A repackaging of Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries previously released, in some cases multiple times, by A&E Home Video, Agatha Christie - Poirot & Marple collects 21 television movies (twelve Poirots, nine Marples) onto nine slim-cased DVDs, in a big brick of a box weighing several pounds. The set essentially combines the contents of the February 2006 release Agatha Christie Marple - The Classic Mysteries Collection with the September 2008 Agatha Christie Poirot - The Definitive Collection . Those retailed for $59.95 and $99.95, respectively; the new set retails for $134.95, so it's somewhat but not spectacularly less expensive.
Frustratingly, there may never be a truly definitive set of either Poirot or Miss Marple (let alone both) on Region 1 DVD because of convoluted rights issues. Actually to call it convoluted hardly does it justice - indescribably exasperating is more like it! The late Joan Hickson starred as the spinster-sleuth in a grand total of 12 Miss Marple TV movies; U.S. home video rights to the other three - The Body in the Library, A Murder Is Announced, and A Pocketful of Rye - apparently still reside with the BBC and Warner Bros., and are only available separately, on their label. Confusingly, those three were the first, third, and fourth Miss Marple movies to air in the United Kingdom, not quite the first three. The earliest in this set is The Moving Finger, from early-1985, also part of that same first series.
Meanwhile, the 12 Poirot mysteries with David Suchet as the famous Belgian detective are all movie-length (most of the first five series/seasons consisted of hour-length shows), and include everything from the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth series/seasons only. Apparently all U.S. home video rights for episodes/TV-movies from seasons 1-6, and from seasons 11 to the present - the 12th series shows are set to air this December - are controlled by Acorn Media, which has been releasing the Poirots it owns concurrently, adding to the confusion. Here's what's included:
Hercule Poirot Mysteries (all starring David Suchet as Hecule Poirot)
"The Murder of Roger Ackroyd"
Generally effective adaptation of Christie's almost inadaptable novel, a controversial work when it was published in 1926 for its innovative perspective and twist ending. Chief Inspector Japp (Philip Jackson), who was not in the novel, makes a welcome appearance here.
"Lord Edgeware Dies"
Title character is murdered less than 24 hours after meeting with Poirot to discuss reconciliation with his estranged famous actress wife (Helen Grace, Brookside). Previously filmed in 1934, with Austin Trevor playing Poirot.
"Murder in Mesopotamia"
Exotic Poirot (from Christie's 1935 story) finds the great detective at an archeological dig in Iraq, where the wife of one of the scientists is the target of threatening letters. Featuring Hugh Fraser as Poirot's devoted (if a bit twittish) friend, Captain Hastings.
"Evil Under the Sun"
Christie's 1941 novel is adapted here, about a famous film star murdered at an island health resort. Previously filmed in 1982 by director Guy Hamilton, an okay but somewhat bland movie version that moved the story's setting to an Adriatic island. Captain Hasting's cameo appearance in the novel has been expanded for this version.
"Death on the Nile"
Like "Evil Under the Sun," this is a lavish TV-movie remake of an all-star film with Peter Ustinov as Poirot, and likewise it improves on the film version. An obnoxious wealthy woman is murdered while on a cruise down the Nile.
A woman and her fiancé receive a letter suggesting their wealthy aunt, in failing health after a series of strokes, is in imminent danger of an unspecified nature. Suggesting a kind of privileged class All About Eve, this telefilm is quite exciting and, in one scene at least, nightmarish.
Solid "holiday in the country" mystery about a philandering doctor's murder at the apparent hands of his long-suffering wife. The excellent cast features Sarah Miles, Tom Georgeson (A Fish Called Wanda), and Edward Fox (brother of James), very droll as a dour, deadpan butler. Also making a welcome appearance is Edward Hardwicke, Dr. Watson from the Granada Sherlock Holmes series, here without his toupee and looking every bit the image of his actor father, Sir Cedric.
"Five Little Pigs"
Fourteen years after the conviction and hanging of Caroline Crale (Rachel Stirling in flashback, instantly recognizable as the daughter of Diana Rigg) for the murder of her husband, their adult daughter engages Poirot to look into the long-closed case. The performances in this melancholy tale are superb all the way 'round, with Toby Stephens (Die Another Day) a standout as the inconsolable best friend of the dead husband. Patrick Malahide, from the ill-fated Inspector Alleyn Mysteries, turns up here as a barrister
"The Mystery of the Blue Train"
Onboard the Le Train Bleu, neophyte millionaire Katherine Grey (Georgina Rylance) meets American heiress Ruth Kettering (Jaime Murray), who's murdered in her compartment soon thereafter. Arguably the worst Poirot TV-movie to date is nearly ruined by Hettie MacDonald's stupefyingly wrong-headed direction. One of the great charms of Poirot always has been its (greatly romanticized) sense of period detail, but MacDonald directs this as if it were an episode of CSI - Miami.
"Taken at the Flood"
Much better is this, adapted from a story first published as There is a Tide (both taken from a line in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: "There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood leads on to fortune..."), which finds Poirot embroiled in a bitter estate dispute, in which the actress widow (Eva Birthstle) of a wealthy businessman killed in an explosion years before - she miraculously survived - is under pressure by her ruthless brother (Elliot Cowan, wearing a bad hairpiece) to withhold money from various relatives. Memorable dialogue: "Air-Kyule Pwah-row, madam," says the detective, introducing himself to an old woman. "You killed what!?" she replies, impatiently.
"After the Funeral"
Clever story with a terrific ending (this reviewer smugly boasts he figured it out before it was revealed) that expertly balances a sweeping, ominous sense of dread and violence with flashes of quiet humor, the latter mostly derived from the marvelously realized eccentric characterizations. Soon after the reading of wealthy Richard Abernethie's will, famously batty, long-estranged Aunt Cora casually remarks that her brother was murdered. The next day, Cora herself is found hacked to death with an axe, and Poirot is hired to investigate the crime.
