"Good Lord!" - Captain Hastings (Hugh Fraser), frequently
The great Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is back yet again, for another round of captivating, highly re-watchable episodes that are a minor revelation as remastered for high-definition. In the past, Acorn Media and A&E, separate entities that nonetheless share rights to both Agatha Christie Poirot (1989-present) and Miss Marple (1984-1992), have through their competing releases and multiple reissues and repackagings created a hopelessly confusing mess for consumers, but Acorn's lean and chronologically-presented Blu-rays of Poirot come as a blessed relief, presenting the series as it should have been from the start.
Poirot did something that was quite unusual for a television series at the time, though less so today. The first season, from 1989, presented 10 one-hour episodes. Series two quickly followed, in early 1990, with ten more shows, but two of these, "Peril at End House" and "The Mysterious Affair at Styles," were feature-length television movies. The third season (1991) returned to the ten one-hour episodes format, but the fourth series (1992) consisted of three feature-length shows only: adaptations of "The ABC Murders," "Death in the Clouds," and "One, Two, Buckle My Shoe." These stories also dropped Poirot's secretary, Miss Lemon (Pauline Moran) entirely, while his close friend and associate, Captain Hastings (Hugh Fraser), appeared only in "The ABC Murders."
For Agatha Christie Poirot - Series 5 the show once again returns to the one-hour format, albeit for eight episodes instead of the usual ten. It was, in fact, the last season ever of one-hour shows. Everything since has been feature length, to good and bad effect (like the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series), and since the ninth series in 2003, Captain Hastings and Miss Lemon have disappeared altogether, though the former is slated to appear in two telefilms from what certainly will be Poirot's final season, slated to begin airing in late 2012 or early 2013.
The eight mysteries of Series 5, presented here across two discs, are gorgeous compared to their original broadcast and subsequent home video versions. The program was filmed using Panaflex 16(mm) cameras, but the 1080p high-def remastering really works wonders. Even on big screen TVs, the image is far sharper and with much better color that one might have ever thought was possible.
Series 5 is something of a last hurrah for the original one-hour format, and for consistent appearances of Miss Lemon, Captain Hastings, and Scotland Yard Inspector Japp (Philip Jackson). The series rather suddenly and inexplicably moved to the dark side from about 2003 onward, but here the show's humor (particularly its wry observations on upper class snobbery and xenophobia), its Art Deco-dominated settings, the charming interaction of its regular cast, and taut storytelling is about at its zenith. By 1993 the series was fast becoming popular worldwide, and sales doubtlessly contributed to the show's production values, which are even more handsome than in the past.
Included are the following shows: "The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb," "The Underdog," "Yellow Iris," "The Case of the Missing Will," "The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman," "The Chocolate Box," "Dead Man's Mirror," "Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan."
They're pretty much all great, with "Egyptian Tomb," "Yellow Iris," and "Dead Man's Mirror" standing out particularly. "Egyptian Tomb" is basically Bram Stoker's Jewel of Seven Stars and lavishly filmed on location (with Spain doubling for Egypt, I believe) which in turn pits fastidious Poirot at odds with the sand, heat, and primitive living conditions at a seemingly cursed archeological dig.
"Yellow Iris" is quite lavish for a television production, with its first-half set in Buenos Aires and throughout features Big Band-type nightclub performances (by Carol Kenyon and Tracy Miller). "Dead Man's Mirror" is memorable for its great ingenuity and (in hindsight) simplicity.
It also helps that these hour shows are adaptations of short stories rather than novels. "Egyptian Tomb," "Missing Will," "Italian Nobleman," and "Grand Metropolitan" are all from the collection Poirot Investigates (1925), with only "Missing Will" notably altered from its source. "The Underdog" was one of six cases that appeared in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (1960); "Yellow Iris" in The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories (1939); "The Chocolate Box" from Poirot's Early Cases (1974); and "Dead Man's Mirror" is from Murder in the Mews (1937).
For this reason, the mysteries are uncluttered and without the obvious padding of the some of the later feature-length productions. They're often extremely clever, to the point, neat and compact.
Video & Audio
As with Series 1-4, Poirot was shot with Panaflex-16(mm) cameras and rightly presented here in 4:3 format. It appears that portions of the abstract opening titles may have been reconfigured for high-def, with other portions of the title elements, those that couldn't be recreated, were left as is. For just a handful of shots, typically period stock footage of things like 1930s ocean liners and the like, the original film/video elements couldn't be bettered or perhaps even located, and for just a few seconds in a couple of the shows there's a sudden drop in picture quality. The rest just sparkles, however. Colors are truer and much more detail is visible. And yet an eye-pleasing amount of film grain is still visible; there's no obvious attempt to artificially sharpen anything with DNR. This lends Poirot a look that's much closer to a theatrical film experience.
The 2.0 PCM stereo is good, and supported by SDH subtitles. The eight shows are presented on two discs, four episodes per. No Extra Features.
Once again, this is an unmissible set of mysteries, now thankfully in broadcast order, neatly arranged, in high-definition to boot, and a major upgrade from earlier DVD versions. Extra features would have softened the blow to one's wallet, but it's Highly Recommended nonetheless.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.