Agatha Christie Murder Mystery Collection Review

If Agatha Christie was a long way from being the best English writer of the 20th Century, she may well have been the most popular and was certainly one of the most influential. Her far-reaching hand can be seen in the work of filmmakers as diverse as Claude Chabrol and Dario Argento and her delight in puzzle plots is still seen today in films such as The Usual Suspects. Films of her books were being made way back in the early days of the talkies, and Margaret Rutherford starred as Miss Marple in a fondly remembered but deeply mediocre collection of films in the Sixties. It was in the Seventies however, shortly before she died, that Mrs Christie hit paydirt in the movies with the generously budgeted British film version of Murder On The Orient Express. Packed with stars, snobbery, tactful violence and gorgeous furnishings, this was a huge success and led to three more films in the series - although the law of diminishing returns was felt by the time the last, Evil Under The Sun, opened and rapidly closed in 1982.

The Warner / Canal Plus boxset contains all four films from this later series along with some quite attractive postcards of the original film posters.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

The first film features a heavily padded Albert Finney as the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, making his way home from Istanbul aboard the legendary Orient Express. This being 1931, or thereabouts, the only people who can afford to travel so luxuriously are international reprobates, pseudo / vague royalty, gangsters, the nouveaux riche, the better class of the military and anyone else who has the wherewithall during one of the biggest worldwide depressions of the 20th Century. Luckily for us, this means that lots of big star names were coaxed into playing this rich array of suspects and thus distract us from the increasingly obvious fact that this is a film with one set and an awful lot of talking. A murder is committed in the sleeping car in the middle of the night and only Poirot, assisted by his ‘little grey cells’ and a hell of a lot of moustache wax, can find the culprit or culprits.

Fans of Seventies American cinema will be amused to note that this is the movie which Sidney Lumet made between Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon and it does, at first sight, seem a rather odd choice for this great New York filmmaker. But given that this is, to all intents and purposes, a courtroom drama in which the script and the acting are pivotal, it looks less surprising that it should have attracted the director of Twelve Angry Men and The Verdict. Indeed, his work with the actors is as marvellous as you would expect. He allows each of his big, starry cast a chance to assert themselves with a nice little introduction and a showy interrogation scene and even finds amusing touches for the minor characters, such as those played by Denis Quilley and Colin Blakeley (who are, appropriately, both minor stars in this company).

As is the way in this sort of thing, the actors battle for control of the scenes and it is greatly to Albert Finney’s credit that he makes Poirot such a strong character. Fussy and vain, but also intensely intelligent, Finney’s Poirot is far from the extended foreign joke that he would become in later films at the hands of Peter Ustinov. His eyes are watchful, his movements slight but precise. This is a great performance from a much underrated actor. Poirot is in every scene and he remains the fixed centre around which the supporting cast can disport themselves. The acting laurels go to John Gielgud as the perfect butler for whom a single sniff indicates detestation of his American employer. He also gets the best line - as Gielgud lies in bed, reading, his Italian roomate asks him what he’s reading and says “Is it about sex ?”. Without a flicker, Gielgud replies, “No, it’s about 10.30 Mr Foscarelli.” It’s all about timing and delivery. Alongside the great acting knight, Ingrid Bergman, making a much publicised return after several years out of films, also deserves a bow for her very funny self-parody as an apparently timid Swedish missionary. Anthony Perkins is good too, as a secretary so full of tics as to make Norman Bates look like Clint Eastwood, and it’s always fun to see Sean Connery and Vanessa Redgrave doing what they do so elegantly (at least on this occasion, Connery is actually meant to be a middle aged Scot). As the particularly nasty victim of the murder, Richard Widmark does what he can with a one-note role, and the wonderful Dame Wendy Hiller is ill-served by tons of make-up and a costume consisting largely of a black shroud. Several of the other actors, notably a very loud Lauren Bacall and an outrageously accented Martin Balsam, camp it up with a little too much relish. The only extenuation that can be offered is that at least they are lively, which is more than you can say for the incredibly wooden presences of Michael York and Jacqueline Bissett.

