Four and Twenty Blackbirds: episode overview

I haven’t done an episode review for awhile now, so here’s one I’ve been mulling over in the last few days.  🙂

Things I Loved:

Making Poirot’s friend Bonnington his dentist also. Doing this scores a couple of script writing points. First, it provides some insight to Poirot’s character which is reiterated elsewhere in the series (he hates going to the dentist). Second, Poirot’s aching bicuspid makes a convenient excuse for him to meet with Bonnington a second time, so he can hear the news of Henry Gascoigne’s death; in Christie’s original, they meet again randomly on the Tube. Finally and most importantly, it makes the references to the dead man’s teeth seem natural and consistent with the rest of the story, and serves to slightly conceal the vital clue.

The contrast of the opening scene. Brighton’s frivolous outdoor revelry is sharply contrasted by the interior shot of the dying Anthony Gascoigne.

A tiny detail in the closing scene, but I thought it was great anyway– when the lads are gathered again at the restaurant at the end, you see Molly come through the shot from the back left, bearing two plates of a dessert that might conceivably be the blackberry crumble and depositing them before customers. This is an exact parallel of one of the last lines of Christie’s story, and I appreciated the touch.

Mrs Mullen, the neighbor of Henry Gascoigne, treating Poirot like he’s deaf or unable to speak English– SO funny.

-Bringing food into the rest of the story. Many of the early scripts, especially those based on the “slighter” short stories, take elements from Christie’s original and incorporate the themes into the other characters’ storylines. (For example, in The Cornish Mystery, Mrs Pengelley’s digestive troubles and diagnosed “gastritis” parallel Hastings’ stomach issues and diet.) The crux of Four and Twenty Blackbirds is one man’s eating habits which give away a crime. The script writer for this episode adds the delightful scene of Poirot cooking for Hastings, which is also a good excuse to throw in some Belgian references. The line, “Please– do not be stinting with your praise” is one of my all-time favorite moments of Poirot vanity.  🙂

Miss Lemon’s wireless program. She is listening to a radio drama featuring A.J. Raffles, “London’s Man of Mystery.” He and his sidekick Bunny were modeled from Holmes and Watson; she describes Raffles as “such a dashing figure.” You could read this as an early indication that Miss Lemon finds the whole renowned-London-detective-character attractive, and it elicits a very interesting look on Poirot’s face when he hears it. Of course, in the books, Miss Lemon wouldn’t touch detective fiction with a ten-foot pole (see: Dead Man’s Folly), but the discrepancy doesn’t trouble me. Oh, and the fictional Raffles is also a CRICKETER! Considering Hastings’ cricket mania in this episode, is this a coincidence?

-The forensics team at Scotland Yard, which would go on to send Poirot a get-well message after his bout of food poisoning in Evil Under the Sun.  😀  And Japp absolutely cracks me up in the scene at the Yard in which Poirot is trying to wheedle some information out of him. His “scrap heap of scrap” and his “I didn’t”… ha! And in the midst of the humor, and despite his skepticism of Poirot’s interest, you nonetheless get a good sense of Japp’s own intelligence here.

-Speaking of which, I need to hold forth about the denouement of this episode. This is the very first of Poirot’s many dramatic, public reveals. He (rather outrageously) brings the whole Scotland Yard forensic department onto Lorrimer’s stage. When Lorrimer tries to make a dash for it, he is blinded by stage lighting and cops appear to cover all exits. It is done in truly over-the-top theatrical style– practically music-hall, indeed– and foreshadows future denouements with a calculated theatrical setting (Problem at Sea, Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan, Lord Edgware Dies, Three Act Tragedy, The Big Four). But what stood out to me in this early “big reveal” was a reminder of one of the reasons that David Suchet manages the character of Hercule Poirot so well. It’s one thing to say that he’s a great actor and does his homework and all that– true, but the same can be said for Ustinov and Branagh, and I don’t really want their Poirots. There is a combination of characteristics that Suchet seems to have a natural facility for playing really, really well. The “foreigner” is an obvious one. But in dramatic reveals like this one, a duality in Poirot’s personality is displayed in striking fashion: on the one hand, an extremely charming and/or charismatic gentleman; on the other, a figure who is ruthless to the point of death, and deadly terrifying as a result. Several of Suchet’s very best roles of screen and stage have featured this duality of character, including Robert Maxwell, Rudi Waltz, Melmotte, and Iago. Christie wrote this contrast into her own character, and to see someone of Suchet’s experience and skill have at it is absolutely inspirational.

Things I Didn’t Love:

-Hastings himself was a bit weirded out by the vaguely voyeuristic overtones of the awkward moment in the gallery when Dulcie Lang is posing for a life class. I mean, points for character representation of Hastings, I guess. Not devastating or anything as a moment, but awkward.

-For all the fun of the denouement, there were some curious choices in the general unraveling of the crime. The biggest clue in the story were the “blackbirds”– or blackberries– that the dead man with the unstained teeth was supposed to have eaten. This discovery of Poirot’s was revealed not at the climax of the story, but in the middle. Likewise, the supposition that the last meal that Gascoigne had eaten was not dinner, but lunch, became a deduction made along the way. The dramatic denouement was really more about informing Lorrimer how much tangible evidence they had against him. Part of me wanted a bit more recap at the very end as to just why Lorrimer’s performance was “fatally flawed” (mainly, because he forgot to eat like his uncle).

