The Chocolate Box: a graphic

I’m working on a longer blog post about this episode, but I thought I’d get this out of my system first. There are a few interesting discrepancies in The Chocolate Box, but this might be my favorite… 🙂

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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.

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

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 well.

• 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. I think I was more upset at the misuse of this quotation than at almost anything else in the film.

• 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 (including the 1974 film) 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.” Similar lines are used both in 1974 film and in the TV adaptation, and were added into Branagh’s film as well.

• 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. Again, it’s more like watching Holmes.

• 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 (sic) 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! 🙂

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.  😉

Black Coffee at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre

Last week, Alex and I took a spin up to Winnipeg’s Exchange District to see Black Coffee, Christie’s first play (and her only one with Poirot). The Royal MTC put on this play in contribution to the 17th annual Master Playwright Fest, which this year featured Agatha Christie (dubbed ChristieFest). Many Winnipeg theatre companies tried their hand at Christie plays, including The Mousetrap and The Hollow. Free events during ChristieFest included public viewings of the PBS documentary The Mystery of Agatha Christie (with David Suchet) and the films Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express.

christiefest

Now, I was very excited, as this was my own first Christie play. I’d read both the script of Black Coffee as well as Charles Osborne’s novelization– but of course, plays really do need to be seen! The reviews had been a bit lackluster, but their critique was more directed toward a perceived dullness in Christie’s play itself, not the performance. Well, knowing what to anticipate, I could live with that.  🙂

The cast included Lorne Kennedy as Poirot, Arne MacPherson as Hastings, Ross McMillan as Sir Claud Amory (and Japp), and Claire Armstrong as Lucia Amory. Kennedy gave an especially good performance of Poirot– sometimes, I swear, channeling Suchet. And MacPherson was a likeable, if highly excitable, Hastings. 🙂  One particularly noticeable deviation from the original play is that the secretary Raynor was changed to a woman– “Edwina,” played by Miriam Smith. This was perhaps to balance the male/female ratio.

christiefest3

The pince-nez and lapel vase are distinctively Suchet’s Poirot. But Lorne Kennedy wore them well.

The set and lighting were really beautiful. Having myself specialized in trompe l’oeil in university and having done some set painting, I was particularly interested in the forced perspective garden scene beyond the French windows. For some reason, I was also mesmerized by the reproduction of a painting of Samuel Johnson high on the wall. It seemed to lend a comfortable, fitting, 18th-century “Sir Joshua Reynolds” sort of air to the distinguished country house set.

Christie herself was not particularly fond of this play, and by all accounts it’s not among her best. It’s a typical cozy mystery with conventional stock characters– the noted scientist, the misunderstood girl, the blackmailer, the vamp, etc. Anyone who is familiar with the story The Mysterious Affair at Styles will notice some pretty obvious plot-borrowing. Christie also borrowed the occasional quote from her own stories. This line in Black Coffee can be found almost verbatim in the story “The Chocolate Box.”

POIROT: Madame, it is sometimes difficult to set a dog on the scent. But once he has found it, nothing on earth will make him leave it. Not if he is a good dog. And I, madame, I, Hercule Poirot, am a very good dog!

Charles Osborne’s adaptation included even more lifting of dialog from Christie stories, including “The Adventure of the ‘Western Star'” and several others. C’est curieux! Also curious is Hastings’ apparent eagerness to be vamped, considering that he’s already been out in Argentina which means he’s already married at the time this play is set. Oh, Hastings…

It was an enjoyable evening and the audience seemed to have fun with the performance. The program was cute, too, including not only Christie facts but suggestions on how to make great coffee!

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My only real regret was not being able to get to more of ChristieFest this February. We didn’t learn of most of the events until it was too late, and being the self-professed greatest Poirot fan in at least Manitoba  😉  this was an embarrassing oversight on my part. But well done, Royal MTC, on an enjoyable interpretation of Black Coffee.  🙂

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Poirot as linguist

“There is not much against him, except the fact that nothing is known of his antecedents, and that he speaks too many languages for a good Englishman! (Pardon me, mon ami, but, as linguists, you are deplorable!)”
-“The Kidnapped Prime Minister”

* * * * *

Based on what is explicitly stated in Christie’s own books, we can know that Poirot is fluent in at least four languages: French, English, German, and Italian. The French and English are self-evident. In Murder on the Orient Express, he conducts interviews with the passengers in three languages; this is where we learn that he is conversant in German. In the episode The Clocks, Poirot uses his knowledge of the construction of the German language to clear a certain English-speaking (but actually German) couple from suspicion.

