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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Missing out on domestic love: 15 moments of loss

One of the most touching aspects of Christie’s characterization of Poirot are those glimpses of loneliness inherent in a character who has missed out on the personal relationships that lead to marriage and family life. ***As always, spoilers for everything!***

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‘I, Madame, am not a husband,’ said Hercule Poirot. ‘Alas!’ he added.

‘I’m sure there’s no alas about it. I’m sure you’re quite delighted to be a carefree bachelor.’

‘No, no, Madame, it is terrible all that I have missed in life.’

-Dead Man’s Folly 
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Viewers of the television series will notice that the theme develops and increases over time, especially in the filming of the novels. And yet, glimpses can be seen very early on in the series as well. Some are subtle, and others are blatantly obvious. There are nuances and shades of meaning in these fleeting and poignant moments, but they all share the same characteristic of wistful loss. Here I present 15 gloriously-rendered examples.

1) Third Floor Flat– Perhaps the first clear example in the series. It is unique, and pleasing for Christie readers, in that we get a glimpse of the nostalgic admiration of a girl who resembles an old flame of Poirot’s before the matter is explained to the viewer. So, readers who know the story are gratified to have “inside knowledge” of what lies behind the faraway smile, which will be explained in later scenes. ‘If I were your age, monsieur, without doubt, I too would be in love with her.’

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2) The Plymouth Express– Another early example, this is the first clear indication we have that Poirot would very much have liked to have been a father and a husband. The expression says it all, in response to Halliday’s: ‘You’re not a father, Poirot. You don’t know what it’s like, trying to bring up a daughter all on your own… no wife to talk it over with…’ Also, it is perhaps the first time the viewer becomes annoyed with the lack of tact of those who remind Poirot what he’s missed out on!

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3) The Double Clue– This one’s pretty obvious, of course, and it has the added novelty of a presently-kindled flame, with some returned affection, yet the impossibility of the relationship going anywhere. There are several other meditations on personal loss throughout the episode, from the loss of wealth to the loss of one’s homeland. But all the poignancy is concentrated in loss of a chance at love.

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4) The Chocolate Box– It’s fascinating that this particular story was, when scripted, turned into another sort of dead-end romance, this time from Poirot’s past. I suppose it gives Virginie a little more “connection” to the plot than she seems to have in the original story, and since the incident is buried long in the past, one can get away with adding romantic elements. An added nuance to the sadness-tinged reunion with her is that Poirot has a glimpse of what life could perhaps have looked like for him, had les Boches not driven him from his native Belgium as a refugee: sons in native uniform, and a wife of his own country. ‘…I was just saying to Jean-Louis that he was always the most fortunate of men.’

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5) Lord Edgware Dies– A rarity in that Poirot, Hastings, Japp, and Miss Lemon are all together at dinner when the conversation turns to Poirot’s lamented bachelorhood. It’s a subject that is clearly uncomfortable for Poirot, made weirder with the flattering attentions recently given him by Jane Wilkinson. Also, we have another indication (suggested as early as Third Floor Flat) that Poirot considers himself too old, and that the time of la tentation is lost in the past. ‘But now, alas, I think it is too late.’

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6) The Mystery of the Blue Train– This is one of several examples of the awakening of loneliness and loss that comes, not from a romance of his own, but from some pretty young friend Poirot has met in the course of the case. In this instance, he has a travelling companion to whom he becomes an ‘avuncular.’ Like a daughter (in fact, she had lost her father and has a cry on his shoulder about it), Katherine Grey is a somewhat needy character who was taken under his wing. When she leaves him unexpectedly to go off on her own, he is struck again by the pain of solitude. The film ends when, after she leaves, he is left by the water’s edge, contemplating the happy, carefree family before him (consisting, incidentally, of an older woman, her much younger husband, and her grown daughter). This loss strikes me as resonating more with the parental sadness of the empty nest– although in Poirot’s case, his patronage came and went very quickly. I’m also reminded of one of Poirot’s iconic lines at the end of the book: ‘Life is like a train, Mademoiselle…’ And ultimately, he is fated to travel it alone. And we’re all sad.

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7) Death on the Nile– A classic example, and one that works beautifully with the plot, which is seething with the desperation to which love might drive a person. ‘Love is not everything,’ Poirot says to Jacqueline. When she disagrees, he is forced to admit that he does not really understand this on a personal level, and is faced once again with the great loss of his life. At other times in his literary journey a la Christie, Poirot has expressed relief that he does not have an ‘ardent temperament’ because it has saved him from many embarrassments. But in this case the overwhelming devotion to a lover– an alien experience to Poirot– sparks pity in him, and he permits the couple to commit suicide rather than face the executioner. The precise reasons why– Poirot always has precise reasons– are spelled out a little more thoroughly in the book than in the adaptation.