The film looks fantastic, thanks to Tony Walton’s detailed, stylish sets and Geoffrey Unsworth’s photography - the scene where the train departs, all steam and whistles, to the sound of Richard Rodney Bennett’s romantic music, is a love letter to the elusive magic of old fashioned steam engines and is almost enough to get anyone out on the platform in an anorak at 8.30 on a Saturday morning with a flask and a notebook. Indeed, elegance is the watchword throughout - perhaps a little too much elegance at times, since the pace of the film is less that of a jazzy international thriller and more that of a saunter around the Victoria and Albert on a wet Bank Holiday. If you like mysteries, Hollywood stars and period recreation then this will not trouble you in the slightest - I have to say that I can watch this film over and over again with undiminished pleasure - but it does suggest that Lumet was saving his best pacing for his more typical work with Al Pacino. The solution, incidentally, is reasonably fair, if a little obvious, but is most famous for infuriating Raymond Chandler, who thought it was cheating.

DEATH ON THE NILE

It took EMI four years to make their next Christie film - there was a lot of debate about which novel to choose - and they obviously decided that there was no point fiddling about with a winning formula. Death On The Nile features a large cast of Hollywood stars, exotic locations and a plot which is not so much convoluted as coagulated. No fairness this time, I’m afraid to report, since the plot hinges on a spectacular number of coincidences, but it does sort-of cohere in a sort-of logical manner. The old dear cheated like mad, of course - as did most of the Christie-inspired Italian Giallo directors - but it’s sometimes as much fun to spot the holes as it is to guess whodunnit.

Albert Finney was either unavailable or unwilling (Dame Agatha had admired his performance but not his moustache), so Peter Ustinov took over the role of Poirot and immediatley began deconstructing it to fit his own acting style. Hence, scary intensity becomes jocular charm without any intellectual menace and fussiness becomes comic vanity. Ustinov is fun to watch - he always is - but any resemblance to the character from the original books has vanished.

But we don’t watch this sort of film for literary fidelity, we watch it as a guilty indulgence into the sort of rich confection which would make a dentist string himself up in despair, and it is a lavish feast, although not quite as satisfying as its predecessor; partly because of the defanging of Poirot and partly because it’s paced even more slowly than the case on the Orient Express. Coming in at well over 2 hours, it’s easy to lose patience with the beautiful scenery when you’re trying to keep tabs on the plot.

Luckily, the cast are, generally, on top-form. Since this is set on a slightly broader scale, on board a steamer sailing down the Nile, campery is not only more acceptable but to be encouraged since even grotesque stereotypes need to be on an epic level if they are to compete with the wonders of Egypt. Given this, the performance of Angela Lansbury is one of the finest comic creations of the past thirty years. Swanning about like Isadora Duncan’s mad Aunt in a selection of ever more lurid outfits, Lansbury is a joy to watch as she flirts outrageously with every man in sight, clearly believing herself to be some kind of siren. We never get to read any of the books she has supposedly written, but it says everything for Lansbury’s performance that we know exactly what they are like from the way the author behaves. This actress, wasted on 20 years of “Murder She Wrote”, is a comic marvel and she steals the film, despite disappearing rather too soon. Her main competition in the campery stakes is Maggie Smith, as the bitchy companion of a peculiarly restrained Better Davis. Smith, already well into Alan Bennett territory, gives her bad lines a good reading and lavishes true love on the decent ones. She also brings depth to the character in the scenes where she is required to exercise her genuine nursing talents. Mia Farrow is also better than expected, actually using that infuriating quality of fey abstraction as part of the character for once. Of the men in the cast, most of them at the mercy of Ms Lansbury, Jack Warden comes off best, as a German Doctor with an accent almost as deliciously awful as Gene Hackman’s attempt at Polish in A Bridge Too Far. The scenes in which he trades off dubious dialect with Ustinov are highly entertaining. Of the other, more restrained actors, David Niven is, well, David Niven but rather good at it, and George Kennedy seems to be having fun away from the Airport, as a crooked lawyer who is so obvously duplicitous that he couldn’t steal a bottle of milk from a baby. The likes of Olivia Hussey, Jane Birkin and Jon Finch do all that’s required of them - not much - and it’s always good to see Harry Andrews, even in a two line role as the butler. Only Lois Chiles lets the side down in a performance which has all the interest of a brick (you’ll remember how incredibly awful she was in Moonraker a year or so later).