Things That Confused Me:

-If you were already familiar with the story, the dynamic shifts in the TV plot may cause a little confusion generally. In the book, Anthony Gascoigne had married a rich wife and was consequently well off, while brother Henry was an “extremely bad” artist who was poor. Lorrimer had to wait until Anthony died, because the money would come to his brother, who he had to kill shortly afterward, hence the careful timing of the murder. In the episode, Anthony may or may not have been well off, but Henry was, including assets that could only be sold after his death. If Henry Gascoigne is the rich one, why does Lorrimer have to wait until after Anthony dies to kill Henry? Instead of the chain of inheritance, the focus is shifted so that the very existence of Anthony serves to provide other plot elements: another suspect for the impersonator, some background as to the brothers’ quarrel and the influence of an artist’s model, and just general red herring-ness. It seems the story almost could have been told without Anthony.

-It was something that puzzled me in the book as well– how does George Lorrimer know that Anthony Gascoigne had made no will (or in the book, no recent will at least)? Since the twin brothers had a very long-standing quarrel, it makes sense that they’d consider cutting each other out of their wills if they’d had any.

-Why does Mrs Mullen, the observant neighbor, unlock the door of Gascoigne’s house and let Poirot and Hastings in, since she’s so suspicious of them? And if she knew that Dulcie Lang was upstairs, why “break in” at all– why not just ring?

-In Poirot’s first meeting with Dulcie Lang, he surreptitiously cuts a small piece of blotting paper from the blotter on Henry Gascoigne’s desk. We don’t discover what this is all about until the stage scene, where he reveals how the deception with the smudged postmark was done. But surely there is no way Poirot could have guessed at that point that the tiny blotter smudges he first saw on Gascoigne’s desk were of any relevance to his death.

-Are we supposed to believe that Dulcie Lang’s passionate retort that she would never part with Gascoigne’s paintings at any price indicates some romantic interest? It kind of comes across that way– and the deceased was not young, just saying.

-The restaurant in the book was called the Gallant Endeavor. This was changed to the Bishop’s Chophouse in the episode, and was accordingly filmed at the oldest chophouse in England, Simpson’s Tavern. This is all well and good, since the Gallant Endeavor is supposed to be extremely British in its cuisine, shunning all things hinting of the continental, and has all the marks of a chophouse. However, I don’t really understand why the sign “Simpson’s” is clearly visible on the outside of the restaurant as it was filmed, as characters in the episode clearly refer to it as the Bishop’s Chophouse.

************

Conclusion: What can I say? I do love it! In all of its inimitable, sweater-vested glory!  🙂

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Random thoughts on the new Murder on the Orient Express film

***SPOILERS for Murder on the Orient Express and Curtain***

I came into the theatre this evening full of hearty pessimism. This was less to do with consternation at Branagh’s moustache and more to do with the fact that I have never yet seen a screen adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express that didn’t, in some way or another, annoy me greatly. I think the novel is terrific, and the Suchet audiobook is my favorite dramatization of the story. But evidently it’s quite a difficult story to adapt for the screen, and no matter how beautifully shot or how great the actors are, the scripts always make me want to tear my hair out. So it was with the greatest of skepticism that I approached the new film.

My own commentary on the film will be, first and foremost, from my perspective as a Christie fan and reader. There was, I confess, a good deal of wincing and cringing on my part. But there were also a few pleasant surprises. My overall impression was a general and complacent “meh.” Here I will present a stream of random, muddled observations, great and small…

• The film opens in Jerusalem (rather than Syria) with a strangely comic tableau at the Wailing Wall, of all places. Poirot refuses mismatched eggs and then goes on to dramatically hold forth concerning a relic robbery involving, as suspects, a rabbi, a priest, and an imam. It sounded like the start of a bad joke, and it kind of came off as one, too. Here, also, we are introduced to Poirot’s “weaponized” cane, with which he would go on to stop baddies, break open doors, and do heaven knows what else with. *scratches head* The overall effect of this opening is to give the viewer the impression that they’ve signed onto a rather light-hearted romp, which seems to me a weird thing to do for Murder on the Orient Express. The film goes on to get rather muddled in the middle with Poirot’s interviews, finally slowing down to a snail’s pace from the final denouement onward.

• Branagh manages a pleasant sort of French-sounding Belgian accent. Christie is funny on this point; she never describes Poirot as actually sounding Belgian, nor does she mention any familiarity on his part with the Flemish language. The whole effect he presents to others is “French.” Too much Flemish would be a mistake, but I think Branagh manages the accent acceptably.

• Monsieur Bouc, who despite his name does not sound very Belgian or even French, consorts with a prostitute. An elderly man appears in the room and Poirot asks him if he also is a prostitute. WHAT? Poirot is eccentric, but is supposed to be extremely polite. His curious rudeness continues when first meeting MacQueen in the compartment they will initially share.