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8) After the Funeral– ‘The journey of life, it can be hard for those of us who travel alone, Mademoiselle.’ These are words, reminiscent of the theme in Blue Train, that Poirot states to the murderer– interestingly, very shortly after she has unknowingly incriminated herself with a fatal clue. In this context, the realization of loss and loneliness in life is displayed as a reality that transcends class, and the point of commonality Poirot finds here gives him an insight into the killer’s motive. To find another example of Poirot’s sympathy towards a woman who works as a lower-class companion and is driven to crime in a desperate bid for money, see “The Nemean Lion” from The Labours of Hercules.

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9) Taken at the Flood– In this story, Poirot finds himself as a sort of godfather-type figure to Lynn Marchmont, whose father was a good friend. And, Lynn happens to fall in love with a mass murderer (!)  This causes an awkwardness similar to Death in the Clouds and Three Act Tragedy– “Er, I’ve kinda just sent the guy you love to the gallows… sorry/not sorry?” But I include this example here because Lynn, of whom Poirot is ‘most fond’ and who had been planning on staying in England permanently, decides to leave again. ‘Write me a letter, Monsieur. I like your letters.’ It is a familial sort of loss for Poirot, and one full of turmoil in light of the bizarre circumstances of her departure.

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10) Cat Among the Pigeons– This is one of the most curious and enigmatic moments of “wist” in the series. It is very fleeting moment in which Poirot, in the course of observing the various teachers at Meadowbank School, is watching a ballet lesson. A row of girls are at the barre and are practicing positions in pointe shoes. Poirot watches them with the most startling expression of bittersweet nostalgia on his face. Of what exactly is he thinking? The touching innocence of youth, uncorrupted by matters of crime? The disappointing fact that he himself was not to be the father of a daughter? Someone please ask David Suchet… he’s the only one who can read Poirot’s mind…

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11) Third Girl– Another case (and a particularly disturbing one) in which the young couple in love awakens in Poirot his own sense of loss. This is one of the most emotional reactions Poirot has in the series; even Mrs. Oliver comments on his tears. ‘…The mystery that even I, Hercule Poirot, will never be able to solve… the nature of love…’

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12) The Big Four– Almost everything in the final series touches on this theme. There’s a really interesting moment in this script when the housekeeper describes the fastidious and irritating habits of the deceased man (a bachelor), and Poirot appears to have a moment of sober enlightenment concerning his own bachelorhood. It’s very subtle and lends a moment of personal poignancy to the scene where the viewer wasn’t expecting one. Japp: “Did he ever marry?” Housekeeper: “Oh, no! Can you imagine it? What woman would have him? Woe betide you if you tried to move one of his precious books, or tidy up his bloomin’ letters!”

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13) Elephants Can Remember– Poirot says to Zelie: ‘Mademoiselle, neither you nor I are married. We may never be married. But they should be.’ It’s the argument that finally persuades the chief witness to come forward with her story.

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14) The Labours of Hercules– The scriptwriters were going really, really heavy on the “wist” here. The first example of the theme is Poirot’s visit to his doctor. ‘You’ve had a remarkable career– at the expense of having a family! Nothing wrong with that, but that’s what you’ve chosen…’ This is adding insult to the injury of having “failed” as a detective, and these two horrible realities dovetail to serve as the impetus to reunite Poirot’s chauffeur Ted with his lost love. This successful reunion contrasts with the totally tanked relationship with Vera Rossakoff, another grievous “what might have been” in the realm of personal relationships. There’s also an unprecedented use of fake wistfulness, when the Countess speculates what’s going through Poirot’s mind when he sees Alice, her daughter. ‘He looks at you… and he sees the life he might have had.’ We learn later that this isn’t actually what Poirot is thinking– he’s too busy having his suspicions alerted by the girl’s biting of her thumb!

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15) Curtain– Was television ever as moving as this? Throughout his life, Poirot had never really brooded excessively on his regrets concerning love and family– rather, we see him repressing the pain and struggling past it. We don’t see this brooding in the final days of his life, either, as he focuses his attention on this most difficult of his cases. If anything, Hastings becomes the torch-bearer on the pain of loss in this episode– his wife, his daughter (to Franklin and Africa), and Poirot himself. In such a context, this line of Poirot’s, one of Christie’s own, is a most meaningful one: ‘My heart bleeds for you… my poor, lonely Hastings.’  Poirot knows, on every count, that Hastings is about to be left very much alone in the world. A lifetime of domestic loneliness endows him with sympathy for his friend’s losses, the blessings of which he had himself never enjoyed in the first place. Hastings finds himself choked up at this sentiment of Poirot’s, possibly because in spite of the fact that the man is near death and has struggled with loneliness for so many years– he will even die alone– it is Hastings’ loneliness, not his own, that most concerns him in those final moments.

