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Tuesday, January 22, 2013


They have very little in common besides their love for a good mystery--Hercule Poirot, a fussy little obsessive-compulsive Belgian gentleman who revels in well-deserved recognition for his brilliance as a detective, and Miss Jane Marple, a humble, unassuming little old lady who so delights in solving mysteries that she doesn't mind letting some grateful young police inspector have the credit.

An unlikely pair, but they're two of legendary mystery writer Agatha Christie's most celebrated characters, and they're together in Acorn Media's 6-disc DVD collection AGATHA CHRISTIE'S POIROT & MARPLE: FAN FAVORITES.  Each character gets a separately-boxed 3-disc set that has been previously released, with six of Poirot's most popular adventures and five of Miss Marple's.

All of these have appeared in the regular season sets, and if you collect those then you probably own these titles already--thus, "Fan Favorites" is recommended either as an introduction to the characters or for fans who simply want a well-chosen sampling.  (I've already reviewed several of these episodes as part of their original season sets and will refer to my previous comments when appropriate.)

The most delightful surprise for me was my first viewing of the celebrated Hercule Poirot classic "Murder on the Orient Express."  Having seen the theatrical version starring Albert Finney many years ago, I was unprepared for the excellence of this moody, somber made-for-TV adaptation, with its exquisite art deco design and period atmosphere (familiar hallmarks of this series) combined with fine direction and cinematography to create a most compelling and often riveting entertainment.

An exciting train trip through the mountains is brought to an abrupt halt when the locomotive engine plunges into a wall of snow.  As a quirky and mysterious array of passengers helplessly await outside aid, one of the them--a thoroughly unpleasant man with a dark secret--is murdered in his bed.  Poirot, naturally, is pressed into service to weed out the killer.  But there are several likely suspects, each with a motive and opportunity.

David Suchet does his usual outstanding job as Poirot, imbuing the character not only with his familiar humorous quirks which never fail to delight, but also with an emotional depth that seems to grow as both the series and Poirot himself age.  Indeed, Suchet's performance reaches an emotional climax at the end which is stunning.  This comes after one of the most intensely dramatic "reveals" in the entire series, as Poirot leads the assemblage of suspects through his painstaking deductive processes until the murderer is exposed.

The next case, "Hercule Poirot's Christmas", is described in my review of POIROT: SERIES 6 as "the familiar story of a rich, hateful old man (THE SPY WHO LOVED ME's Vernon Dobtcheff) and a houseful of potential heirs (including Sasha Behar of INJUSTICE), each of whom would benefit from his death and be a likely suspect when the old man eventually does turn up murdered.

"As usual, Agatha Christie takes these well-used elements and makes them seem new again with interesting characters and circumstances, along with the usual wonderful bits of business with Poirot himself straining his brain to solve a classic 'locked door' murder as suspects pile up like presents under a Christmas tree.  Speaking of which, the scene in which Poirot unwraps the gift given to him by Inspector Japp may have fans of the series laughing out loud.

"Poirot's characteristically theatrical 'reveal' here is drawn out even longer than usual to allow him (and us) to fully savor it, raking each suspect over the coals as he is wont to do--especially those he doesn't particularly like--before finally unveiling the true identity of the killer.  For the patient viewer who has followed every torturous twist and turn of the story, these sequences can be particularly rewarding."

"The Mysterious Affair at Styles" is a typical English estate murder mystery involving a colorfully dysfunctional upper-class family, and is of interest mainly because we get to see Poirot and his good friend and associate Captain Hastings (Hugh Fraser) at the start of their partnership.  "The ABC Murders" is an unusual one for Poirot in that it involves a serial killer who announces his murders in advance as a challenge to the celebrated detective.  A group composed of survivors of the victims bands together to help Poirot, although one of them might actually be involved with the killer.

"The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb" (as described in my review for POIROT: SERIES 5) is "the classic story of archeologists who open up an ancient tomb and then start dying off one by one due to some dreadful curse.  Only this time, Poirot suspects that the curse is due to a modern-day killer trying to cover his tracks by way of ancient superstition.