The actors usually manage to divert one’s attention, but there’s no denying that John Guillermann’s direction is more than a little flaccid. Having just made The Towering Inferno and King Kong, it’s understandable that he wanted a rest but it’s a shame that he decided to take his vacation while he was meant to be making a movie. He relies heavily on Jack Cardiff’s stunning location photography and Anthony Shaffer’s reasonably witty screenplay to do the job for him and the best that can be said is that he doesn’t get in the way of his actors. But, as in the previous film, tension is peculiarly absent. There’s no sense of danger, despite several subsidiary murders and an attempted death by cobra. The violence is a lot less subtle this time, with several gloating reprises of the crime and some rather nasty bloodletting which is realistic but inappropriate in this sort of trifle. The worst misfire in the film, however, is the ending which - following a very, very long expository lecture from Poirot - goes for grand tragedy (as does Nino Rota’s rather florid music) but is so badly staged that it’s rather confusing.

THE MIRROR CRACK’D

However, Death On The Nile looks like a classic thriller compared to The Mirror Crack’d, which is so bad it’s actually puzzling. The original novel isn’t vintage Christie, coming from 1961, but it’s not terrible and the plotting is pretty ingenious. Nor is the cast an embarrassment - on paper - featuring Liz Taylor, Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis, Kim Novack, Edward Fox, Geraldine Chaplin and Angela Lansbury as Miss Marple.

But therein lies the first problem. Miss Marple and international superstars do not mix. The Marple novels, unlike the more expansive Poirot books, rely heavily on dialogue and a cosy village setting, with our indulgence required for the way she plucks solutions out of thin air. Once you add Hollywood to St Mary Mead, the whole delicate mixture becomes wildly unbalanced and ends up collapsing. Would a Hollywood studio really have filmed an Elizabethan Epic on location in an English village, during the coronation of 1953 ? Would they have hired a manor house to film in ? Would they have then expected the stars to live in this house ? Would those stars have willingly mingled with the rather insular locals ? The end result is a total farrago, the Yanks meet Brits story not so much Straw Dogs as Paper Kittens.

It might not matter so much if the film were tautly directed, exciting and well acted. Sadly, none of these exemptions applies. Guy Hamilton, never the most exciting of directors but efficient enough with material such as Goldfinger, plods through the storyline without imagination or style. The set-ups are straight out of “Heartbeat”, the camera rarely moving but stopping in one place to record the action as if the end result were a wedding video. It’s shorter than the other films in the series - 102 minutes - but seems longer because every scene goes on longer than it should. Hamilton opens the film with a spoof version of a cheap 1950’s B-feature Whodunnit which would be a good idea if the actual film wasn’t just as bad as the one intended to be a joke. There is absolutely no tension. The murder - taking place during the middle of a garden party to celebrate the Coronation in the presence of Hollywood stars - is made trivial because we’ve barely had time to register who the victim is and why she’s there. Even when we find out the solution, it’s oddly weightless because the crime isn’t ever made to matter. There is another murder, later in the film, which is better staged but, by that time, you just don’t care anymore. Nor is it revealed how this later killing was actually done - is Prussic Acid readily available in a small village, and if it was, wouldn’t someone register who was buying it ?

Worst of all, the acting is generally mediocre and sometimes laughably awful. The exceptions are Edward Fox, who has an amusing twinkle in his eye and is every inch the stereotype Inspector from the Yark, and Tony Curtis who manages to get some laughs from his yobbish American producer. But Rock Hudson looks drugged throughout, not so much throwing away his lines as having them securely shredded to US government regulations. He’s meant to be playing an important Hollywood director, but is so lacking in vitality that he would have trouble getting a job on a daytime soap. Angela Lansbury walks boringly through scenes, playing Miss Marple as a standard old dear and never becoming anything like as amusing as she was in Death On The Nile. Grotesques are Lansbury’s talent - that film, The Manchurian Candidate, “Gypsy” on stage - and she is incapable of interestingly playing a relatively normal person. As for Kim Novak, she’s dreadful but doesn’t appear too often so is reasonably inoffensive, which is more than can be said for poor Liz Taylor. Resembling a cross between Betty Turpin from The Rovers’ Return and an accident victim suffering from severe shock, she is so terrible as to be strangely fascinating. We know she can act - take a look at Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and be amazed at how good she once was - but it’s as if she had been told by her doctor to avoid giving anything resembling a performance and she floats around the film as if on castors. This in itself makes the film a must for devotees of camp but it’s also a little bit sad for those of us who adore the days of the Hollywod Studios at their zenith.

