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Sunday, July 31, 2011


When not treading the boards spouting Shakespeare or playing Middle Eastern terrorists as he did in 1996's EXECUTIVE DECISION, David Suchet spends much of his time portraying Agatha Christie's immortal Belgian detective Hercule Poirot on British television.  Since 1989 he has appeared in dozens of such adaptations, and we get to see three of the latest ones in the DVD collection POIROT: THE MOVIE COLLECTION SET 6.

Suchet's portly Poirot is a fussy, fastidious, and very proper little Belgian gentleman with a meticulously waxed moustache and impeccable taste.  He patiently suffers the crudeness of those around him with a pained look or a clipped remark, but as soon as his deductive skills have pinpointed a killer in their midst his manner becomes sharp and accusatory. 

Murder, to this obsessive-compulsive perfectionist, disrupts the proper order of things, which he must set right just as he is compelled to rearrange random objects around him in a more orderly fashion.  Suchet is a delight in the role and it's a treat to watch him inhabit Agatha Christie's classic character with such understated finesse.

"Hallowe'en Party" begins at a costume party during which a little girl boasts that she once witnessed a murder.  When she ends up drowned in the apple-bobbing tub, Hercule Poirot is summoned to discern which of the party guests is a killer covering up a past crime.  Delving into the village's recent unsolved murders, he finds there are three to choose from.  This one is spooky fun with some pitch-black humor--a shot of the bee-costumed victim dunked in the tub includes a closeup of her dripping antennae dangling over the side--and a wealth of suspects, motives, and eccentric characters.  ZoĆ« Wanamaker guest-stars as Poirot's friend, pulp mystery writer Ariadne Oliver, in a screenplay by Mark Gatiss ("Sherlock").

In "The Clocks", Jaime Winstone plays Sheila Webb, a temp secretary who arrives at the address to which she's been summoned only to stumble over a dead body and become a murder suspect.  Although this occurs at three o'clock, there are four clocks in the room which all read 4:13 for some unknown reason.  When Poirot is asked to look into the matter by young MI6 agent Lt. Colin Race (Tom Burke), who has taken an interest in Miss Webb, he finds that the murder is linked to the theft of secret government documents that may aid Hitler in his upcoming invasion of England.  But settling that case leaves yet another equally perplexing one still unsolved.

As usual, Poirot's interrogation of various witnesses and suspects uncovers even more questions.  Yet he calmly collects and processes the information until it's time for him to sit down and think it all through.  The more convoluted the plot, the more fun it is to watch Poirot methodically sort it all out, often chiding himself for not seeing the solution sooner.  His odd methods are often rebuffed at first by the local constabulary, who end up humbly seeking his help after their feeble efforts reach a dead end.

Each case reaches its climax with the formal revelation scene, with all suspects present and Poirot theatrically explaining his cogitations of the facts in the case which point him to the guilty party.  This, of course, is one of the hoariest murder-mystery cliches ever, but when done right it can be exquisite fun.  And the more tangled the mystery, the more pleasure we get from Poirot neatly sorting it all out in the end.

"Three Act Tragedy" ends, literally, on a theater stage with Poirot presiding over the indictment of a murderer who has poisoned three people at three different social gatherings, all with the same cast of characters.  Martin Shaw ("George Gently") is Poirot's actor friend Sir Charles Cartwright, who plays a detective onstage and fancies himself one in real life as he joins Poirot in his investigation.  Art Malik and Jane Asher also guest in this intriguing mystery.

There's a deliberately old-fashioned air to these pre-WWII tales that gives them a feeling of authenticity.  A bit dry at times, each of the three feature-length stories is finely-rendered and atmospheric, with rich period detail and the look of faded old color photographs or picture postcards.  Clever directorial touches help keep the exposition-heavy scenes interesting as the plots slowly unfold.
The three-disc boxed set from Acorn Media is in 16:9 widescreen with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound and English subtitles.  Each disc comes in its own slimline case.  There are no extras.

Viewers unaccustomed to such slow-paced fare may find themselves growing restless during Poirot's painstaking investigations.  But if you're willing to settle in and immerse yourself in these lush, absorbing murder mysteries, you should find POIROT: THE MOVIE COLLECTION SET 6 to be quite rewarding.

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