"The episode establishes such a crackerjack setting and mood that it doesn't seem to go on long enough--it's a bit like an old 'Mummy' movie without the Mummy, or a boys' adventure yarn for adults.  The ending wraps up the story neatly with Poirot demonstrating a bit of his usual understated sentimentality which is always both unexpected and disarming."

And finally, "Four and Twenty Blackbirds" concerns the suspicious deaths of two estranged brothers within a short time of each other.  Here, even the identity of the victim is in question, as witnesses--including Poirot himself--saw him dining in a local cafe' at the moment he was supposed to have been murdered.

The five Miss Marple selections begin with the delightful "The Murder at the Vicarage", which features Geraldine McEwan as the title sleuth whose idyllic English village becomes the scene of a shocking murder surrounded by all kinds of smalltown intrigue.  A stellar guest cast includes Mark Gatiss (currently a producer, writer, and co-star of the successful BBC "Sherlock" series), Derek Jacobi, Jane Asher, Jason Flemyng, Herbert Lom, Robert Powell, Janet McTeer, and Julie Cox.

"A Murder is Announced" is a crackerjack whodunnit that begins with the title announcement appearing in the local newspaper.  Sure enough, a lighthearted gathering of friends who regard the whole thing as a prank ends in death, with suspects including guest stars Zoë Wanamaker, Sienna Guillory, Virginia McKenna, and Cherie Lunghi (EXCALIBUR). 

"At Bertram's Hotel" boasts gorgeous production design and photography, while dripping with richly-hued period atmosphere.  The mystery itself--a young hotel maid is strangled on the roof while waiting there for reasons unknown--is scintillating and complex, with a sensational reveal that has Miss Marple skillfully untangling multiple mysteries which keep us guessing until the very last revelation.  A wealth of droll humor and clever touches, in additon to a guest cast including Francesca Annis and Danny Webb (ALIEN 3) make this one of the most outstanding romps in the series.

"A Pocketful of Rye" introduces Julie MacKenzie as a less impish and more reserved Miss Marple in another of those gloomy-mansion tales of an upperclass family beseiged by a series of murders.  It's all a baffling replay of the familiar fairytale (reminiscent of Poirot's "Four and Twenty Blackbirds") but with a murderous twist.  Another "Sherlock" alumnus, Rupert Graves ("Detective Lastrade"), plays the family's prodigal son and one of the main suspects.

Finally, the set ends with one of the best of the best, "The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side" (previously adapted as a feature film starring Angela Lansbury, with the shortened title THE MIRROR CRACK'D), which, as I described in my review of MARPLE: SERIES 5, "blends the pastoral setting of Miss Marple's hometown with the tacky decadence of old Hollywood when Marina Gregg (Lindsay Duncan), a fading movie queen on the comeback trail, moves into a nearby mansion with her young husband and current director, Jason Rudd (Nigel Harman).

"During a gala party in which the actress is feted like royalty by her local fans, a townswoman dies from poisoning after downing a drink meant for Marina.  Miss Marple's brassy friend Dolly Bantry (the returning Joanna Lumley) recalls a peculiar detail--as Marina and the doomed woman were chatting earlier, a strangely blank look fell over the actress' face.  Was it fear of someone she saw entering the room?  Or something more mysterious?  Further attempts on her life and a gaggle of likely suspects with various motives keep Miss Marple's inquisitive mind busy as she helps a stuffy police inspector and his bumbling assistant sort it all out."

The 6-disc DVD collection from Acorn Media is in both 16:9 widescreen and 4:3 full screen, with stereo and mono sound.  The sole extra is a booklet entitled "Delicious Death", containing a cake recipe inspired by the story "A Murder is Announced."

Whether you're a longtime fan of these rich, vivid characters or just getting to know them, AGATHA CHRISTIE'S POIROT & MARPLE: FAN FAVORITES is an ideal sampling of some of their most baffling and enthralling cases.

Buy it at

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