The Agatha Christie Classic Mystery Collection box set gathers together eight made-for-TV adaptations of Agatha's Christie's work. Premiering between 1981 and 1989 on CBS, these made-for-TV movies are a point of contention with Christie fans. There are those fans who feel these movies are automatically inferior to the feature films shown in theaters because anything made for TV is automatically the lesser effort. As well, there are those who remember these films fondly from their first and subsequent repeat airings, and they defend them rigorously. And then there are those Christie fans who have no time for any Christie movie adaptation; to them, the books are king, and everything else is a bastardization of her work.
I've never had a prejudice against made-for-TV versus feature films. Anyone who has seen Steven Spielberg's Duel or Dan Curtis' The Night Stalker (or Curtis' magnificent War and Remembrance for that matter), knows that TV movies can be just as arresting as anything on the big screen. True, many made-for-TV features wind up as mediocre -- or worse -- projects. But I don't believe there's anything inherently lacking in the format, just because it's "television." So how do these Agatha Christie mysteries, made for TV, shape up as entertainments?
MURDER IS EASY
A chance encounter on a train to London with Lavinia Fullerton (Helen Hayes), convinces American computer expert Luke Williams that his vacation may take a deadly turn. After listening to her suspicions concerning the mysterious deaths of several of her local townspeople, Luke, too, is curious about her theories. However, on her way to Scotland Yard, Lavinia is run down by a mysterious assailant, and Luke feels it's his responsibility to travel back to her village and finish the work started by Lavinia.
What Luke doesn't count on when he arrives in the village is a multiple number of suspects, all with excellent motives for the crimes, as well as a rising body count. Most dangerous of all is his growing attraction to Bridget Conway (Lesley-Anne Down), a beautiful, troubled woman who may prove to be the undoing of Luke.
Murder is Easy is a rather blah TV production, original shown on CBS in 1981, that suffers from a general air of inertia. There's simply no excitement to the proceedings. True, it can be a challenge for a director to enliven a film's pace if you're dealing mostly with exposition and dialogue (courtesy of Carmen Culver), but there are ways to keep such a film moving, and director Claude Whatham fails to do so. A critical problem that the screenplay never addresses is precisely why it's so important for Bixby to go to this little town and solve these murders. A rather feeble excuse is given during one of the many unconvincing scenes between Bixby and Down, but it isn't enough to convince the audience that this isn't all rather formula happenstance. Naturally, this plot fault doesn't lie with Christie; her original novel had Luke come from the same town as Lavinia, thus making his return entirely believable. If the script and direction are no help, at least one could expect some lovely shots of the English countryside, or at least some competent lensing. But much of Murder is Easy is ugly to look at, with clumsy, claustrophobic framing and naturalistic lighting that flatters neither the settings nor the actors (if you can't keep the top of someone's head in frame, when the film is intended for TV, then there's a serious problem with the technical side of the film).
It also doesn't help that the main character is miscast. Bill Bixby was an adequate TV actor who probably did his best work in light comedy (okay Incredible Hulk fans, he was good in that, too), but there's a grumpy, flat quality to his acting here that's quite off-putting. He certainly doesn't capture any of the confident or romantic qualities that are suggested by his character, as witnessed by the almost total lack of chemistry with his co-stars -- particularly with lovely Lesley-Anne Down. Despite her obvious romantic appeal, it's apparent that she couldn't muster the necessary ardor to make her scenes with Bixby very convincing. The other character actors, all British, are fine in their roles, with special mention going out to the always wonderful Olivia De Havilland, Patrick Allen, Shane Briant, and the marvelous Freddie Jones (Juggernaut), who's slightly off-kilter as Constable Reed -- and delightfully so.
Which brings us to Helen Hayes, who you may think, after looking at the cover art and the disc menu, has the starring role in this production. Despite the buildup, Hayes has little more than a glorified cameo in Murder is Easy; it's a little deception on the studio's part (I suspect it's a marketing ploy to tie in the other Hayes Marple films in this set) that ultimately disappoints the viewer.
