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 fittingly 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.

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

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Triangle at Rhodes: episode overview

***Spoilers as always***

Things I Loved

1.) Location! Perhaps the most noticeable thing about the episode is the wonderful location. It is the first time in the series that we see Poirot vacationing off in exotic places (yet perpetually unable to escape the murderous English). The filming was really done in Rhodes, and there are many amazing shots of famous landmarks. In Christie’s original short story, the only landmark to speak of is the Mount of the Prophet, and adding more touristy eye candy spices up the story.

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L: The castle of Monolithos. R: The temple of Apollo.

2.) Music. Admit it– you’ve always wanted to hear the Poirot theme song on a santouri!

3.)  The wardrobe.  🙂  What marvelous costumes…

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4.) Making it a real mystery with discernible clues. Christie usually does play fair, but “Triangle at Rhodes,” like “The Veiled Lady” and a couple others, really don’t include fair clue-dropping for the reader. In the original short story, Poirot just seems to know instinctively that Marjorie Gold is a baddie because, as he tells us at the very end, he’s known nice, respectable women criminals like her before. In the episode, his suspicion is first aroused by Mrs. Gold’s claim that it was her husband’s idea to come to Rhodes when Poirot knows it wasn’t (but see “Things That Really Confused Me” below), and he becomes sure when he realizes that the Catholic Mr. Gold would have been unlikely to demand a divorce from his wife, again contra her claims. A plot device borrowed, perhaps, from Lord Edgware Dies.

5.) Poirot crossing himself at the chapel at Monolithos. An early display of an important character trait of our favorite detective.

6.) Poirot speaking Italian! Christie’s canon (e.g. Black Coffee) reveals that Poirot is fluent in Italian, and this might be the only episode where we hear him speaking the language. When it is discovered that certain passports are missing, he asks the desk what happened, and is answered, in that language. He also asks at the harbor about the boat departures when he and Miss Lyall are chasing the villains. One wonders why he mightn’t have used those linguistic skills with those obstinate customs officials, to score a few more points.  🙂

7.) These glasses. That is all.

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Things I Didn’t Love

1.) Chase scene? Poirot on a speedboat, zipping out of Rhodes harbor to nab the villains as they try to book it to Turkey. I understand that it makes for an exciting chase scene (with dynamite, no less) but I cannot in a million years imagine this actually happening. The mal de mer!

2.) Hunting down the poison-seller. Considering the fact that Poirot warns Mrs. Gold before the murder takes place, why does he waste time after the murder by personally hunting about for who sold the poison to whom when he knows perfectly well whodunnit already? I know, I know… TV pacing. But really, by the time he gets back to the hotel, the villains have left and they have to go running after them, nearly missing them. Seems a little inefficient for Poirot.

Things That Really Confused Me

1.) Douglas Gold’s grumpiness on arrival. Poirot overhears Gold grumbling as he and his wife enter the hotel; one gets the impression that his wife insisted that they come to Rhodes, and he himself wasn’t keen. Later on the beach, Marjorie Gold mentions that it was actually HIS idea to come. Poirot looks up in surprise at this contradiction. It makes sense for the wife to have insisted that they come, since she and Chantry have a plot they’re hatching, and for her to make a pretense that it was her husband’s idea, not hers, to divert suspicion from herself. Well and good. But why doesn’t Douglas Gold  contradict his wife when she says this, since he knows better? In the original story, Mr. Gold does make a couple of comments about what a long way to come it is and such like, but it’s not portrayed as grumpiness, just conventional commentary. Also, when explaining the solution to Miss Lyall in the episode, Poirot doesn’t mention the above contradiction as one of the things that alerted his suspicions– just the Catholic thing. But he certainly suspected Mrs. Gold before mention of divorce came about.