• When Poirot meets Mary Debenham, who is decidedly more chit-chatty than her book counterpart, he shows off with a few more deductions a la Sherlock Holmes, divining where the girl came from as well as her profession. For me, this is a supreme no-no: you do not make Poirot into another sort of Holmes. Christie’s character is observant, but he doesn’t give his hand away by laying out an acquaintance’s life history at first meeting like Holmes does. They are very different detectives.

• Poirot giggles like a ninny while reading Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. I was not impressed at Poirot giggling… and giggling at that particular book? However, I found myself vaguely pleased, as a Christie reader, that Poirot was reading Dickens, because he does. (He actually says so in the book Murder on the Orient Express, which is how he knows that “Mr. Harris” would not show up.) One also wonders if the book wasn’t chosen as foreshadowing in which Poirot is, in a later moment of willing and deception-laden self-sacrifice, supposed to be a sort of parallel of Sydney Carton.

• I actually liked how that famous line about Poirot not liking Ratchett’s face was set up in the script. The line did not appear at all in the 2010 adaptation. Branagh’s Poirot frames the comment in terms of knowing, from long experience, what he does and doesn’t like, and pointing out that he realizes Ratchett is a criminal and therefore does not wish to take his case. In a way, I felt that this made Christie’s original line seem a little less arbitrary.

• Bouc begs Poirot to take on the case, suggesting it will be easy for him to look around, get interviews, establish the passengers’ bona fides, and reach the solution. But in Christie’s novel, the interesting point to Poirot is that it is impossible to determine the passengers’ bona fides on the train, since they’re cut off from everyone in the snowdrift.

• The introduction of racial issues seemed a little too forced in this script. Now, if they had used that later on as commentary on the widely-varying personages and how such a variety could have come together only in America– thus shedding light on the mystery’s solution– that might have worked. But as my memory serves… they didn’t.

• Katherine? Katherine?? What the.

• Apart from anything actually murder-related, everyone’s kind of weirdly violent. The missionary is violent. Arbuthnot is violent. MacQueen is violent. Poirot is violent. Ratchett keeps pointing his gun at people for the fun of it, or something.

• Speaking of the missionary, why oh why is the name of Pilar Estravados lifted out of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and plopped into Murder on the Orient Express? Is a Spanish nurse thought to be more exotic than a Swedish nurse? Whatever the reason, I will admit to appreciating this role far more than the Greta Ohlsson of the 2010 episode. She came across as unsympathetically smug and was a terrible exegete to boot.

• Likewise, I liked this film’s Mary Debenham much better than the self-righteous, “You must call stabbing a man to death a positive good and right thing or else you’re a mean judgy-head because of my Feels” character of the TV adaptation. Overall, this film’s characters had a lot more humility and were less hell-bent on self-justification at all costs. Like the book, it makes it easier to sympathize with them when the reader (or viewer) is gently shown that people driven crazy by grief can sometimes carry out horrible vengeance. Recognizing this murder as one more terrible tragedy in a long line of terrible tragedies is more effective than the perpetrators screaming at Poirot, in true 21st-century fashion: “Accept what we did as right, you hater!”

• Similarly, let’s talk about Poirot’s “growth” or change as a character. Both the film and the TV adaptation present a Poirot with an extremely simple concept of right and wrong, and by the end he realizes that life is actually complicated. I know that screen versions must differ from books… but it’s just not what I get from the books. There is a reason that so many fans felt that Suchet’s Orient Express contained his least Poirot-like dialogue. Poirot does have a firm moral compass, but he has never been oblivious to human psychology, unsympathetic to suffering, or hitherto unfamiliar with complex situations and murky waters. Strong morality does not equal naivete and it facilitates, rather than impairs, sympathy. What’s more, Christie works in a plethora of special contingencies that do not allow the reader to make such bald, radical statements as: “Poirot just let twelve murderers go free” or “Private vengeance is obviously justified if you feel really strongly in your heart that it’s right.”

• There are a few times that Branagh’s Poirot quotes other Poirot novels. There are two quotes from The Mystery of the Blue Train: “My name is Hercule Poirot and I am probably the greatest detective in the world.” Also, there is a close approximation of: “You tell your lies and you think nobody knows. But there are two people who know. Yes– two people. One is le bon Dieu– and the other is Hercule Poirot.” But perhaps the most interesting quote was lifted from Curtain. Poirot, murmuring to his mysterious Katherine photograph, says: “I have always been so sure– too sure… but now I am very humble and I say like a little child ‘I do not know…’ It’s one of Christie’s most beautiful Poirot quotes, written to Hastings and read after Poirot’s death. My one quibble here is what Poirot means when he speaks to the photograph; I forget where exactly in the film this happens– does he know who the murderers are at this point and is contemplating what would be the right action to take? If so, then the meaning of this quote is ironically the exact opposite of its meaning in Curtain. In that story, Poirot shoots and kills a dangerous man who gets others to murder for him, and is contemplating whether his actions could be considered justified, since he has saved others by the desperate deed. BUT, he is not willing to let himself off the hook so easily. He will not say, with swaggering confidence, that he definitely did what was right. Rather, he has humility– considering the deed, at best, a lesser of two evils– and entrusts himself to God’s mercy. In other words, the book quote is about not being too sure of yourself when you’ve just murdered someone, even someone reprehensible. In the film, the quote is about Poirot not being sure whether or not to take a firm line with people who have just murdered a reprehensible someone.