A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY
Agatha Christie's elderly amateur sleuth Miss Marple (Helen Hayes), in need of a vacation, travels to the Caribbean to stay at a luxurious resort. Once there, she meets the kindly writer, Major Palgrave (Maurice Evans), who in the course of their conversations, quite quickly lets Miss Marple know that he possesses the picture of a notorious murderer. Unfortunately, before he can show it to Miss Marple, Major Palgrave is found dead in his bedroom, murdered by someone at the resort.
To get to the truth, Miss Marple must sort through the obvious suspects, including the resort's owners, Tim and Molly Kendall (Jameson Parker and Season Hubley), who hide a dark secret concerning mental illness; "Lucky" Dyson (Cassie Yates), who says exactly what she thinks, and who may pay for that dearly; and Mr. Rafiel (Barnard Hughes), a grouchy, wheelchair bound curmudgeon who, despite all his own efforts to the contrary, takes a shine to Miss Marple. Aiding Miss Marple in her unofficial inquiries are Dr. Graham (Brock Peters) and Captain Daventry (Zakes Mokae) of the local police.
A Caribbean Mystery is an improvement on Murder is Easy if only because the pace has been tightened. The director, Robert Lewis, was a TV veteran with two genuine classics to his credit (Pray for the Wildcats, Guilty or Innocent: The Sam Sheppard Murder Case), and, while he doesn't do much here except shoot talking heads, at least he has the decency to keep the scenes short and to the point. It looks no different than any other generic TV show from this period (and probably pointed the way for CBS, when they premiered Murder, She Wrote the next year).
Of course, Christie fans love to debate the cinematic incarnations of their favorite literary counterparts, and here is no different. Most opinion falls on the negative side for Hayes as Marple, and I agree. Hayes, one of the true luminaries of the American stage, had a spotty film career, perhaps partly due to the difference in acting styles demanded by the camera. She was absolutely delightful in her Academy Award-winning performance as Miss Ada Quonsett in Airport, and many adults remember her fondly from her several 1970's Disney features (Herbie Rides Again, One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing, Candleshoe), as well as her previous, brief turn as a TV sleuth in The Snoop Sisters (from the NBC Mystery Movie series). As charming as she was in these roles, playing a ever-so-slightly smart-aleck senior citizen, that's precisely what's wrong her with her portrayal of Miss Marple: she's just too "American" in her demeanor. The movie has numerous shots of Hayes doing her patented eye rolling, slightly smirking, exasperated reaction shots -- which are funny, but which have almost nothing to do with the way Christie wrote Miss Marple. It doesn't help that Hayes can barely manage an English accent, which fades away after the first five minutes anyway. And a final, suggestive wink by Miss Marple to Mr. Fafiel would never happen in a Christie Miss Marple. This isn't Miss Marple in the Caribbean; it's the Further Adventures of Airport's Miss Ada Quonsett.
A Caribbean Mystery is as I said before, basically nothing more than talking heads TV, with flat, garish lighting, unimaginative framing, and an unconvincing Santa Barbara, California substituting for the Caribbean. The music score is inadequate to the task, and some of the acting drifts into the absurd (Lynne Moody's Jamaican accent is a joke). There are nice turns by Maurice Evans, Brock Peters, and Barnard Hughes (who has a funny line when he wants Miss Marple to leave him alone: Go tat [crochet] something. Have an attack of some kind). And Zakes Mokae is slightly menacing in a good way, spicing up the proceedings. But overall, the sub par cast can't raise the script (which you might be surprised to see was co-written by popular novelist Sue Grafton) of A Caribbean Mystery above mediocre TV fare.
Newly returned from spending a year in London, Iris Murdoch (Deborah Raffin) meets up with her rich sister Rosemary Barton (Christine Belford). Rosemary, married to lawyer George Barton (Josef Sommer), is cheating on him with Stephen Farraday (David Huffman), who in turn is married to Iris' good friend, Sandra Barton (June Chadwick). Britisher Tony Browne (Anthony Andrews), a journalist working on a series of articles about British and American business ethics (and who has a pretty big secret of his own), focuses his attentions on the beautiful Iris, while also trying to get to the bottom of who murdered first Rosemary, then George Barton, with deadly doses of sparkling cyanide-laced champagne.
