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Wednesday, January 25, 2012


Having been introduced to the British ITV series "Agatha Christie Poirot" through some of the later feature-length episodes, I was surprised to find the earlier seasons (circa 1989-90) of this long-running show to be faster-paced, funnier, and much lighter in tone--in general, more fun.  Not to disparage the more darkly dramatic ambience of the post-2000 ones, which are superb entertainment in their own right, but I like this lighthearted and mischievously sly side of Poirot much better.

The first ten one-hour episodes are collected in AGATHA CHRISTIE POIROT: SERIES 1, beginning with "The Adventure of the Clapham Cook" (which features a brief appearance by a young Danny Webb of ALIEN 3 fame).  Here, we're first introduced to Poirot's associate Captain Hastings (Hugh Fraser), a hale fellow with a boyish enthusiasm for things like automobiles and cricket.  Hastings isn't too quick on the uptake, at least not alongside a genius like Poirot, but he's good at following people, tackling escaping suspects, and serving as an appreciative audience for the vain Poirot's feats of deduction. 

Also on hand is Poirot's prim and efficient secretary Miss Lemon.  As played by Pauline Moran, she's made up to look just plain enough to render her strangely sexy, despite the fact that her character is as properly straitlaced as can be.  In Poirot's office-apartment in a magnificent old hotel complex, the three frequently engage in breezy banter that's often more fun than the mystery plots themselves.  This early incarnation of Poirot, unlike his later self, delights in playfully teasing his associates and exercising his exquisitely dry wit at their expense.

David Suchet's portrayal of the title character is, as always, absolutely impeccable.  His Poirot is an unwavering obsessive-compulsive who's fastidious, fussy, finicky, and mortified at anything that's out of place in his well-ordered world.  This, along with the sheer joy he derives from solving puzzles using his beloved "little gray cells", is what compels him to make right the wrongs that he encounters through his often desperate clients.  Another impetus is his friendly rivalry with Chief Inspector James Japp (Philip Jackson, also seen only in the early seasons of the show), a doggedly by-the-book cop who is continually baffled by Poirot's unconventional deductive skills.

"Murder in the Mews" begins with Poirot's infuriating battle with a Chinese laundry over the amount of starch in his collars and progresses to include a puzzling locked room murder made to look like a suicide.  In "The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly", the parents of a small boy are warned in advance that their son is going to be kidnapped at a particular time and place, which happens despite the presence of several police and Poirot himself.  "Four and Twenty Blackbirds" concerns the suspicious deaths of two estranged brothers within a short time of each other.

"The Third Floor Flat" finds Poirot's little gray cells atrophying during a long stretch between cases, until a murder in his own hotel has him sizing up all the various suspects as only he can.  "Triangle at Rhodes" benefits from gorgeous location photography with a vacationing Poirot getting drawn into the murder by poisoning of a woman whose husband is infuriated by her infidelity with another guest.  Another vacation, this time on board a cruise ship, is marred by a "Problem at Sea" when a wealthy but thoroughly unlikable woman is found stabbed in her cabin with the door locked.  Everyone including the woman's henpecked husband seems to have a strong alibi, giving Poirot a particularly challenging mental workout. 

"The Incredible Theft" is steeped in pre-WWII intrigue as a woman suspected of being a Nazi sympathiser is accused of stealing the plans for a new fighter plane in order to pass them along to German agents.  Old movie fans should get a kick out of "The King of Clubs", as a tyrannical studio boss is murdered in his mansion and the main suspect is a popular actress with whom he's been known to be at odds.  One of the perks of this episode is the use of an old-style glass shot during a soundstage scene, while another is the appearance of a young Sean Pertwee as the brother of the accused actress (Niamh Cusack). 

Finally, "The Dream" has something of an "Avengers" vibe as a crotchety old meat-pie tycoon complains to Poirot that he keeps having a recurring dream of committing suicide in his office at a particular time.  When he actually does just that, and at the precise time of his dream, Poirot finds himself with a real puzzler.  Joely Richardson guests as the man's daughter, while Alan Howard delivers a marvelously theatrical performance as the abrasive old coot.