"Cards on the Table"
Though altered somewhat from the original story, this Poirot has an irresistible premise: At a dinner party hosted by the morbidly curious Mr. Shaitana (Alexander Siddig), Poirot joins four "colleagues" in one room for bridge while the four other guests play bridge in an adjoining room. A few hours later, someone in the second room notices that Shaitana has been quietly drugged and stabbed to death: which of the four bridge players is his murderer?
Miss Marple Mysteries (all starring Joan Hickson as Miss Marple)
"A Caribbean Mystery"
Miss Marple is vacationing in the West Indies when a fellow vacationer - who claims to have photographed a murder - is himself murdered. Guest stars include Donald Pleasance and Sue Lloyd.
"The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side"
The last of the Hickson shows to be produced was previously adapted as The Mirror Crack'd in 1980. At the time that movie was big news for its all-star cast (Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, Kim Novak) but today is remembered for Angela Lansbury's Miss Marple, a warm-up to her very Marple-esque Murder She Wrote character. This one's got an all-star cast of its own, including Claire Bloom and Barry Newman.
Adapted from a story Christie wrote during the 1940 Blitz but had sealed with orders it not be published until after her death (it was finally published in 1976), it's also one of several stories (badly) remade for the recent ITV series, in a version much less faithful than this. Visions of a body in the hall of a seaside home haunt a young woman.
"4:40 from Paddington"
First adapted as Murder, She Said, one of the four '60s Marple movies with Margaret Rutherford, this more faithful adaptation has Miss Marple's friend catching a glimpse of a man strangling a woman aboard a passing train.
"The Moving Finger"
It seems that the entire village of Lymstock has received at least one poison pen letter from a mysterious sender, apparently driving one resident to commit suicide. Miss Marple investigates. From Christie's 1942 novel.
"At Bertram's Hotel"
Great old-timers like Joan Greenwood, James Cossins, and George Baker guest-star in this adaptation of Christie's 1965 novel, about sinister goings-on at a luxury retreat. Remade with Geraldine McEwan in 2007.
"Murder at the Vicarage"
Adapted from the very first Miss Marple novel (first published in October 1930), this story has the spinster-sleuth investigating the murder of the much-disliked Colonel Protheroe (Robert Lang), after overhearing a heated argument between the murdered man and soft-spoken Reverend Clement (Paul Eddington).
Christie's final Marple novel (though not the last published), from 1971, includes a character from "A Caribbean Mystery," a millionaire she met on that holiday, who cryptically invites her to solve an unspecified crime, offering her an inheritance of £20,000 as an incentive. Margaret Tyzack and Liz Fraser are among the guest stars.
"They Do It with Mirrors"
The great Jean Simmons guest-stars in this episode, from Christie's 1952 story, with Marple investigating attempts on the life of a matriarchal head of a family-funded reformatory for juvenile delinquents. Adequately remade with Julia McKenzie in 2009, with Joan Collins guesting.
Whether or not you'll want this set mainly depends upon whether you're interested in both shows, and which shows you already own. The DVD presentations are adequate on the Marples but not at all exceptional, while the Poirot have needlessly been altered from their original British versions (see below). Supplements are minimal, and the packaging is problematic. While the slimcase format crams a lot of programming into a small amount of space, the box the whole shebang comes in is flimsy paper stock - easy to bend or tear - and it's no easy task to find the DVD you want, get it out of the box and back again. Hard cardboard packaging would have been much better.
Video & Audio
Another complaint about the A&E shows are 1) they lack English subtitles and/or closed captioning; and 2) the Poirots have been heavily edited. The exact extent of the latter charge isn't entirely clear, though running times on British VHS tapes and DVDs I've been able to find seem to bear this out, with something like 6-10 minutes chopped out of each Poirot movie, though the Miss Marples run an average of 103-104 minutes apiece and appear complete. A few examples of A&E's running times for Poirot: Lord Edgeware Dies (93 1/2 minutes), The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (94 minutes), The Hollow (89 minutes), Five Little Pigs (93 1/2 minutes), Death on the Nile (97 1/2) minutes). While A&E is certainly legally entitled to cut the shows for cable TV airings, releasing those cut-down versions to home video is both pointless and inexcusable. Adding more fuel to the fire is that some of the later shows were filmed with 1.78:1 widescreen in mind, meaning those should have been 16:9 enhanced, instead of 4:3 full-frame, which is what everything is here. Given that these titles are being reissued again this way after numerous customer complaints, the situation is even less forgivable.
Those with region-free players who want the uncut shows and want to avoid acquiring the two series piecemeal might want to consider the following British DVD sets: Agatha Christie Poirot - The Complete Collection (with all the episodes/movies from Series 1-7), currently on Amazon for £88.97 (about $146) and The Miss Marple Collection, now selling for £38.98 (about $64).
Supplements are limited to text material: biographies of Agatha Christie, Joan Hickson, and David Suchet; a listing of all the Christie Poirot and Marple stories, etc.
Hickson and Suchet have been lauded as the definitive actors in their roles and you'll get no argument from this reviewer. Both are consistent, absolute delights, and the adaptations are classy and for the most part faithfully and exquisitely produced. But Agatha Christie - Poirot & Marple is a long way from being definitive. Though the cutting of episodes and incorrect aspect ratios may not at all bother some, it will greatly annoy others - and it so easily could have been avoided, especially for this release. The two programs get near-flawless marks, but the cut Poirot shows and shoddy packaging do much to sink it. Final score: Rent It.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, Japanese Cinema, is on sale now.