Sparkling Cyanide is the last of CBS made-for-TV Agatha Christie movies produced by Stan Margulies (he also produced the first two films reviewed: Murder is Easy and A Caribbean Mystery), and it's easily the worst of the bunch. This might as well be radio with pictures. The lack of any big name stars (yes, Anthony Andrews was kind of big with the art house crowd back in the 80s, but he was no John Mills or Bette Davis -- or even Bill Bixby for that matter, with mainstream TV audiences), certainly hurts the film. Sparkling Cyanide isn't helped by a truly awful early 80s "soft jazz" score by James Di Pasquale that sounds like nothing more than accompaniment to bad Euro-porn. The picture is ugly to look at, too, with poor lighting and framing. As well, the returning team of director Robert Lewis, and screenwriters Sue Grafton and Steven Humphrey (A Caribbean Mystery), fail to jack up the proceedings past a slow, slow simmer; it's far too protracted even at 96 minutes. The movie never really takes off; actors say their lines, move desultorily throughout the frame, and then exit. There's no flow, and almost no suspense or excitement -- a true crime for a mystery movie.
The acting is at best, barely adequate, with a cast of low-level TV talent that fails to ignite the frankly boring script. I suppose Anthony Andrews does well enough, but he's clearly coasting; how can someone be fey and arch at the same time (neat trick, that)? Harry Morgan as the police captain investigating the murders, seems exhausted, while the rest of the cast merely plods along. It's low-watt TV acting, and the only sparkle comes from the champagne.
MURDER WITH MIRRORS
Two years after A Caribbean Mystery, Helen Hayes returned to the role of Miss Marple for another CBS telemovie, Murder with Mirrors. It would prove to be Miss Hayes' last feature.
Miss Marple is asked by her lawyer, Christian Gilbranson (John Woodvine) to visit her old friend Carrie Louise Serrocold (Bette Davis) at her estate. When Miss Marple arrives, she finds that all is not well with Carrie; someone is trying to poison her. Or so says her husband, Lewis (John Mills). Lewis has turned Carrie's estate into a rehabilitation home for delinquent boys, and plans on expanding the estate into a modern complex devoted to offering wayward boys a second chance. Miss Marple's stay becomes complicated (how else do Miss Marple's stays turn out?) when visiting Christian is suddenly murdered. Will Miss Marple, with the aid of Inspector Curry (Leo McKern), figure out who the murderer is? What do you think.
Murder with Mirrors is a classier effort than the previous Hayes Marple adaptation. Aired on CBS in 1985, Murder with Mirrors had a new producer/screenwriter (TV veteran George Eckstein) who brings a BBC feel to the proceedings. The cinematography is glossier, with an appropriate English foggy quality that lends some needed atmosphere to the movie. The director, Dick Lowry, another TV veteran with some hits (A pair of fun, scary Betty Broderick movies starring Meredith Baxter, The Gambler series, among others) and some big misses (Smokey and the Bandit 3), keeps the story moving. There's a plinky little score by Richard Rodney Bennett, for God's sake, that regrettably owes more than just a little to CBS's then-big time hit, Murder, She Wrote. And there's a bigger cast, including two genuine legends: John Mills and Bette Davis (sadly diminished), with some up and comers, most notably Tim Roth in the important role of Edgar Lawson.
Unfortunately, Miss Hayes is back as Miss Marple. Perhaps she read the reviews of her first outing as Marple, because this time, she makes a concerted effort to keep that English accent front and center (unfortunately, she fails). And there's less of the cutesie pie Hayes mannerisms this time (but they still show up). But with Hayes subduing her "Hayes-isms," there's not much left for Marple. She's quite bland as Miss Marple, giving very little spark in her scenes. Then again, she's not given the most scintillating dialogue to deliver, either. There's a terrible little scene where Miss Marple "acts" on a proper stage, that points out the producer's misinterpretation of the Marple character. John Mills is sturdy and assured, but Bette Davis seems sadly lost as Carrie; it's painfull to watch her few scenes and remember what a powerhouse she used to be as an actress.
