The no-frills discs are another matter. The transfers are problematic for several reasons. But first, the mysteries: The Mystery of the Blue Train, Taken at the Flood, After the Funeral, and Cards on the Table.
The set gets off to a very rocky start with The Mystery of the Blue Train, a decidedly lesser whodunit. The show's best feature is Poirot's charming friendship with neophyte millionaire Katherine Grey (Georgina Rylance), who has recently inherited a fortune and hotly pursued by various relatives looking for a hand-out. Onboard the Le Train Bleu, Grey meets American heiress Ruth Kettering (Jaime Murray), who's murdered in her compartment soon thereafter.
Already hampered by a derivative story lifting familiar elements from Murder on the Orient Express (though Agatha Christie wrote that novel after this), Death on the Nile and, especially, Christie's short story "The Plymouth Express," Hettie MacDonald's stupefyingly wrong-headed direction makes matters much worse. One of the great charms of Poirot always has been its (greatly romanticized) sense of period detail, but MacDonald directs Mystery of the Blue Train as if it were an episode of NYPD Blue, or maybe a music video trying to evoke of retro sense of film noir. She favors extremely tight but wobbly hand-held close-ups, which often are awkwardly composed.
(However, this may not be entirely MacDonald's fault. The shows are presented full-frame, but all four have notably tight compositions throughout, strongly suggesting that they may have been shot with 1.77:1 high-definition in mind, and reformatted for this release with the left and right sides of the original image lobbed off. Whether Britain's ITV network actually aired them high-def or in 4:3 matted format is not known.)**
Nevertheless, oftentimes MacDonald will introduce scenes without establishing shots, or so fill the cramped surroundings with fog and/or cigarette smoke that it's not clear where action is taking place, and what the geographical relationships between the different characters are. At first this reviewer suspected that the budgets for these movies had been so low that the shows' directors had to use close-ups to disguise cramped sets and the like, but the other three shows, all handsomely, classically shot, appear quite lavish for TV movies.
Much better is Taken at the Flood, originally 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 and longstanding 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.
Like others in this series, and despite the erroneous listing of the characters on the IMDb (the cast lists also has its share of spoilers, so steer clear of them until after you've seen the shows) After the Flood doesn't feature any of the supporting characters long associated with the hour-long Poirot series. There's no sign at all of Captain Hastings and Miss Lemon, alas, but here we do get to see Poirot's butler, George, and his Whitehaven Mansions apartment, where the obsessively orderly and impeccably tasteful Belgian has everything arranged just so. These little moments of Poirot's fussiness (and great aversion to English food and impolite behavior) are highlights of every Poirot appearance and Suchet, whose mannered playing is so precise and exquisite, is a joy to watch.
As usual, the series continues its amused look at class conflict and British xenophobia, including perennial manglings by unsophisticated Brits of Poirot's name. "Air-Kyule Pwah-row, madam," says the detective, introducing himself to an old woman. "You killed what!?" she replies, impatiently.
All four episodes feature notably lush scores, each worthy of their own soundtrack album. On a technical level, the shows rely to a greater or lesser degree on CGI effects, particularly on The Mystery of the Blue Train in which the train itself is mostly computer-generated (when in motion), and as process plates when characters are glimpsed in exotic locales.
The last two movies are far and away the best, as good as anything in the Suchet/Poirot cannon thus far. Cards on the Table has a clever 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 stabbed to death: which of the four bridge players is his murderer?
After the Funeral is equally clever, with a terrific ending (this reviewer smugly boasts he figured it out before it was revealed) and, like Cards on the Table 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.
Both stories, in terms of the writing and their adaptation, are classically-done mysteries of the highest order. If The Mystery of the Blue Train is a real turn-off, saved only by Suchet's excellent performance, than the other three and especially these two will hook you forever. Great stuff - and irresistibly watchable.
The caliber of acting is very high, though at times the older members of the cast tend to come off more naturally in the period settings than the younger actors who, at times, almost seem to be posing, playing dress-up. Among the stand-out performances: Zoe Wanamaker (daughter of expatriate Sam), wonderful as the Christie-esque Ariadne Oliver in Cards on the Table; and Monica Dolan as the mousy paid companion in After the Funeral. Elliott Gould and Jenny Agutter are virtually the only other names recognizable to American viewers. William Russell, Ian on the first Doctor Who series, is unrecognizable in his amusing appearance in After the Funeral, while Siddig, late of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, is the murder victim in Cards on the Table.
Video & Audio
A&E's transfers have a lot of problems. First there is the serious question of the intended aspect ratio (see above). Unfortunately, the problems don't stop there. A&E has opted to use broadcast masters, which are slightly edited for content and which feature added fades for commercial breaks. Profanity has been bleeped out, and indiscriminately so. A "goddammit" and "tit" are cut, but at least one use of the word "shit" is left it. The A&E Network, famous for their incessant commercial breaks (now more than 20 minutes out of every hour) means that these masters feature artificially-added fades in and out every few minutes, even as Poirot is in the middle of revealing the murderers' identity! (One senses the great detective's understandable annoyance at being so rudely interrupted.)
Beyond these major problems, all of which could easily have been avoided, the episodes look otherwise okay, and the stereo soundtracks are in keeping with modern technologies. There are no subtitle options, however, another big shortcoming.
As with other sets in this series, Agatha Christie's Poirot - The Classic Crimes Collection is woefully short on extras, including only absurdly incomplete biographies of Christie, Suchet, and several guest stars.
Despite the transfer issues, despite one mediocre adaptation, the other three mysteries are so handsomely produced, so cleverly written, and so marvelously acted - particularly by the irreplaceable David Suchet - that this set nonetheless comes Highly Recommended for mystery fans, but only Recommended for everyone else on account of those inexcusable masters.
**According to Chris-K over at our DVD Talk Forum, "These were indeed not shot in 4:3 [format], as the R2 versions are all widescreen. Indeed, the R2 versions of these [and] the four films previous are all in the proper aspect ratio. (The R2 sets also have behind-the-scenes extras on them...making them the better buy if one can play PAL.)"
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.