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Syon House and Park

Syon Park is a popular filming location and its distinctive settings appear in multiple Poirot episodes: most dramatically, perhaps, in The Labours of Hercules, where the classical imagery of the setting lends itself nicely to the plot…

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The Great Conservatory and the fountain statue of Mercury.

…and also in The Big Four, where the Great Hall is used for the chess tournament.

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Did you notice that Syon Park is also used for certain shots in Thirteen at Dinner, the 1985 Poirot film with Peter Ustinov? The dinner itself takes place in the Great Hall.

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The property is supposed to be Sir Montagu Corner’s residence, so we also see a number of other shots of the area, like the Long Gallery…

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…and various shots of the outside of the house.

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Another Christie/Chesterton connection… from Lord Edgware Dies

***Spoiler for Lord Edgware Dies and “The Wrong Shape”— read it here if you’d like to before continuing on.***  🙂

Almost immediately after I posted my speculations about whether Christie borrowed an idea from Chesterton’s Father Brown story “The Sign of the Broken Sword” for The A.B.C. Murders, I ran across something else. Soaking in the bathtub the other day and reading Lord Edgware Dies, I was reminded of another Chesterton story.

In “The Wrong Shape,” the solution to the mystery is uncovered because the murderer snips off a tiny, upper-left corner of the paper on which the victim had been writing. We are to assume at first that the paper is a suicide note, but Father Brown realizes that the paper is the wrong shape because quotation marks have been snipped off the top corner, thus completely changing the intended meaning of a text (an exotic story).

Is this not exactly what helps break open the case of Lord Edgware Dies to Poirot– the torn sheet of Carlotta Adams’ letter which removes the letter “s,” turning “she” to “he” and obscuring the original meaning of the victim’s writing?  🙂

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I have insufficient knowledge of the tropes of classic detective fiction to know if this was actually a super-common device among writers at the time, but I’d think it unlikely, or the solution would be too glaringly obvious to the reader. Is this another cause for a hat-tip to Chesterton?

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The painted miniature books (2)

So I finished painting the last four Hastings novels (fighting Peril at End House tooth and nail along the way, using a sample of my “two shots spliced together” technique for Lord Edgware Dies, trying a bit of tiny landscape painting with Dumb Witness, and rounding them all off with a slightly impressionistic The Murder on the Links). Now what?

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These little books were pretty time-consuming. Each one took a total of at least five to seven hours, including prep time. I had to watch through the episode, collect a bunch of likely screen shots (for some episodes it was as many as two dozen to choose between), choose one and print it out in large and small sizes to work from, paint the cover on, re-read the book, make a list of representative quotes that might fit onto the back, choose one, and paint it on the back. This project had the potential to be wearying.

Unfortunately, it was also really stupidly fun. And tremendously addictive. I wanted to carry on, but if I kept going, where would it end?

I’d been posting the books on Twitter as I went along. So, at the end of my Hastings novels, this conversation happened:

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Well, that was it. It was onward to the bitter end. “Please don’t” stop? I’ve created fan art on WAY less provocation than that.

If Suchet could finish all of Christie’s Poirot novels without whining, so could I. Maybe it wouldn’t even take me 25 years.

Maybe…

(to be continued)

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These novels are actually “short stories.” Get it? Short stories? …*sigh*…

The art of ambigrams

I discovered ambigrams quite recently, doodling them on a napkin at Boston Pizza. Ambigrams are a delightful little visual trick with words, by which you can rotate or reflect a word to read the same way upside down, backwards, or other various ways. Some ambigrams consist of a word or phrase that reads as an entirely different word or phrase upside down or in another direction. I’ve always loved both calligraphy and logic puzzles, which is very much part of the construction of an ambigram– and what better theme to put these to than Poirot? We know, from Lord Edgware Dies, that Poirot learned the trick of reading upside down while in the Belgian police force, and puzzles of logic are second nature to him. Ergo, the inevitability of Poirot ambigrams.  😉

Here’s an ambigram that turns Poirot into Hastings (shown with inversion):

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And, as it happens, David Suchet’s name ambigrams really nicely. This graphic reads the same upside-down. I’ll wait here for you to carefully rotate your laptop. Don’t drop it…ambigramsuchet2

Once you’ve started making ambigrams, you find them terribly addictive. What other sort of ambigrams, in keeping with this blog theme, might be fun to attempt?