• My husband Alex asked me: “Is there anything that Branagh revealed about Poirot’s character from Christie that Suchet hadn’t done?” There was one thing that I noticed and liked a lot– Poirot interviewing the princess’s maid in German. Poirot speaking German, I thought, was great to see. His knowledge of the language helps him solve a clue to a different character’s identity in the film, not unlike Suchet’s Poirot does with the German brother and sister in the episode The Clocks. I love examples of Poirot the linguist.

• Instead of the murder weapon being hidden in the sponge bag quietly and inconspicuously, as would be sensible, Mrs. Hubbard gets stabbed with it instead. In the film, this is solely to try to distract Poirot and throw the blame off the person he is currently interviewing. But is anyone seriously supposed to believe that the murderer would dispose of his weapon by stabbing someone with it…? The moment came across as weird.

• Speaking of Mrs. Hubbard, why does she always seem to get re-written as a vamp instead of as the ridiculous, over-fond mother? In that capacity, she alone could suffice for comedic effect when it’s needed, but recent adaptations don’t use Christie’s own humor here, and I wonder why. Instead, Mrs. Hubbard just comes across as a little cheap. “There was a man in my compartment!” “Are you sure it was a man?” “I know what it feels like to have a man in my room.” Those lines are used in the TV adaptation and basically lifted verbatim from that adaptation into Branagh’s film.

• The silly moustache guard… a tribute, I suppose, to Albert Finney’s Poirot. Hmm.

• In general, I was not pleased with Poirot’s deductions. There is not a lot of “fair play” with the audience.

• Okay, time for something else I thought was well done. There is something I was hoping to see in this film version that I thought would be a simple and effective way to pump up the emotional drama, and they did it– Daisy Armstrong flashbacks. Christie does this in her books as well. I can’t be the only person who tears up when reading of how much the members of the Armstrong household loved Daisy and the other Armstrongs. The idea that John Armstrong had initially written to Poirot for help with the case before he committed suicide in despair was also an interesting addition to the film’s storyline.

• “M. Bouc can lie. I cannot.” Um, sure you can. You’re Poirot, not George Washington. You love lying, in fact. It is an art form with you. I’ve heard it from Hastings himself.

Overall… the film was a pretty strange experience for me. I am not such a Christie purist that I refuse to accept, in dramatizations, any departures from the books at all. Switching between mediums is a tricky business, and I’m sure that much thought and discussion went into the ideas used. All the same, it didn’t click with me. If Christie didn’t write it, it might be okay to use in an adaptation; but if I can’t imagine her having written anything like it, I’m probably not going to approve of this or that choice.

Poirot, Jeeves & Wooster

Now that I’ve watched through the Jeeves & Wooster series several times and read a number of the books (all highly recommended), I feel vaguely qualified to do a bit of comparing and contrasting between it and Agatha Christie’s Poirot.

It seemed a logical move. After all, the two series do have several rather notable things in common. Here’s some listage for you.


Compare…

• Both were produced, in the late ’80s- early ’90s, by Brian Eastman.
• Both are heavily defined by some excellent Clive Exton scripts. He adapted well and maintained quite a lot of the original authors’ dialogue and atmosphere, to the lasting satisfaction of hard-core fans. Speaking of which…
• Both series feature source material from 20th-century British authors that are known to be #1 in their genre. Not just close, but actually at the very top. You don’t get more superlative than Christie in mystery and Wodehouse in humor.
• The title character actors in the two series– namely, David Suchet, Stephen Fry, and Hugh Laurie– are unquestionably some of the greatest talents England has ever seen fit to put on screen. And they all do great accents. 🙂
• Gorgeous sets, gorgeous locations, gorgeous clothes. All the great visuals of well-done period drama. Not to mention snappy theme songs.
• Eastman deliberately infused both shows with a cultivated domesticity that further endeared the characters to the viewer. There is an unmistakable “family” atmosphere at Whitehaven Mansions and Berkeley Mansions.
• Likewise, the shows are quite family-friendly, remaining consistent with the original authors’ material.
• The original stories which form both series include bachelor gentlemen friends sharing a flat and moving in more-or-less upper-class English society. One of the pair is super-intelligent, sartorially impeccable, and great at solving problems; the other is pleasant but not terribly bright, and serves as a frequent stooge and an admiring chronicler of the tales. This is very “Sherlock Holmes” in setup, but in both cases, the authors subvert things in their own ways: Christie makes her brainy cove an eccentric Belgian, while Wodehouse makes his “hero” the servant.

