning him a reputation as an eccentric—that is, until he uses those details to turn a case on its head.
 
In his first film appearances in the 1930s, Poirot was played by Austin Trevor; unfortunately those three films don’t seem to be available anymore. Next came Tony Randall’s adaptation, The Alphabet Murders—but perhaps it would be better to skip straight to the Poirot feature films from the 1970s and ’80s starring Peter Ustinov: Death on the Nile, Evil Under the Sun and Appointment with Death. These star-studded movies are full of wit, humor, and brilliant scripting, and clearly the actors are having great fun with the parts.
 
Another popular Poirot film is the 1974 adaptation of “Murder on the Orient Express,” starring Albert Finney, but watching it now may render the upcoming new version anticlimactic in terms of “whodunit.” It was in the 1980s that Poirot began to appear regularly on the small screen. His first three TV movies once again starred Ustinov, but then, in 1989, the trademark mustache passed on to a new face: David Suchet. For 25 years Suchet portrayed Poirot in adaptations of nearly every single work of fiction Agatha Christie had written the character in (with the exception of the stage play and one short story). At first these adaptations included only the short stories, but then the show’s third season featured a two part episode, “Peril at End House,” based on the novel. David Suchet’s renditions of the Poirot stories are, overall, considerably darker and less cozy than Ustinovs’, but it was with “Peril at End House” that the show really began to hit its stride. The shorter episodes peaked in quality in the show’s fifth season, including such gems as “Dead Man’s Mirror,” “Yellow Iris” and “The Chocolate Box” (all of which can be found on Netflix). Suchet spent the remainder of his tenure as Poirot filming adaptations of the rest of the novels, the best of which are “The ABC Murders,” “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas,” “Dumb Witness,” “Five Little Pigs,” “After the Funeral,” “The Clocks,” “Hallowe’en Party,” and “Death on the Nile,” which may be even better than the Ustinov version. That just about does it for Poirot adaptations worthy of note—except for two feature films from the 1960s. What sets those films apart is that, although they were based on Poirot novels, the mustached detective was replaced by someone quite different.
 
Here we introduce Miss Jane Marple, Dame Agatha’s favorite lady spinster detective, who appeared in 12 novels and 20 short stories. Like Poirot, at first glance she
gives off the air of someone not to be taken too seriously, but who actually sees much more than others. Miss Marple’s trademark skill (aside from knitting) is drawing parallels between the suspects in murder cases and the people she’s known in her home village— parallels in human nature that give her insight into everyone’s motives and personalities. Also like Poirot, she can be at some times kind and compassionate, and other times ruthless and vindictive, especially when closing in on a wicked murderer. One friend even dubs her “Nemesis,” after the Greek goddess of retribution. Miss Marple first appeared on the silver screen in 1961, with Margaret Rutherford holding the knitting needles, so to speak.
 
Agatha Christie regarded Rutherford as totally unsuitable for the role, but admired her as an actress (and even dedicated one of her later Miss Marple novels to her). The first film’s title was “Murder, She Said.” It inspired the title of the later TV series starring Angela Lansbury, “Murder, She Wrote.” That first movie was based on the Miss Marple novel, “4:50 From Paddington,” but, as mentioned before, two of the film’s sequels were based on Poirot novels; in fact, the third and last sequel, “Murder, Ahoy!,” was not based on any Agatha Christie story at all. Still, it was just as charming as its predecessors.
 
The next Miss Marple feature film starred Angela Lansbury, herself, but the Margaret Rutherfords (in at least one writer’s opinion) remain superior. The 12 Miss Marple novels got not one but two runs on television, one in the 1980s and ’90s, the other in the 2000s and 2010s. The first run starred Joan Hickson—an actress Christie hand picked herself to play the role. The best entries in the series were “A Murder is Announced” and “Sleeping Murder.” The second series began with Geraldine McEwan in the role, but she retired halfway through and was replaced by Julia McKenzie. The best entries in that series were “4:50 From Paddington,” “The Moving Finger,” and two others that continued the tradition started by Margaret Rutherford, in that they featured Miss Marple in stories she was not originally part of, namely “The Sittaford Mystery” and “By the Pricking of My Thumbs.” Just prior to the Joan Hickson Miss Marples, there began a run of American-made Agatha Christie TV movies that included not only Poirot and Miss Marple stories, but some adaptations of Christie’s stand-alone stories as well. The best of these was “Murder is Easy,” starring Bill Bixby, in which an elderly lady casually mentions to a man on a train that she’s off to see Scotland Yard because there’s a serial killer in her village. The man dismisses her as batty and fanciful—until she’s run over and killed. The adaptation might not be as faithful to the book as one would hope, but it does present the solution in a suspenseful, interesting way: as two characters converse, it’s obvious one of them is the murderer, but the longer they talk, the more each of them, in turn, seems guilty.
 
Another suspenseful stand-alone Christie adaptation is “Witness for the Prosecution,” a feature film from 1957 starring Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich, in which a man is put on trial for murder and his wife inexplicably testifies against him. While not exactly a whodunit, it has one of the most memorable ending twists in the mystery genre. The same could be said of “Endless Night,” a somewhat bizarre (though, in fact, faithful) adaptation that came out in 1972, starring Hayley Mills. In this story, which started out as a Miss Marple mystery, a pair of newlyweds move into their dream home despite warnings of a curse on the land. The murders don’t even start happening till the second half of the film. Though dark in tone, the movie does have some humorous moments, such as when the protagonist remarks that he’d rather look at Michelangelo paintings in a museum than go to a strip club. The person he’s speaking to exclaims, “Jesus Christ!” to which the protagonist replies, “Oh, he painted him, too, sir.”
 
Saving the best for last, we have “And Then There Were None.” Ten strangers are tricked into coming to a remote mansion from which they can’t escape. A recording left for them to find accuses them all of having gotten away with murder. Whether the 10 people are really guilty or not, someone is determined to sentence them all to death, through execution methods inspired by a certain nursery rhyme. This story has been adapted more than any other work by Christie, and some may argue that the best adaptation is either the 1945 version or the recent (2015) TV version. Personally, I would recommend the 1965 rendition, under the title, “Ten Little Indians,” which has just the right pacing and tone. You could also try the 2003 horror/thriller Identity, very loosely based on this story (watch for a subtle reference with which the writer pays homage to Agatha Christie). That should be enough to keep you busy until the premier of “Murder on the Orient Express.” Please check out the books in the meantime. See you all Nov. 10!
 
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