We know he speaks Italian from this charming moment in Christie’s play, Black Coffee:

Carelli: Ah! Monsieur Poirot. Vous voulez me questionner?
Poirot: Si, Signor Dottore, si lei permette.
Carelli. Ah! Lei parla Italiano?
Poirot: Si, ma preferisco parlare in Francese.
Carelli: Alors, qu est-ce que vous voulex me demander?
Hastings: I say, what the hell is all this?
Poirot: Ah, the poor Hastings! We had better speak English.

It is also perfectly possible that Poirot was fluent in Flemish (that is, Belgian Dutch), which would seem a useful asset as head of police in the city of Brussels. But to my recollection, nothing is mentioned of this in the books. Hastings once or twice describes Poirot’s habits as “Flemish,” but the language is not commented upon. Only in the televised adaptation of The Chocolate Box is there a conversation at the Déroulard house about the use of the Flemish language.

The television series adds further glimpses of Poirot’s cosmopolitan linguistic skills in episodes such as Triangle at Rhodes, in which he ably poses some questions to the locals in Greek…

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…And in Murder in Mesopotamia, which has the following:

Hastings: “I didn’t know you spoke Arabic, Poirot.”
Poirot: “Just a few words that I have picked up, Hastings. One should never squander the opportunity that travel affords.”

In The Labours of Hercules, it is revealed that Poirot had never studied the Classics, having “got on very well without them,” at which point he is treated to a Homeric epithet in the original Greek, quoted by his friend Dr. Burton. However, in one of his labours, that of the Stymphalean Birds, he is able to solve the crime with his understanding of the average Englishman’s ignorance of foreign languages, inspiring a young man to up his linguistic game.

Poirot also admits that he knows no Russian in the case of “The Double Clue,” which is why he purchases First Steps in Russian to study the Cyrillic alphabet on a hunch. He learns enough of the alphabet to be ready when another Cyrillic clue of the same type– this time a monogrammed handkerchief instead of a cigarette case– presents itself to him in his adventure on the Orient Express some years later.

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Poirot’s English vocabulary is pretty extraordinary– not terribly surprising, considering his long-term residency in London. All the same, there are several funny moments in the books in which he expresses bewilderment at some colloquial turn of phrase. For example, there’s this little conversation with Hastings from The A.B.C. Murders:

“Perhaps some convivial idiot who had had one over the eight.”

Comment? Nine? Nine what?”

“Nothing– just an expression. I meant a fellow who was tight. No, damn it, a fellow who had had a spot too much to drink.”

Merci, Hastings– the expression ‘tight’ I am acquainted with…”

Peter Ustinov, when playing the detective in the 1980s, took issue somewhat with the dialogue that Christie wrote for her detective. “On the printed page, Poirot is no more Belgian than Major Thompson is English. In language terms we probably see him as one of those foreign schoolmasters whose English is too correct– all very fluent and fluid and quite artificial. Remember that Poirot only puts the simplest words into French, the complex ones are always left in English.” Christie herself sometimes describes Poirot, through other characters, as appearing as a sort of “parody” of a Frenchman. For my part, Ustinov’s critique does not deter my (and presumably many fans’) enjoyment of the character’s dialogue. When Poirot uses simple French phrases like “mon ami,” it’s fairly obvious that this isn’t because he doesn’t know how to say “my friend” in English– rather, he relapses into French for comfortable phrases, or idioms that are better expressed in his native tongue and perhaps also known to his English hearers (e.g., “cherchez la femme” or “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”). Also, as the detective explains to Mr. Satterthwaite at the end of Three Act Tragedy:

“It is true that I can speak the exact, the idiomatic English. But, my friend, to speak the broken English is an enormous asset. It leads people to despise you. They say – a foreigner – he can’t even speak English properly… And so, you see, I put people off their guard.”