Murder with Mirrors is a nice, safe, boring adaptation of Christie's 1952 novel, They Do it With Mirrors. It won't surprise you; it won't disappoint you if you're in the mood for something "Christie-ish." But it certainly doesn't stand up to most other Christie movie adaptations.
THIRTEEN AT DINNER
Finally. Thirteen at Dinner is the first truly entertaining telemovie here in The Agatha Christie Classic Mystery Collection. Not only is the screenwriting and direction top notch, but Peter Ustinov's first television portrayal of Hercule Poirot (he had played the famous Belgian detective three times prior on the big screen), is nothing short of delightful.
Hercule Poirot, appearing on a television chat show, meets American action movie star, Bryan Martin (Lee Horsley), and impersonator Carlotta Adams (Faye Dunaway) -- who does a wicked impersonation of Jane Wilkinson (Faye Dunaway again), American movie actress and Martin's co-star. After the television appearance, all are invited to Wilkinson's home for dinner, where Wilkinson asks Poirot to intervene in her sticky divorce case. After Poirot speaks with Wilkinson's husband, Lord Edgware, he is astounded to find that Lord Edgware had already given his consent to a divorce six months prior. Giving the good news to Jane Wilkinson, Poirot prepares to move on, until Lord Edware and Carlotta are both found dead. It's time for Poirot's "little gray cells" to get to work.
Poirot has never been a favorite of mine as far as Christie's books go (she confessed herself that she didn't like him much, either, after she was done writing him), but I do enjoy him in movies. Perhaps he plays better in that medium because his funny features and mannerisms lend a comic air to him that makes him more endearing to the viewer. I know many today say David Suchet (who amusingly shows up here in Thirteen at Dinner as Inspector Japp) is the cinematic incarnation of Poirot, due to his immensely popular television series several years ago. I've always liked Albert Finney's solo shot at the role in director Sidney Lumet's Murder on the Orient Express, a movie so successful with audiences and critics that it certainly jump started a new cycle of Christie worship -- as well as a whole slew of new cinematic adaptations. He was without whimsy, playing Poirot coldly and methodically, while not asking the audience to love him one bit.
That being said, Ustinov -- for me -- is the most purely entertaining of the Poirots, mostly by the strength of Ustinov's unique comedic gifts. In a word, he's a funny Poirot; he can't help not being amusing. Each line is put out there to tickle us with his sly little intonations and modulations. Much of what he's doing in Thirteen at Dinner obviously wasn't in the script; his facial expressions and body language are supreme comedic gifts that really lift the film up to another level compared to the previous movies in this set. The director, Lou Antonio, a TV veteran (and actor, probably best known in a supporting role as "Koko" in Cool Hand Luke) has a real feel for the actors here, and he lets them make the characters their own. You can tell when actors are allowed to act by a sympathetic director; they're relaxed and confident, and it translates to the audience -- as they do here. Faye Dunaway looks cool and easy (which she often doesn't in films), and she has a nice Norma Desmond-like moment at the end of the film. Lee Horsley, TV's Matt Houston (who was known as a knock-off of Tom Selleck, who in turn was known as a knock-off of Burt Reynolds -- is that two times removed from an original star?) is actually entertaining as the self-absorbed American action star. And Jonathan Cecil as Poirot's sidekick is very funny in his gentle dithering with Ustinov.
Of course, a good script helps, too, and Rod Browning delivers some very funny lines for Ustinov and company to deliver. It's a quick moving script, which keeps you guessing. True, it's not hard to figure out who the murderer is, but how Poirot figures it out is the real key here, and the script does well with the classic denouement. Thirteen at Dinner looks good, too. Evocative lighting that's good enough for the big screen (courtesy of Curtis Clark) aid immeasurably Andrew Sanders' rich production design. Big screen composer John Addison adds a funny, memorable score to the production; it fits Poirot well. One hopes that the other two Ustinov Poirots will match Thirteen at Dinner's quality
DEAD MAN'S FOLLY
You are the French, no?