Contrast…

• Brian Eastman made a deliberate decision with Poirot to not include the character of George in those early episodes. This was entirely because he was working on Jeeves & Wooster simultaneously, and didn’t want another series with a valet! This led to greater emphasis on the character of Miss Lemon instead. Another result is that Hastings (patient soul that he is) ends up performing a number of minor tasks that you might normally associate with a valet, although he isn’t really employed in that capacity– paying cab fare and tips, helping with the jacket, nabbing drinks, and so on. To contrast Poirot’s actual valet, George, with Jeeves– it is clear that although George is a sort of paragon in his own way (he must be to come up to Poirot’s standard), he doesn’t possess nearly as much imagination or intelligence as Jeeves. Still, in the books at least, George is instrumental in helping Poirot with some of his cases (“The Under Dog,” “The Lernean Hydra”).
• Because Eastman produced, and Clive Exton scripted, ALL of Jeeves, there is greater consistency in the feel of the shows in many respects. The fact that it ran only four seasons would also be a contributing factor. Poirot, on the other hand, spanned some 25 years, with various script writers and others dealing with production. On the other hand, Jeeves & Wooster has a tremendous inconsistency in casting; Fry and Laurie are in every episode, but nearly every other important character is played by multiple actors, which can result in very confusing viewing. Only rarely in Poirot is a different actor cast for the same role (e.g. Vera Rossakoff). And Suchet’s consistency in the role over a 25-year-span is impressive, to say the least.
• There are some locations shared in common, as is typical in British period drama. Halton House, for example, appears in The Labours of Hercules as well as “Bertie Sets Sail.” Yet there isn’t quite as much location overlap as one might expect. Since Jeeves & Wooster leans “1920s” and Poirot is set firmly in the 1930s, and careful decisions were made regarding period architecture, there is some significant divergence here. Including…
• Although we often think of Agatha Christie’s cozy mysteries in an English country house setting, it seemed to me (correct me if I’m wrong) that Jeeves & Wooster takes us out into the country more often, despite Bertie’s preference for the metrop, while Poirot’s cases were quite often right in the city. Obviously there are a number of exceptions. But this may be because the Jeeves stories generally revolve around Bertie’s family and friends, many of whom are extremely rich and live in these huge country houses.
• If we are contrasting Hastings with the character of Bertie Wooster, we will find that Hastings is, understandably, not nearly so silly. Their manners of speech are quite different. In themselves, there are few great similarities beyond their time at Eton. But I’ve been wondering if Clive Exton didn’t deliberately (or not) imbue some of his Poirot scripts with Wodehousian moments. Hugh Fraser’s Hastings becomes known for his catch-phrases, including “I say!” But offhand, I can only recall Christie putting those words into Hastings’ mouth once– in Black Coffee! But Wooster is always dropping “I says” all over the place. Consider his very first words after meeting Jeeves. Another scene that suggests Wodehouse is at the beginning of The Incredible Theft, in which Hastings is lying on the couch, rambling about cubic “whatsits” and “thingummies.” Again, words never used by Christie’s character, but by Wodehouse’s. Exton’s adaptation of The Veiled Lady includes Poirot chastening Hastings for leaving him “in the soup”– never used by Poirot in the books, but a ubiquitous phrase Wodehouse uses for describing Bertie Wooster getting into trouble. And in Murder in the Mews, Poirot disparagingly asks: “‘The thing,’ Hastings? You think Poirot concerns himself with mere thingness?” The use of “thingness” is pure Wodehouse.

Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse– I don’t think you can possibly enjoy one without loving the other as well. Hercule Poirot is even mentioned in more than one of the Jeeves novels (Wooster being a big fan of detective fiction). For example:

“I mean, imagine how some unfortunate Master Criminal would feel, on coming down to do a murder at the old Grange, if he found that not only was Sherlock Holmes putting in the weekend there, but Hercule Poirot, as well” (The Code of the Woosters).

Christie, for her part, dedicated her Poirot novel Hallowe’en Party to Wodehouse.

“To P.G. Wodehouse – whose books and stories have brightened up my life for many years. Also, to show my pleasure in his having been kind enough to tell me he enjoyed my books.”

So, gentle blog reader, not only should you get watching– get reading, too! 🙂

Poirot sings

A few random notes about Poirot’s singing. Off the top of my head, I can think of two instances in the books where he sings (diligent readers may possibly think of others). He is said to sing in “a hesitant baritone” as well as affecting “an abominable falsetto voice”!

Hercule Poirot essayed in a hesitant baritone.

‘The proud have laid a snare for me,’ he sang, ‘and spread a net with cords: yea, and set traps in my way…’

-One, Two, Buckle My Shoe

***

‘Yes. To hum a tune is extremely dangerous. It reveals the unconscious mind. The tune you hummed dates, I think from the days of the war. Comme ça,’ Poirot sang in an abominable falsetto voice:

‘Some of the time I love a brunette,
Some of the time I love a blonde
(Who comes from Eden by way of Sweden).’

-The A.B.C. Murders

***

I think it is safe to say that Poirot is not much of a singer. 🙂  In the television series, we distinctly hear Poirot’s singing voice (hesitant remains a pretty good adjective to use) in a few places: The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly, The Theft of the Royal Ruby, and The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Neither adaptions of One, Two, Buckle My Shoe nor The A.B.C. Murders feature Christie’s scenes of Poirot’s singing in church and to tease Hastings, respectively.