2.) Miss Pamela Lyall. It didn’t really confuse me, but it’s a curious anomaly in the Poirot TV series and is worth commentary. In the book, Christie’s own Miss Lyall is an enthusiastic young tanner who wears minimal bathing dress and gets Poirot to rub oil on her back! The scriptwriters turn her into a Poirot fangirl who uses Major Barnes’ unwanted advances as a way to attach herself to Poirot, thus providing him with a necessary and ever-present sidekick for crime-solving. Still, this leads to a couple moments of (in my opinion) a curious awkwardness, particularly the scene below, which needs to be filed under “Failed Poirot pick-up lines” for a future blog post.  🙂

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Overall? An enjoyable romp with notably spectacular visuals.  🙂

The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge: episode overview

I realized I hadn’t done much analysis on my blog lately– too busy making artworks and getting The London Syndicate finished. But I missed writing about the books and the show, so I thought I’d set a task for myself. A random episode was selected, in this case The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge. What follows are Things I Loved, Things I Didn’t Love, and Things That Really Confused Me. One must be methodical.  😉  And if any of you dear readers can help me out with stuff in that final category, all the better! Here we go.
***Spoilers, as always***

Things I Loved

1.  This money shot! What a location. The moors, the rolling hills… the random sheep! “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”

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2. Hastings as impromptu valet. Producer Brian Eastman had decided not to include George the valet in these early episodes for reasons of his own, and occasionally you’ll see Hastings picking up some of this slack throughout the series– he seems expected to pay cabs, tip servicemen, arrange Poirot’s jacket, and generally keep an eye on his health. In this episode, Poirot matter-of-factly orders Hastings to shoot eight grouse for him (to his friend’s exasperated amusement) and equally matter-of-factly expects Hastings to fluff his pillow when he’s sick! Good thing Hastings is such a sport.

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3. Many hilarious moments of dialog and action. Highlights include: Poirot complaining that his lungs are full of the gunpowder and the fresh air; “You are leaving? One can leave??”; Hastings tapping his nose “in that theatrical manner”; “Mon Dieu. Look at this, Hastings. I am a corpse waiting to die! I shall not survive to enjoy my tetras a l’anglois” (later fed to the cat); Japp heckling the local police; sickly Poirot vaguely waving his hand out from under his blankets. I have to stop now because I’m still giggling. There were some funny moments in the original story that, alas, were left out (Poirot’s article in society gossip about his ‘flu; telling Hastings that his crime scene photographs were bound to be “underexposed and not in the least artistic”), but plenty of fun to make up for it.

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4. A clever way for Poirot to catch the culprits. In Christie’s original short story, the Haverings get away with their murder because Poirot and Japp don’t have enough evidence to convict. The TV adaptations always find a way for Poirot to get his man, though, and in this case, a scent hound is cleverly and appropriately employed to prove Poirot’s theory about the missing Mrs. Middleton.

Things I Didn’t Love

1. Hastings’ firearms mistake. Hastings tells Poirot that Mr. Pace was shot with one of his own revolvers. Now, I’m no gun expert, but that thar looks like a semi-automatic to me. “Gun” or “pistol” would be the generic term if he weren’t sure what was used. Anyway, the police did know which gun it was from the very beginning; there was no mystery there (at least in the TV adaptation). Well, if Hastings did make a mistake, I can forgive him for that… he gets muddled. For me, what’s worse is…

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2.  Inexplicable Archie. Perhaps the worst of the underdeveloped red herrings in this episode is Archie– a poor, bike-riding, awkward, and perhaps vaguely communistic relation of the murdered man. Early in the episode, he accidentally (or maybe not? the viewer wonders) shoots and wounds his obnoxious uncle who had just yelled at him. This makes him suspicious– fine and good. Later, when we hear of the bicycle that is stolen by a suspicious character in a fake beard, Poirot says that he would very much like to establish whether or not Archie had an alibi for the time of the murder; again, very sensible. Hastings goes out to interview him, and never finds out nor reports anything whatsoever about whether Archie has an alibi or not. Archie just yells at him for suspecting him, asks why on earth he should want to kill a man like his uncle, and proceeds to give a number of very good reasons why he should want to do just that. Okay then. Speaking of things that aren’t explained, there seems to be a weird love interest on his part for his cousin Zoe, who’s married to Roger. That is also never explained. In theory, if Archie had been the murderer, he might have also conceived of framing Roger Havering for the deed to clear the way for himself and Zoe– but this is never speculated upon by anyone. One more thing about Archie: Poirot is entrusted with the task of keeping the hapless fellow from brooding at lunchtime, but immediately forgets to do this, being preoccupied with his own discomfort from the cold. Conclusion: Archie is useless and no one really cares.