Producer Neil Hartley comes up with another winner here (he did the previous Hercule Poirot telemovie, Thirteen at Dinner) in this very entertaining adaptation, Dead Man's Folly. Joined here by talented British director Clive Donner, and working from another fun script by Rod Browning (also from Thirteen at Dinner), Hartley has concocted a sprightly, airy Poirot television tale that flies by quickly.
Hercule Poirot is invited along by his friend Ariadne Oliver (Jean Stapleton), a detective novelist who has an idea for a "murder hunt" at Nasse House, an estate she's visiting owned by Sir George Stubbs (Tim Pigott-Smith) and his American wife, Hattie (Nicollette Sheridan). A "murder hunt" is a party game with a pretend murder, and clues provided for everyone to join in the puzzle solving. But when a real body turns up instead of the intended fake victim, and beautiful Hattie disappears, it's up to Poirot to let his "little gray cells" kick into high gear, to solve the crime.
Dead Man's Folly continues the tradition set by Thirteen at Dinner by having a tight, compact script, presented well by long-time director Donner (What's New, Pussycat a particular favorite), and acted by a cast of entertaining pros. Jean Stapleton is an excellent choice to play Christie's reoccurring friend to Poirot, Ariadne Oliver. She perfectly captures Christie's slightly daffy novelist (who many saw as Christie spoofing herself) who always had intuitions that confounded Poirot. She's quite funny here, losing control at the sight of the first murder victim (Poirot shouts at her, "Be a man!" to straighten her out). Ustinov continues bringing funny little turns to Poirot's lines, while making us laugh at his improvised muggings. I also particularly like it at the denouement, when Poirot lets loose with a string of angry words towards the killer. It's a nice moment of passion. The rest of the cast is up to par, with Jonathan Cecil making a welcome return as Captain Hastings.
All of the tech credits are excellent, with a particular emphasis on shooting outside the lovely grounds of the estate, giving Dead Man's Folly an expansive, open-air feeling to the proceedings. Dead Man's Folly is another welcome addition to the cinematic Christie canon, courtesy of producer Neil Hartley.
MURDER IN THREE ACTS
Murder in Three Acts is Ustinov's last appearance ever as Hercule Poirot, and he doesn't disappoint us. Witty, charming, and eccentric, Ustinov has even more tricks up his sleeve with sly line readings, and charming, eccentric mugging. A change in producers for this final Ustinov Poirot outing doesn't diminish the fun as Poirot finds himself again right in the middle of murder.
Poirot, after meeting his friend Captain Hastings in Acapulco, drives to the beautiful cliffside estate of retired actor Charles Cartwright (Tony Curtis). It's lucky they made it in the first place, because they were almost run down by Jennifer "Egg" Eastman, Charles' girlfriend. An assortment of Christie characters are also invited for dinner, which turns deadly when Reverend Babbington drops dead during the toast. Determined to be an accidental death, Poirot makes his getaway, to eventually return to Los Angeles to write his memoirs. Meanwhile, Dr. Strange, who was also at the deadly party, asks everyone who attended, to reconvene for another party -- but he won't say why. An explanation is never forthcoming, though, because Dr. Strange drops dead as well, just like Reverend Babbington. It's up to Charles Cartwright to bring Poirot back to solve the murders.
Murder in Three Acts is certainly one of the funnier Poirot mysteries. It has a lightness to its proceedings aided not only by the sunny, spectacular Mexican scenery, but also by witty dialogue delivered by some very able comedians. Ustinov, supremely confident in a role he's played five times before, continues to delight us with pitch-perfect delivery. Jonathan Cecil is back again as Hastings (his character doesn't appear in the original Christie novel), and he has an hysterical car ride with Ustinov at the beginning of the film. They're a great, low-key comedic team. Delicious Emma Sands, of Dynasty and The Colbys, proves to be an absolute charmer with her dialogue; she's a natural (and easy on the eyes, too). Too bad more wasn't done with her career. Tony Curtis, an excellent actor (Sweet Smell of Success, The Boston Strangler) wavers in his portrayal; sometimes he's spot-on, other times he appears distant and unfocused. It's nice to see sultry Diana Muldaur again as well, even though she has little to do.