In Johnnie Waverly, Poirot and Hastings encounter a disappointing buffet breakfast at the home of their host, and subsequently decide to nip off in the car in pursuit of sustenance at an inn. While riding back, Hastings (perhaps cheered by his recent pint) seems to initiate the singing of the children’s folk song, “One Man Went to Mow.”

The Theft of the Royal Ruby sees Poirot as a guest of a renowned Egyptologist and his family at Christmastime. On Christmas Day, we see Poirot and company in church while our favorite detective is schooled on the proper vocal arrangement of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”

And in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Poirot (in a burst of enthusiasm for the British war effort) leads his merry band of fellow Belgian refugees in a sort-of rousing chorus of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t mention it here, but since I have the photo up anyway– remember how Poirot points out that Mrs. Inglethorp has extended hospitality to himself and *seven* of his fellow countrymen who are refugees? Count the number of Belgians trailing along after Poirot. Are my eyes deceiving me, or is that actually eight men?

Here’s another photo. Who’s the mysterious extra man?

Anyway, getting back to the point of singing…

Suchet does not consider himself much of a singer, and as a matter of fact you’ll rarely see him singing in his screen roles. But there is a rare occurrence of such in the film When the Whales Came, and coincidentally, his character is once again singing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.” In a decidedly inebriated state! (When the Whales Came is also set at the time of the Great War, hence the choice of song, and the music for the film was by Christopher Gunning. Small world, eh?)

Miniature room box #2: The study

I’ve been mostly finished the miniature study for some time, but I’ve been waiting for ages to get the shelves I ordered. Well, they came yesterday at last! There are still one or two things I’m waiting on, a standing lamp in particular, so I borrowed a lamp from the sitting room to help light things up in the meantime. Here it is…

Here’s a bit of an overhead view of the desk. On it, you can see a little green-shaded desk lamp, a calendar (anachronistically dated 2006!), a black vintage phone, a letter-holder, an inkstand and letter-opener, and that little verdigris antelope statuette that Poirot has on his desk in the latter episodes. (I made that out of Sculpey and painted it.) Also part of the desk set is a blotter, a fountain pen, a magnifying glass, and a bridge score pad. Perhaps Poirot is investigating Cards on the Table?  🙂  I made the chair on the right with some bendy brass rods and upholstered it with the same fabric I used on the window curtain and the cushions in the sitting room– the chair is actually very unstable! I was delighted to have found the brass clothing valet in the back left there, which you can also see in his study in the latter episodes. The floor lamp actually belongs on a table in the sitting room; I brought it here for a bit more light. The little bonsai tree I also made, not liking the ones I saw in stores, and put it on a little Art Deco table with scissors on the shelf beneath.

You may have seen this shot before, but I’ve made changes. The Japanese prints are still there, but I’ve exchanged white lilies for yellow irises (in reference to the story). The mini clock here really works; it’s very Art Deco-looking. I scored it off a friend of a friend for $1.  🙂  The ashtray includes a tiny black cigarette, the kind it is Poirot’s affectation to smoke. The brass coat rack really doesn’t belong here; that’s where the standing lamp is supposed to be. It would be an inconvenient location for a coat rack. But I live in hope of one day making a fourth room, a hallway and perhaps Miss Lemon’s office.

The scene of Prague appears in several places in the earlier episodes, most noticeably in the sitting room of his flat. I stuck it here in the study with a picture light. The mini barometer I made as a model of the one in his second flat (see the first bit of Third Girl for a good glimpse of it). I believe that one was loaned to the set by Suchet, who apparently collects barometers. The chess set is pretty self-explanatory. The umbrella and cane stand is meant to be transferred to Future Room #4 as mentioned above.  🙂  The Chinese curio shelf includes such trifles as a ball of malachite, a sheep figurine, a compass, a crystal specimen or two, and a Chinese coin.

The bookshelf is one of the most fun parts of the room. Delightful to fill it up! The “pottery” on the top shelf are actually dollar store beads.  🙂 I moved things from elsewhere to the shelf, including the running deer statue, the copy of Murder on the Orient Express, the copy of Blue Train (on the top left, propped up), and the globe that I used to have on the desk.

Detail. Notice the golden sphinx figurine (a reference to Poirot’s journeys to Egypt). I also moved First Steps in Russian to the bottom left shelf, as it was too big to stand up!

On the second shelf on the left, you can see a Pieta statuette; it is holding up the loose books in that shelf, including the one right next to it: Agatha Christie’s A Pocket Full of Rye!

More detail. On the bottom shelf is a series of medical reference books– VERY useful! Also, I painted up a series of Ariadne Oliver novels, which are next to them. You may remember that Poirot has a set of her books in his office, right behind his chair.  🙂  The turquoise “jar” is another bead.

The mantel clock

The lovely Art Deco mantel clock that appears in Poirot’s second flat has a fun history. It was acquired by David Suchet and used as a prop for the show (as is the stylin’ barometer in the front hall).

I decided to make a little model of it for my miniature room. It’s skinnier than the original; all the better to fit into a small space.  😉  I used a sterling silver dog charm (loop cut off) for the statue part– the dog in the original looks rather like a Doberman, but the best charm I found for my purposes happens to be a Great Dane. The agate bases are rectangular cabochons that I ordered from Estonia. The rest is metallic cardstock, beads, transparent plastic, and a bit of paint.