3.  Jack Stoddard on the night of the murder, just chillin’ in the freezing cold with his rifle. This character is considerably more interesting than Archie, and he also has a motive for wishing his brother’s death. We see him take his rifle from his house on the night of the murder and wander down to Hunter’s Lodge. This clearly is meant to make him look extra suspicious to the viewer, but he seems to have no purpose for being there. It’s possible that he actually meant to shoot his brother and the killer managed it before he did, but again– it’s never speculated upon. No one seems to comment on the fact that the man was right outside the house with a gun and that this is weird and suspicious. Other things confused me about Stoddard, including…

Things That Really Confused Me

1.   The account Stoddard gave to Poirot about Mrs. Middleton sending him for the police. Stoddard tells Poirot that Mrs. Middleton had said that she didn’t ring for the police because Zoe was freaking out and she wanted to get Zoe to sleep “before the police came.” So she ran outside like a maniac, happened to spot Stoddard, and sent him running somewhere else to get the police. Even Stoddard is bright enough to have found this very weird. The excuse that Mrs. Middleton WANTED the delay just to conk Zoe out before the police came is extraordinarily suspicious on “both” ladies. If Zoe had really been freaking out, Mrs. Middleton (had she existed) could have calmed her down upstairs while Stoddard entered Hunter’s Lodge to phone himself, even after a suitable delay, had there been need of delay. Of course, any excuse for needing a delay was ridiculous in light of the fact that there was a dangerous killer on the loose. If the local police had had any sense at all, they’d have detained the housekeeper then and there, and the crime would have been solved pretty speedily.

2.  Along the same lines– why, exactly, DOES the disguised “Mrs. Middleton” decide to dash outside in the first place? She probably didn’t realize she’d find Stoddard standing right there. Why not fire the shot, change disguise, wait a spell, and then call the police from the Lodge? Did she run outside to see if there might be a person in earshot that she would have to send away in a panic, lest they come into the house to investigate while she was changing her disguise? Her plan would be upset if there were more than one person outside in the vicinity. All this is most unsatisfactory…

3.  The escape of the killer. The police notice the open window and assume the murderer had escaped that way. But the “ladies” only describe having heard the shot. Do they actually see the man leave the house? They never say. Had an outside killer really been involved, wouldn’t it have been safer to have invited Stoddard, who was ARMED even, into the house with them, since the killer certainly wasn’t far away? Yet another reason that the police should have seen through this in a heartbeat.

4.   Mr. Anstruther’s bike. The murderers must have known that the man’s bike would definitely be there for the taking at the rail station. Their whole plan depended on it. They mean to initially throw suspicion on Roger Havering, who could theoretically have booked it back to Hunter’s Lodge on that bike, shot his uncle, and then taken a faster train to London to his club. There was even a pre-dug ditch for Zoe to  bury the bike and one of the disguises. But what would Zoe have done if Mr. Anstruther’s bike wasn’t exactly where he had left it? Suppose she couldn’t find it in the dark after all, or that he was keeping it close to himself? So much for the plan. Next time, villains, I recommend planting your own bike nearby to use, thus lessening your chances of not getting a bike at all, or being detained by Mr. Anstruther or anyone nearby he might press into service on his behalf.

5.  What about that delivery of game birds? Mr. Stoddard had been waiting for Mrs. Middleton to stop by to pick up the game birds, but she never arrived. Wouldn’t that have directed immediate suspicion to both the housekeeper and Roger Havering, who was supposed to have dropped her off there? Stoddard surely would have heard the nephew’s car pull up and would have met the housekeeper then and there, had they actually arrived. And if Stoddard gave up waiting for her and was going to (inexplicably) take his rifle for a walk down to Hunter’s Lodge later, why not just bring that delivery of game birds with him? If Mrs. Middleton had been planning to walk back to Hunter’s Lodge herself with them, they couldn’t have been too heavy. In fact, this would have given Stoddard the perfect excuse to have been right outside the lodge that night, rather than standing there for no reason.

6.  The Chief Inspector Japp is most amusing… “for a policeman.” This gentle, retaliatory jibe of Poirot’s is fun, but every-so-slightly odd-sounding to me, only insofar as Poirot is a retired policeman himself. Sooo, he’s kinda dissing himself…? Possible, I guess, but not especially characteristic.

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Summary: Whew! I’ve always liked watching the episode, but I never quite realized until now just how many things in it completely confuse me! The plot is substantially altered and added onto from the original short story (which would be un-filmable otherwise), but it seems to have also created either a lot of plot holes, or just a lot of perplexity to myself.  🙂