Hypochondria, and patronizing Poirot to your peril (a.k.a. “Hastings gets told”)

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the paternalistic tendency of Poirot to organize other people’s lives for them, and the condescending way this sometimes played out in his interactions with Hastings in the series.

What happens when a character dares to do the same with Poirot? Much entertainment!  In short, whenever there is fuss, Hastings invariably gets told off.

In the books, Poirot sometimes allows himself to be condescended to by behaving more naively “foreign” than he really is, to deceive others in the course of an investigation. For all his vanity, he is willing to buy success by (temporarily) enduring scorn, or being thought a mountebank.

‘It is true that I can speak the exact, the idiomatic English. But, my friend, to speak the broken English is an enormous asset. It leads people to despise you. They say– a foreigner– he can’t even speak English properly. It is not my policy to terrify people– instead I invite their gentle ridicule. Also I boast! An Englishman he says often, “A fellow who thinks as much of himself as that cannot be worth much.” That is the English point of view. It is not at all true. And so, you see, I put people off their guard.’

-Three Act Tragedy

Not much of this particular quality makes itself blatant in the course of the series, but other forms of condescension present themselves– sometimes welcome, and sometimes not.

Hypochondria is just one of Poirot’s irritating-but-much-loved traits, and one particular expression of his vanity. Generally, he is only too delighted to be fussed over. But there are various scenarios in which he dislikes the attentions, such as when his personal dignity is affronted, or when being fussed over prevents him from doing what he would rather be doing (such as investigating), or when blatant opportunists want to take advantage of him. In those situations, coddlers, fussers, and patronizers beware. Unless you’re Miss Lemon, who can get away with anything.

Classic examples in The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge…

Hastings: “You get back into bed now. You can leave this to me.”
Poirot: “Comment?”
Hastings: “This investigation. You can leave it to me. I’ll report back to you, of course. I know these people, Poirot. I’ve got one or two ideas already.”
Poirot: “What are these ideas, Hastings?”
Hastings (holding up a finger): “You just relax.”
Poirot: “Hastings, will you please stop tapping your nose in that theatrical manner and tell me all that you know!”

Hastings gets told.

Likewise, he later snaps at Japp who asks him if shouldn’t be in bed: “Possibly, but please, do not fuss!” But he happily accepts blackberry tea from a paternal railway operator as he wheedles information out of him for the sake of the case.

Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan is comprehensive in showing how Poirot deals with “fusses” of both the patronizing and non-patronizing variety. The first time he encounters someone playing the newspaper game of hunting for “Lucky Len,” he is pleased at being recognized as someone whose face has often been in the papers (later to be disillusioned). But when Mr. Opalsen uses Poirot’s presence at his play for the sake of newspaper publicity, he is outraged and takes his revenge by later getting the otherwise innocent Mr. Opalsen arrested. Comparatively, in The A.B.C. Murders, Poirot receives somewhat unflattering newspaper coverage to Hastings’ concern, but does not himself seem to mind, as he hopes it will help the murderer relax his guard.

Jewel Robbery suggests something else of Hastings’ very occasional patronizing air. Extremely laid-back compared to his ever-interfering and micro-organizing friend, Hastings only seems to present this attitude in the case of serious illness or, notably, faced with the terrifying prospect of Miss Lemon coming down on him like a ton of bricks for dereliction of duty.

Hastings: “This was meant to be a rest, you know. Heaven knows what Miss Lemon’s going to say when she arrives.”

Miss Lemon (arriving later and meeting Hastings with a snarl): “I thought this was meant to be a holiday, Captain Hastings. I’ll talk to you later.”

Hastings gets told... again. Chap just can't win.

Hastings gets told… again. Chap just can’t win.