Poirot himself had a model of a foxhound he bought with his winnings from his bet with Giraud in The Murder on the Links (he names it Giraud, in fact).  🙂

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Christie’s physical descriptions of Poirot: Branagh and Suchet

The trailer for the new Murder on the Orient Express film has been released. Various reactions ensued. There’s a lot of excitement, of course, at the prospect of Christie on the big screen again. There’s a heavily star-studded cast (not unlike the 1974 Finney production, in that way). But what stands out to me is the visceral reaction to the simple sight of Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot. A lot of longtime and hardcore Poirot fans are stunned– not necessarily in a good way. And yeah, okay, I’m one of them. I may have used the phrase “greying, tousled 21st-century hipster” once or twice.

And yet, I do want to be as fair as possible. Fans were bound to react with a great deal of indignation at the sight of another Poirot after Suchet’s 25-year span on the small screen. So utterly dedicated was he to the character, so very convincingly did he pull off the role, that it has become difficult to associate Poirot with anyone else. (Ustinov who?) I don’t think I personally ever really will. He really did seem to just waltz off the written page and onto the screen.

So let’s consider the written page– Christie’s own physical description of Poirot. Many fans are comparing the look of Branagh’s character unfavorably to Christie’s original. Others are comparing only against the Suchet interpretation, and although he’s famously faithful to Christie, there are still distinctives against which, from a more purist point of view, certain criticisms of Branagh would be somewhat unfair. You might say that this post is me trying to put a best construction on, against my own knee-jerk reactions.  🙂

Poirot is described for us, via Christie, as about five feet four inches tall, or “no more than” five foot five. Branagh seems to be somewhere between 5’9″ and 5’10”; Suchet is apparently around 5’7″. Neither actor is quite there, although Suchet is closer.

Christie often describes Poirot’s distinctive green eyes. Branagh’s are blue; Suchet’s are brown. Arguably Branagh is “closer” there.  🙂

But oh! the moustache! What great consternation was caused by Branagh’s eye-popping facial hair– definitely grey, whereas Suchet keeps a proper blackness. But I think what shocked people more was the flamboyance of Branagh’s. Having a big and flamboyant moustache is actually quite in keeping with Christie, as well as with the early 20th-century continental ‘stache in general. She has many ways of describing Poirot’s, so some variation is acceptable for the purist. But she does occasionally use words like “enormous” (e.g. Dead Man’s Folly). I even seem to remember something about the Christie estate expressing surprise at the time that the Suchet ‘stache wasn’t as flamboyant as it could have been, although they understood the reasoning of the creators of the show. And I think the decision about the ‘stache for Suchet, Brian Eastman, etc. really came down to a desire to not make Poirot appear more ridiculous than necessary. It’s true that in the books, the extreme moustache did contribute to many Englishmen’s contempt for Poirot and their view of him as ridiculous. But by the late ’80s, the character of Poirot himself seemed to have become somewhat of a joke– people didn’t take him seriously, which is why John Suchet initially discouraged his brother from taking the role. It became very, very important for the show’s creators, as it was for Christie’s family, that the character be taken seriously, and I do think that the moustaches they had for Suchet’s Poirot were the right choice as a result. Now that Poirot is firmly established on screen as the serious and well-rounded character that he is, thanks to Suchet, another actor can perhaps come along and demonstrate the flamboyancy aspect of it (although identifiable wax and pomade is still most in keeping with the books). And I think that Branagh really had little choice but to differentiate his Poirot from Suchet’s in various ways, for better or worse. So there you go…

A few other words about hair. My own biggest issue with the Branagh image is that in some of these early photos, Poirot’s hair looks too unkempt, and his centre parting goes haywire. It is also too grey, although one might make one small observation that way. Although Christie mentions more than once how “suspiciously” black Poirot’s hair is, and either hints or states outright that he dyes it, consider Hastings quote from The A.B.C. Murders on the subject…

‘You’re looking in fine fettle, Poirot,’ I said. ‘You’ve hardly aged at all. In fact, if it were possible, I should say that you had fewer grey hairs than when I saw you last.’

Hastings goes on to say that Poirot’s hair is “so much blacker” than when he saw him last. The inescapable conclusion, then, is that Hastings has seen Poirot with greying hair! But it’s true, we don’t actually see it on the written page (not until almost the very last page, anyway), so ultimately I come down on the side of grey hair being a no-no.  😉

Since we’re talking about hair, here’s one of my favorite descriptions of Poirot’s appearance from “The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest”:

To see Poirot at a party was a great sight. His faultless evening clothes, the exquisite set of his white tie, the exact symmetry of his hair parting, the sheen of pomade on his hair, and the tortured splendour of his famous moustaches– all combined to paint the perfect picture of an inveterate dandy. It was hard, at these moments, to take the little man seriously.