As with the other Ustinov Poirots, the production is quite good, with excellent lensing (the Mexican locales look particularly good), and brisk direction by TV veteran Gary Nelson (Freaky Friday, The Black Hole). It plays well on the small screen, and delivers the required suspense and laughs that we come to expect from the Ustinov Poirots. With these three television productions, as well as his three feature film adaptations of Poirot, Peter Ustinov left an indelible impression on mystery fans, becoming for many, their "favorite" Hercule Poirot.
THE MAN IN THE BROWN SUIT
A bar in South Africa. A sultry singer points out two men to the police, who arrest the men for diamond smuggling. Two years later, in Cairo, the same woman (Anita) travels to the estate of Sir Eustace Pedler (Edward Woodward), where she is shot twice. Harry Lucas (Nickolas Grace), one of the men who was arrested two years prior in South Africa, searches her purse for something, but it's empty.
At the Cairo airport, Carlton (the husband of Anita) has a printed message (the same message that Anita had); he waits impatiently for a taxi. Meanwhile, American Anne Beddingfeld (Stephanie Zimbalist) waits to return home to her dreary job at the mall. Their paths cross when Carlton is accidentally run over by the taxi. Harry Lucas shows up, pretending to be a doctor, and lifts the printed message from Carlton's body. Anne give chase, and he drops the message, which she pockets. Unfortunately, the taxi driver who hit Carlton, sicks the cops on Anne. She's hauled off to jail, where embassy worker Mr. Race (Ken Howard) springs her. She decodes the message, and determines it has something to do with a cruise ship. Anne wrangles her way on board, and meets an interesting group of characters, including Suzy Blair (Rue McClanahan), a wealthy, kind divorcee (five times) who takes a shine to Anne; Mr. Race, Sir Eustace Pedler, Reverend Chichester (Tony Randall), and the man in the brown suit (I won't tell you).
What follows is an intricate, complicated plot concerning murder, diamond smuggling, and certainly most importantly for Anne, passionate romance. The Man in the Brown Suit is quite entertaining, with a fun, fast approach to the complicated story, and a sweep to the action that plays more like a feature film than a made-for-TV movie. The screenwriter, Carla Jean Wagner, puts her tongue firmly in cheek, and delivers a nostalgic movie-lovers movie, with an emphasis on pleasing the women in the audience. The heroine, Anne, longs for the kind of dangerous adventure found in romance novels, and swoons when she finds the real thing -- as well as the real man -- in Harry Lucas. Stephanie Zimbalist knows exactly how to play this kind of role, and she's very sweet and attractive and appealing as the lonely, yearning Anne. The other players, including Woodward, Howard and McClanahan, are old pros who don't overplay their roles. The cinematography is worthy of any big-budget theatrical film (courtesy of Ken Westbury), and probably looks the best of any of the films in this collection. The director, Alan Grint, makes The Man in the Brown Suit all very light and easy to take, with some marvelous travelogue shots, attractive players, and a pace set at not letting the cracks show. It's a most pleasant surprise, and a great way to round out the box set. I wasn't expecting much, but with Thirteen at Dinner, The Man in the Brown Suit is the best of the lot.
All of the DVDs look good as far as their picture transfers go, although some of the film elements used (particularly A Caribbean Mystery) are a little less than optimal. However, all look as adequate as their original video releases, and for these kinds of films, you won't be disappointed.
All of the releases are Dolby Digital English Mono, which, again, for these kinds of features, are perfectly adequate.
There are no extras included, unless you count close captioning in English, Spanish and Korean. It would have been nice to see the original TV trailers for these, but unfortunately -- no go.
The Agatha Christie Classic Mystery Collection is a must-have for fans of Christie's movie adaptations. You've probably watched them all before, but you'll still want to own them, and at least half of these titles are worth watching again and again. However, if you're just a mystery fan, with no particular love for Christie, I would definitely recommend you rent first. Several of the titles are marginal, at best, and only for Christie completists. Recommended.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.