***Major spoilers, but for the record… if you’re on this site, assume that I’ll be regularly “spoiling” plots anyway because I assume you know them.*** 😉
It is, perhaps, the one thing about the television adaptation of Curtain that baffles me completely.
In that striking scene where Poirot unmasks Norton one-on-one, and Norton begins funneling the venom into his rival, he makes this comment: “Murder me… And then what– suicide to avoid the ignominy of hanging?”
Poirot does not respond in words, but his eyes say something like, “Well yes, that’s basically what I had in mind.” That this was intended as a sincere reaction by Poirot seems to be confirmed by a statement Suchet makes backstage in the opening scenes of the documentary Being Poirot: “He knows he has to die. He could never take the ignominy of being accused of a murder and then [hanged].” It would seem from this that Poirot really means to help his death along in some way, to avoid the shame of both conviction of a crime and being sent to the gallows.
There is one small problem, though: Poirot is never in any danger of the gallows to begin with.
It makes sense, perhaps, for a startled Norton to come up with this idea when he first realizes what’s going on. But Poirot has had months, possibly even years, to think this through. He must have known that he has no danger of being hanged.
Point #1: Poirot is in practically zero danger of being caught at all. And in fact, he isn’t caught. He’s worked this out with remarkable efficiency.
In that awesome aforementioned scene, Poirot suggest to Norton that he himself might fail in his attempt to serve justice, but does Poirot really believe that he’s likely to fail? It reads more like a “humble-bluff” to me. Despite revealing himself to be a clever devil who “does his homework,” Poirot still comes across to Norton as a “pathetic, self-important little man.” As Christie often tells us, this is a favorite ruse of Poirot’s to cause his enemies to underestimate him.
Whether he’s bluffing there or not, he certainly is by the time they get to the chocolate. Norton feels he has won a spar with Poirot (“Shots in the dark”) and is then apparently clever enough to take Poirot’s cup of chocolate instead of his own when suspiciously offered a drink. Unfortunately for Norton, he never saw The Princess Bride.
He could have learned some important life lessons…
I mean, Poirot’s ingenuity with drugged chocolate has already previously saved Hastings from worse than death.
And of course, Poirot has other substantial tricks up his sleeve, including an intricate plan involving a fake moustache and (most importantly) full use of his limbs. No, I cannot believe that he really has any intentions at all of being caught. He’s going to hop out of the wheelchair and commit the deed, and no one will know the full truth– until he reveals it.
Point #2: In the unlikely event that Poirot’s actions were discovered by the authorities, it seems that the most probable way would be if he actually turned himself over to the police. Supposing that he subsequently found his actions so unbearable that he felt he had to give himself up immediately. Would he have been hanged in that case? No. Would he have been hanged even if someone else had turned him in? No.
Why? The simplest reason is that he would not have lived long enough for a trial. Christie knows this theme well; consider the following passage from the end of “Dead Man’s Mirror”:
‘That was– rather noble in a way. I hate to think of her going through a trial for murder.’
Poirot said gently:
‘Do not distress yourself. It will not come to that. The doctor, he tells me that she has serious heart trouble. She will not live many weeks.’
For good measure, here’s “Problem at Sea,” in which Poirot deliberately kills the murderer with an extra-shocking denouement:
Ellie Henderson was beside him. Her eyes were dark and full of pain. ‘Did you know his heart was weak?’ she asked.
‘I guessed it…’
Ellie murmured: ‘So you thought– it might end– this way?’
‘The best way, don’t you think, mademoiselle?’ he said gently.
In “The Chocolate Box,” Poirot allows the killer to walk free, a very rare move, knowing she will die very shortly. In Curtain, Poirot knows he’s about to die from his heart condition. We know from the book that he has deliberately timed this crime so that it will be approximately the last thing he does.
‘I knew that my time was short– and for that I was glad. For the worst part of murder, Hastings, is its effect on the murderer. I, Hercule Poirot, might come to believe myself divinely appointed to deal out death to all and sundry… But mercifully there would not be time for that to happen. The end would come soon.’
‘I am very tired– and the exertions I have been through have strained me a good deal. It will not, I think, be long before…’
In short, Poirot knows perfectly well that he is not going to live long beyond his murder, and he must have known that hanging was not a possibility for him. He was going to die first regardless.
Point #3: Let us speculate even further… even if Poirot was not likely to have a heart attack at any moment, would he have ever been convicted and hanged? I think that even that is questionable. Ironically, (movie-)Norton’s own words help explain why Poirot would not hang: “You can see them now: ‘Went off his rocker, in the end, you can never trust a foreigner.’”
Poirot’s own opinion, in the book, is that he could have killed Norton quite openly with a “gun accident” and it would have never been suspected as murder; that Poirot indeed would have had the sympathy of people who considered him to be a poor, gaga old man who simply didn’t realize the gun was loaded. Such a person would not have been hanged. Of course, Poirot does not choose that route for one particular reason:
And despite Norton’s dig at Poirot’s foreignness, and Poirot’s clear breaking of the law, he has the reader’s sympathy in his quest to protect the innocent, and would likely have a good deal of sympathy in England, too. He has an excellent long-standing reputation there in apprehending criminals, and again, he is a very old and ill man at this point. At worst, it might be said that his mind was going and he needed institutionalizing.
But as Poirot is, in fact, at the brink of death, Point #3 is just added speculation on what could have been. In the end, Poirot is just smarter than Norton. And pretty much everyone else. And he knows it.
So, in summary…
#1: Poirot is in no great danger of being hanged because he probably won’t even get caught. #2: Even if he does get caught– or, more likely, turns himself in– he would be dead long before he gets a trial and sentence, assuming that the sentence IS death. #3: The sentence probably wouldn’t be death, since he’s a sick, very elderly man with a great track record in England and a provocation that is reasonable enough to draw plenty of sympathy from the reader– and the public. Poirot may, possibly, fear criminal conviction and a blow to that reputation, but surely not the shame of execution by hanging.
How does this affect the reading of the film? Personally, to make sense of the scene, I have to read Poirot’s initial reaction of assent to Norton’s suggestion of “suicide to avoid hanging” as deliberately deceptive rather than sincere on Poirot’s part, and Norton’s mark only truly hitting home when he mentions the judgment of God a few moments later. There is enough of a difference in those wordless reactions that I think such an interpretation can stand. Funnily enough, the first two fans I discussed this with said that they read this scene exactly the same way, and NOT as Poirot actually intending to escape hanging via medicinal neglect. Yet, this preferred interpretation of mine seems to be at odds with Suchet’s own intentions for his performance. Am I missing some vital point? What say you, intrepid reader?
This strikes me as an important question for other reasons that seriously affect the story: Why does Poirot refrain from taking the meds? What are his words “Forgive me” exactly in reference to? To some extent, questions like that turn on this point.