Poirot is always described by Christie as at least appearing to have a full head of hair, with a centre parting. In the pictures I’ve seen, Branagh’s Poirot just looks too 21st-century for my liking– not enough pomade, and at times downright tousled! So, what are we to make of Suchet’s Poirot on this point? As a matter of fact, a significant number of stage, screen, or artistically-rendered Poirots in days gone by are deliberately depicted with vanishing hairlines, contra Christie. Why? I think the most obvious answer is that, far more prevalent than the author’s description of Poirot’s hair is her famous description of his head— “egg-shaped.” Christie herself, humorously, wasn’t quite sure what an egg-shaped head even was. But since it calls attention to head shape, it automatically (at least to me) creates a visual assumption of some level of baldness.

For the overall effect in appearance, Christie describes Poirot as looking “positively exotic” (e.g. Dumb Witness, etc). Suchet most definitely wins that contest. He has mentioned in interviews that his Eastern European heritage has aided him in playing the roles of “outsiders,” as he “certainly doesn’t look like a typical Englishman.” I don’t really know what a typical Englishman is supposed to look like, but if I had to guess, Branagh (who’s from Northern Ireland) might be high up on my list.

For general body type, Poirot is written as a “small, compact figure” (The Labours of Hercules), “delicately plump” (The Big Four), with “a certain protuberance around his middle” (Evil Under the Sun).  Although vain about his brainwork and meticulous about appearing neat, he has no illusions about being attractive to the opposite sex, and in physical appearance is only proud of his moustaches. Other physical descriptions of Poirot from Christie include “expressive eyebrows,” “tiny, fastidiously-groomed hands,” and “short, stubby fingers.” He is in the habit of tilting his head to one side like “an inquisitive robin.” He is attired in correct, well-pressed and symmetrically neat urban wear, has an English tailor (Dumb Witness), prefers his large turnip of a pocket watch, and indulges in bling like pearl studs (“The Under Dog”). Christie’s written character uses no spectacles, monocle, or pince-nez (Lord Edgware Dies). He wears tight patent leather shoes which are a regular source of discomfort for his feet and affect the way he walks. And he always wears a hat when outside and muffles up to the nines against any possible chill.

It will be interesting to see how much, or little, of Christie’s descriptions factor into the appearance of Branagh’s Poirot. I was not favorably impressed by the grey and the generally rumpled appearance he seemed to present. And I’m still thoroughly convinced that Suchet was the perfect Poirot, so much so that in whichever little ways his presentation of the man departs slightly from the books, it seems that Christie herself must have gotten it wrong! That bias of mine has to serve me as a reminder that Branagh, great actor that he is, does deserve at least some leeway.

We’ll see what we shall see…

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The ghost that took over his life: Poirot’s handwriting in Curtain

“I am writing a letter to Hastings to explain all that has happened, and what makes it extraordinary is that the art department have discovered a way to create my handwriting so that I do not have to write every word myself time after time. It is as though a ghost has taken over my life.”

-David Suchet, Poirot and Me

This little detail about the final scenes of Curtain, mentioned in passing in Suchet’s book, intrigued me when I first read it. Art departments and handwriting are always of special interest! But it was only when I took a close look at what is shown on screen in this episode that his meaning became clear. (In advance: please understand that in this post, I’m not attempting any sort of “gotcha!” to said fine art department– I may have never noticed, had it not been obliquely pointed out by Suchet himself. I merely note this as something that interests me.)

It began simply by noticing that the letter that Poirot was writing to Hastings looked an awful lot, but not quite, like Suchet’s own handwriting. Curious, because the letters all looked like he wrote them, but something seemed a bit off about it. Then I remembered the quote from his book. Do you notice?

Font-lovers may notice what is so curious about the FIRST sentence of Poirot’s writing here: what we’re looking at is essentially a “David Suchet’s Poirot” font. Zoom in (click on the picture) and look at any single letter– try the lower-case “h,” “y,” “m,” for easy examples. Every one of those letters looks exactly the same as every other in that sentence! That’s what looks unusual– the first part of the page is uncommonly smooth and regularized. Now starting at “But really, my friend,” look at the rest of the words. Those are hand-written by Suchet himself, and contain variations on the letters rather than uniformity, appearing much looser that the words that came before. The camera had to show him actually writing with his own hand for these shots, but a font was made of his handwriting for the first part of a paragraph so he wouldn’t have to write it all out each time. Presumably print-outs were made to which he added. This is what his quote at the top of the post meant. If you look carefully, you may even notice that the color of the ink appears slightly different between the “font” and the true handwriting.

Once you see this pattern, you can’t un-see it in the other paragraphs of writing shown. I’ve highlighted the real handwriting in blue brackets; the rest is a printed font.

There are at least two possible reasons I can think of as to why the art department would go to the bother of creating this font in the first place. Either it really was merely to convenience their actor; or it might be that doing too much handwriting in those arthritis-heavy prosthetics does not-nice things to them. There may have been other reasons.

The font works perfectly well for the few moments it appears on screen. If, however, you really wish to forge someone’s writing successfully (or even to create a slightly more believable handwriting font for closer scrutiny, though it is far more expensive to do so), always remember to use multiple variants of letters.  Poirot himself knows enough about forgery to let you in on that.  😉