Each story is bathed in the nostalgic glow of an old magazine illustration, with finely-rendered production design (art deco fans will be in hog heaven) and ideal locations lending an exquisite period atmosphere to every scene.  Direction is first-rate as are the uniformly excellent guest performances.  Unlike the denser and sometimes meandering plots of the later "Poirot", these episodes are briskly uncomplicated and easy to follow in addition to featuring much delightful character interplay that will be missing (and missed) when Poirot becomes a more solitary and stern character later on.  Captain Hastings and Chief Inspector Japp in particular are the perfect uncomprehending foils for Suchet's brilliant Poirot.

The three-disc DVD set from Acorn Media is in 4:3 full screen with Dolby Digital sound and English subtitles, with the titles newly remastered and in the original UK broadcast order.  There are no extras.  (Also available in a two-disc Blu-Ray version.)

Continuing right where season one left off is AGATHA CHRISTIE POIROT: SERIES 2, with nine more mysteries on three discs.  "Peril at End House" guest stars Polly Walker (PATRIOT GAMES, CLASH OF THE TITANS) as a beautiful heiress whom Poirot meets while staying at a Cornish resort.  The young woman's stories of a rash of recent life-threatening mishaps leads Poirot to believe that someone is trying to kill her, especially when a stray bullet zips through her bonnet as they're chatting by the seaside.  This story boasts some really nice twists and turns along with an appearance by Paul Geoffrey (EXCALIBUR, WUTHERING HEIGHTS). 

"The Veiled Lady" finds the portly detective helping another enchanting young lady, this time a blackmail victim imploring him to recover an incriminating letter.  A highlight of this adventure is Poirot and Hastings becoming cat burglars as they break into the blackmailer's house to conduct a search which results in their being arrested by none other than Chief Inspector Japp.  An imposing Terence Harvey of FROM HELL and PRIME SUSPECT 3 plays the formidable cad here, which seems to be his specialty. 

A foray into Chinatown to solve the murder of a Chinese businessman and the theft of his map to "The Lost Mine" leads Poirot into a winding maze of mystery.  In "The Cornish Mystery", the Belgian detective has a rude awakening when he's too late to save a woman who suspects her husband of trying to poison her.  Her tragic death fires him up big time, and woe to the killer when a fired-up Poirot aims his razor-sharp intellect at him (or her).  Freda Stanton, who played the hapless Princess Elspeth in DRAGONSLAYER, guest stars. 

Kenneth Colley, a familiar face to fans of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, plays a banker who steps out of his house into the fog one day and is never seen again in "The Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim."  Sharp-eyed viewers will guess the secret behind this one pretty quick but it's still fun watching it play out.  "Double Sin" is a real twister with the delivery of some priceless antiques to a potential buyer ending in theft during a bus trip.  Here, Chief Inspector Japp bets the boastful Poirot that he can't solve the mystery without leaving his house, giving Hastings a rare opportunity for some solo detective work. 

"The Adventure of the Cheap Flat" finds a lucky young couple getting a lovely apartment for a steal, unaware that they're being set up for murder.  (The wife is played by Samantha Bond, who was Moneypenny to Pierce Brosnan's 007.)  Poirot and Hastings do a little more cat burglary in this one with similarly unfortunate results, while the search for some stolen submarine plans brings in William Hootkins (Porkins in STAR WARS, Eckhardt in BATMAN) as a visiting FBI agent played in stereotypical blustery "American" style.

A crackerjack mystery ensues surrounding "The Kidnapped Prime Minister" as Poirot infuriates police with his methodical and seemingly nonsensical approach to solving the crime as the seconds tick away before a crucial international arms summit.  Finally, "The Adventure of the Western Star" is the intriguing tale of a pair of priceless diamonds owned by two women who receive letters informing them that the gems are to be stolen in order to return them to the mystical idol from which they were taken.  Sure enough, this occurs--seemingly--but Poirot suspects that there's more to the case than meets the eye, and, as usual, he's right.

The three-disc DVD set from Acorn Media is in 4:3 full screen with Dolby Digital sound and English subtitles, with the titles newly remastered and in the original UK broadcast order.  There are no extras.  (Also available in a two-disc Blu-Ray version.)

As with the first set, AGATHA CHRISTIE POIROT: SERIES 2 is the kind of cozy entertainment you can snuggle up with as you would a volume of engrossing short stories on a rainy evening.  With their endlessly appealing blend of sumptuous production design, intriguing stories, and fascinating characters--not the least of which being David Suchet's masterful portrayal of the dazzling and strangely endearing Belgian detective himself--the adventures of Hercule Poirot are a feast for mystery fans. 




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