"I have to say, Mr. Poirot, you were magnificent."
Acorn Media has gathered together three previously released Agatha Christie Poirot collections with the new moniker: Agatha Christie's Poirot: The Classic Collection - Set 2, a three-disc, nine episode grouping of almost all of Series Three of ITV1's long-running Agatha Christie's Poirot. The episodes included are: The Million Dollar Bond Robbery, The Plymouth Express, Wasps' Nest, The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor, The Double Clue, The Mystery of the Spanish Chest, The Theft of the Royal Ruby, The Affair at the Victory Ball, and The Mystery of Hunter's Lodge. Previous buyers of the innumerable releases and re-releases of these David Suchet-starring films shouldn't feel any need to double-dip here; the discs and transfers are exactly the same as the 2003 Poirot - Collector's Sets (volumes 4 through 6), right down to the discs still bearing those old titles and numbers. There aren't any new extras, and the transfers haven't been upgraded. But newcomers to the series, or those looking to begin their collection could do worse than these economically-priced groupings.
I've written before about David Suchet's turn as Poirot, and I don't think I can add anything new to the reams of copy written about his stunningly successful acquisition of Christie's character (for a much more detailed take on the character, I suggest reading my review of the Agatha Christie's Poirot - The Definitive Collection here). It's a cliche to state one actor "owns" a role - as well as a dangerous proposition of certainty because sure enough, the minute one proclaims such a closure of future cinematic interpretations of a particularly popular or iconic character, another actor comes along and tweaks it, either through the force of their own personality or through an inspired new interpretation of the material. There may only be a handful of such film roles that would seem to preclude any further exploration (Gable's and Leigh's turns in Gone With the Wind, or Brando in The Godfather, perhaps), but if anyone has a shot at "closing down" Christie's funny little Belgium detective, it's Suchet. In my previous review of his later efforts as the invariably correct, invariably obsessive, invariably hilarious detective, I commented on the growing isolation and loneliness of the character as Suchet matured Poirot, with the stories leaving behind cohorts Inspector Japp and Captain Hastings (as well as secretary Miss Lemon) as Poirot darkened at the prospect of a seemingly endless supply of liars and killers populating his narrowing world. The episodes in Agatha Christie's Poirot: The Classic Collection - Set 2, however, are much "happier" affairs - if one can put into context the terrible truths about greed and envy and rage that Christie was so adept at revealing - with the triumvirate of Poirot, Japp and Hastings creating a comfortable, always amusing crime-solving team that I would guess fans of the series remember most fondly.
As for the mysteries themselves, as I written before in my reviews of any kind of films like these, I'm usually at a loss to decipher them - as much out of a willingness to be swept along with the story as...well, let's just leave it at that. I've never read a Christie and solved the crime right out of the gate (I have "solved" a few Ross MacDonalds, though), and even when I've guessed correctly the identity of the murderer in these televised films, it's never on the damming evidence that Poirot so painstakingly uncovers and intricately explains. I know quite a few readers and viewers like to "match wits" with these fictional detectives; solving the puzzles are as much a mental exercise as the stories are sources of entertainment to them. And to those intrepid and logical souls, I tip my hat. For me, at least, the Suchet Poirots provide a seemingly unending supply of humorous moments - interspersed between the killings - that can be as delightful as any out-and-out comedy. In that beautifully designed credit sequence that fans of the series like the best, there are constantly shifting, overlapping panels depicting Poirot's face, like facets in a turning diamond. And at one moment, as Suchet stares confidently and impudently into the camera, it appears that his eyebrow arches, as his eyes twinkle with delight. Whether that "arch" is actually Suchet's or an effect of the distorting facet panels is beside the point - it's a moment that perfectly captures Suchet's take on the character. There is genuine delight in Suchet's take on Poirot: delight in Poriot's intellect, his obsessive fussiness, his stinging ripostes, his singular "otherness," even his aloneness. It's such a confident portrayal (one I would imagine Suchet felt was necessary to capture the character's absolute assuredness) that when the humor comes through, it's almost a relief from the relentlessness of the character.
These earlier episodes of Agatha Christie's Poirot have many such humorous, light moments, ones that give an almost breezy feel to the mysteries that slowly ebbs as the years and stories passed, and Poirot goes it alone in a world unrelieved of its misery. It's difficult not to laugh out loud when Suchet delivers a line like "There is nothing wrong with the figure of Poirot," in Wasps' Nest (when someone comments on his diet), or when in The Mystery of the Spanish Chest," a character hesitantly intones, "I mean...you're a detective," to which the imperious Poirot simply replies, "I am the detective." In those moments, there's an almost child-like impishness to Suchet's Poirot that is foreign to the Poirots I've encountered in films and in the novels. In The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor, Poirot encounters proof of his own importance - a waxwork likeness of himself - that delights him no end; that his talents would be recognized with such an honor obviously pleases him...until true friends Japp and Hastings rib him, complimenting him on the likeness...to a nearby Charlie Chaplin statue. Other times, the self-awareness of his own superior skills as a detective are merely obvious and matter-of-fact; in The Million Dollar Bond Robbery, the filmmakers cleverly insert Poirot into a vintage black and white newsreel, with the narrator commenting on the notoriety of the famed detective. And when Suchet looks briefly into the camera with a small smile, it's not a smile of self-deprecation and modesty; it's merely an acknowledgment that of course he's the Poirot, and justly famous for that fact (in The Mystery of the Spanish Chest, not even a lesson in humility, instigated by Hastings, will stop Poirot; he promptly announces he's humble, and then proceeds to tell Hastings that no one will ever be better than Poirot at being humble). Those are the moments where Suchet the actor is able to make Christie's character uniquely his own. One can quibble about the alterations and interpretations of the plots in the various episodes, but in those small moments where Suchet is alone with the character and free to make him come alive to us, Suchet shows his total grasp of the character - his overall vision of Poirot, if you will - that is more complete, more rounded, than any other treatment of this character I've seen (to be fair, playing the character for over two decades helps with that identification weight). Christie's character will of course live on after Suchet tires of playing him, but I can't imagine who - or how - Poirot will come to life in a manner more satisfying than that which appears here in the Agatha Christie's Poirot: The Classic Collection - Set 2 collection.
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.