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Saturday, September 14, 2013

AGATHA CHRISTIE'S POIROT: SERIES 7 & 8 -- DVD review by porfle

After being produced by British television from 1988-1996 and then lying dormant for years, the chronicles of private detective Hercule Poirot were once again brought to life by A&E and Granada Television for a series of feature-length TV movies.  The first four of these titles, starring the returning David Suchet in his brilliant portrayal of the eccentric Belgian sleuth, are remastered  and collected in Acorn Media's 2-disc set AGATHA CHRISTIE'S POIROT: SERIES 7 & 8, which, as always, is a must for fans.

"The Murder of  Roger Ackroyd" (2000) finds Hercule Poirot in retirement, puttering in the garden of his rural cottage where, for the fussy, obsessive-compulsive little gentleman, even such a modest pasttime requires impeccable attire and spit-shined patent leather shoes.   (Not to mention, as always, a perfectly-waxed moustache.) 

Yet the great Poirot cannot remain idle and finds that he must occupy his mind by solving mysteries.  A local factory owner, Roger Ackroyd (Malcolm Terris), obliges by turning up murdered in the study of his mansion, in a most complex set of circumstances withseveral likely suspects to choose from.  It takes little effort by the village M.D.,  Dr. Sheppard (Oliver Ford Davies, "Sio Bibble" of the STAR WARS prequels) to coax the detective out of retirement in order to aid in the investigation. 

Happily, since most of the series' regulars are M.I.A. here, Poirot's old friend Chief Inspector Japp (Philip Jackson) from Scotland Yard makes a welcome visit to the village and inspires him to get those "little grey cells" working again.  Japp's presence is in stark contrast to the less-than-friendly young local inspector who, at first, regards Poirot as an overrated nuisance and a threat to his ego.  Such characters are a staple in Dame Christie's works, although this one changes his tune soon enough once he sees Poirot in action.

As always, interesting guest performances (including a pre-"Battlestar: Galactica" Jamie Bamber) bring a host of quirky characters to life, while an uncharacteristically action-oriented finale with the armed suspect leading our detectives a merry chase through a hazardous factory setting may remind you of the Axis Chemicals sequence in Tim Burton's BATMAN. 

But my favorite part is a wonderful moment in which two men entering Poirot's residence early on notice that the clocks all chime in perfect synch and that the kitchen is arranged with an almost unsettling precision.  (This, in addition to his dapper gardening attire, is a delightful shorthand for Poirot's razor-sharp fastidiousness.) 

Exquisite art deco production design and lush period atmosphere are an indulgence common to all four mysteries featured here, including the next, "Lord Edgware Dies" (2000),  which was previously filmed as the 1985 TV-movie "Thirteen at Dinner" with Peter Ustinov as Poirot and David Suchet as Chief Inspector Japp!  Here,  a vivacious Hollywood actress named Jane Wilkinson (Helen Grace) becomes  the prime suspect in the murder of her millionaire husband Lord Edgware (John Castle) despite the fact that he had recently granted her a much-wanted divorce. 

In expected fashion, we find that just about all of the guest characters had a reason to wish the victim dead and an opportunity to carry out the deed, giving Poirot's deductive skills another strenuous workout.  With its nightclub backdrop and movie-star main suspect, the episode boasts an appealing theatrical air that Poirot adopts in his final reveal--which, as in this set's other tales, is drawn out and wrung dry of every last melodramatic drop.  (Poirot savors this reward for his efforts more than money--the chance to show off to his amazed onlookers the results of what his "little grey cells" have wrought.)

With Poirot's return from retirement comes a welcome reunion with regular castmembers Hugh Fraser as his dull but steadfast legman Hastings,  and Pauline Moran as secretary extraordinaire Miss Lemon, both of whom brighten the proceedings immeasurably thanks to the exquisite chemistry they share with Suchet.  Unfortunately, this set of four films contains the last appearances by these two supporting characters to date, along with the indefatigable Chief Inspector Japp, although I understand that they may reappear in the series' final season.

"Murder in Mesopotamia" (2001) finds Poirot in yet another exotic setting, this time an archeological dig in Iraq where the expedition leader's wife,  Mrs. Leidner (Barbara Barnes)--who has confided to him that she is the target of threatening letters--is bludgeoned to death in a room that had no apparent means of entry by the assailant.  This particularly devious murder taxes Poirot to his limit, while the foreign customs and traditions of Iraq disrupt his ritualistic sense of order to an alarming extent.   Fortunately, his staunch friend Hastings appears on the scene to render aid after suffering a financial and marital setback. 

Finally,  "Evil Under the Sun" (2001) offers yet another remake of a theatrical "Poirot" film.  I don't know how these compare since I haven't seen the 1982 film,  but I do know that Suchet's MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS stacked up quite favorably to the Albert Finney version in my opinion (as described here). 

After a visit to Hastings' new restaurant venture "El Ranchero" lands Poirot in the hospital with food poisoning, he's ordered to take a rest cure at an island resort.  With Hastings in tow he arrives at the scenic location in time to meet the usual colorful assortment of eccentric guests and then, his instincts sparked by various suspicious signs, he senses an impending murder in the offing. 

Unable to avert the strangulation death of another vibrant but irritating young film actress, Arlena Stuart (Louise Delamere), Poirot then applies himself to sorting through another assortment of suspects who all seem to have had a reason to want the woman dead. 

Again,  the disruption of Poirot's daily rituals while on holiday becomes a major annoyance as minute changes to his established routine prove comically distressing for him.  The increased length of these later stories allows the filmmakers to linger over the sort of character details that should delight fans of the fussy Belgian detective, while both delving deeper into the complexities of each mystery and giving Poirot ample time at story's end to take the assembled suspects on his customary "journey toward the truth." 

The 2-disc set from Acorn Media in in 16:9 widescreen with Dolby Digital sound and English subtitles.  No extras.

While there's still plenty of the old lightheartedness on hand, this set foretells the more somber tone the series will later adopt with its slower, more solemn version of the familiar theme music and a truncated main titles sequence that eliminates the former jollity of the visuals.  This, as I understand, reflects a similar turn toward a more serious tone in the Christie novels, although having seen some of the later adaptations I must say I missed the more breezy and somewhat comic moments such as the self-mocking passage in which a former acquaintance of Poirot,  Mrs. Danley, who was on hand during a murder investigation in Egypt, states: "I can't believe it--a second time.   Why is it that when you're around, people seem to drop like flies?"

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