Then there’s Evil Under the Sun, in which the script writers decided to invent the pretext of a health concern for sending Poirot and Hastings off to the Sandy Cove Hotel. While Poirot sits in leisure, conversely moaning pitifully and then complaining that everyone knows he’s ill, Miss Lemon is at her most sternly efficient. Call it maternal rather than paternal– she’s in league with the doctor and brooks no denial as she arranges for the pair to head to the island without a word of consent from either of them. Undoubtably, Hastings’ subsequent hovering at the hotel is due largely to the fear of the wrath of Miss Lemon.

Hastings: “How are you feeling, Poirot? Not too tired after the journey?”
Poirot: “Hastings, I am recovered, I am not the invalid. There’s no need to act like a mother chicken.”

No longer under the spectre of Miss Lemon, Poirot tells off Hastings. Again.

No longer directly under the spectre of Miss Lemon, Poirot– surprise– tells off Hastings.

Later, we have further evidence of what lies behind Hastings’ concern…

Hastings: “So, how are you feeling, Poirot?”
Poirot: “Do you refer to my health, Hastings, or to my feelings concerning the events on this island to which I am confined?”
Hastings: “Well, both, really. I’m going to have to phone Miss Lemon today. She wanted a daily report.”
Poirot: “You may tell to her that I am not sure.”

Miss Lemon eventually shows up, grumbling: “He was meant to be having a rest.” But as Christie readers (and viewers) know, Poirot does not actually need coddling to get better– just opportunities to exercise the little grey cells, a tisane or two, and a good boost to the ego. The opening scenes of The Third Floor Flat feature more of Miss Lemon making a fuss.

Miss Lemon: “Ah– Mr. Poirot. You’ve only done seven minutes. You’ll never cure your cold if you don’t obey the instructions.”
Poirot: “I can’t imagine a method so undignified can cure anything, Miss Lemon. And now also I have the backache, eh!”

Hastings doesn't get told here, but he gets told later when Poirot blames riding in the Lagonda for his "present malady." #BlameHastings

Hastings doesn’t get told here, but he gets told later when Poirot blames riding in the Lagonda for his “present malady.” #BlameHastings

Sure enough, the stimulation of the case soon has him on his feet again: “Poirot does not have colds, Miss Lemon. It is well-known that Poirot scorns all but the gravest afflictions.”

Then, again, there’s Curtain. So many of these themes that wind through the Poirot canon come full circle in that book and episode. In the final story, Poirot is faced with the ultimate in coddling, and expresses his disgust openly at being treated like a child– although some of it is a ruse. And of course, he’s forever howling at Hastings, alternately for his stubbornness, his denseness, or even his inability to coddle properly.

One thing is not a ruse: Poirot’s arthritis. In the critical scene of Hastings’ confession to Poirot of his nearly-attempted murder, something is happening throughout the course of the conversation. It is not commented on, but in many ways, it is just as meaningful and gut-wrenching as the dialog. Poirot is sitting in front of an ancient mirror, attempting to tie his perfect bow tie. He can’t quite manage it. Finally, wordlessly, he appeals to Hastings for help– the one whose tie he had been straightening for so many years.

Full circle.

Full circle.

“Well, I’m jiggered”: a discrepancy most curious in “Murder in the Mews”

In Christie’s story, “Murder in the Mews,” we have this quote from Poirot…

“That man is now in prison, he will serve a long sentence for other matters. Do you really wish, of your own volition, to destroy the life– the life, mind– of any human being?”

In the television episode of Poirot, we have this interesting variation on the quote…

“The man you wish to trap is already in prison. Do you really wish to destroy him? Do you really wish to destroy the life– the mind– of any human being?”


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The word “mind,” you may have noticed, is being used in two completely different senses. Christie has Poirot saying “the life, mind [you]”; Suchet delivers the line as though Poirot is speaking about the destruction of the human mind by murder.

So the mystery is: accidental or intentional? Did the script writer misread the story and write the script exactly as it was delivered? Did Suchet misread the script and deliver an alternate meaning by accident? Or was it a deliberate choice on the part of either of those people to depart from Christie slightly, and have Poirot equate the tragedy of murder with the destruction of that most prized faculty, the human mind?

I will never have the guts to ask, so I fear I shall never know.

“Well, I’m jiggered.”