The direction and acting are not helped by a script which is packed with unspeakable dialogue and various attempts at bitchery which wouldn’t have been amusing even if they weren’t murdered by the hopeless delivery of the leading ladies. Filmed on location in the exotic Home Counties - packed with period detail from, er, 1980 - the film looks flat and Phyllis Dalton’s costumes seem wastefully elegant when draped over actors who don’t have an ounce of style.

EVIL UNDER THE SUN
Anything would have been an improvement on The Mirror Crack’d and Evil Under The Sun is generally fairly good. But it’s a long way from the elegant wit of the first film in the series and everything seems a little bit tired, from Ustinov’s slapstick Poirot to the picture postcard locations.

It’s also noticable that the ‘star-studded cast’ has come down several rungs of the tinseltown ladder. Where we once had Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman we now have Diana Rigg and Sylvia Miles. Of this collection, only James Mason could be described as a real ‘star’ and even then his light had dimmed a long time before this was made in 1981. An even simpler comparison can be made by observing that Denis Quilley and Colin Blakeley featured way down the Orient Express cast list but are now in prime position above the title.

The film is better paced than the previous two series entries and manages to work up a certain momentum, despite the usual lack of real suspense. Only one murder this time, on the beach of an exclusive island resort, but a fairly clever solution which relies on the time-honoured manipulation of time and identity. It’s not exactly guessable - Dame Agatha cheats yet again - but if you are familiar with whodunnits then the twists in this one shouldn’t fool you too much.

The third-rank cast actually does quite a good job- memories of Liz Taylor are just about redeemed by the solid acting in this one. Maggie Smith and Diana Rigg are delightfully malicious as old chorus girls brought together thirty years later and their bitching is actually quite amusing. James Mason is relaxed and fun to watch and Roddy McDowell, required to do his old Queen standby, does it to a turn. The only weak link is Nicholas Clay, playing an adulterous husband with a painfully fake Irish brogue and trying to get his - impressive - physique to do the acting for him. There’s a nicely over the top bit from Colin Blakeley though and young Emily Hone, playing a particularly foul teenage girl, is good enough to make you wonder what happened to her.

Guy Hamilton directs again, with a similar lack of pace, but is better served by his cast and he seems more sure-footed in the staging of the key events. He tends to indulge Peter Ustinov too much however. Ustinov, less controlled here than he was in his first Poirot movie, plays for laughs from the beginning and never convincingly suggests Poirot’s intellectual ability, so when he gets the solution it seems rather ludicrous that he could piece things together with such brilliance. Anthony Shaffer’s dialogue tends to encourage Ustinov in this, offering too many jokes - some good some bad - and not enough actual detection. Shaffer delights in the bitchy theatrical characters however, and his funny lines are usually as funny as he intends. But his structuring is not all it could be - the first hour of the film, prior to the murder, is slow and heavy when it should be light and airy.

Like The Mirror Crack’d, this film looks TV Movie flat - it’s shot by the same DP, Christopher Challis - and it lacks the requisite exotic atmosphere. All in all, it’s a pretty disappointing end to a series that started so well and Ustinov had to resort to peddling his poor substitute for Poirot in the TV movie market. These items of between-commercials filler were dismal, having been carelessly updated and cast with the sort of C-list stars who couldn’t even hope to aspire to a place in the credits of Evil Under The Sun.

The Discs

I’ll do a general review of the DVD quality for the whole package, which is largely the same for each disc, citing individual discs when there is something of particular note.

The picture quality is a mixed bag. The films generally look sharp and clearm although there is a notable improvement in sharpness on Death On The Nile. There are some problems with artifacting on each disc but this is most noticeable on the darker interior scenes in Orient Express. The major flaw of the package as a whole is the quality of the prints which have been used. There is frequent print damage on each film with white or blue speckling throughout and some obvious scratches here and there. This is often rather distracting and totally unnecessary since the combined might of Warners and Canal Plus could surely have found the cash for a thorough remastering. Overall the films look halfway acceptable rather than impressive and there’s not much to distinguish these transfers from the ones available on VHS.

The soundtrack for each film is plain old Mono. Given that this reflects the monophonic nature of the originals I don’t see any reason for complaint and as Mono soundtracks go, these are rather good.The dialogue is clear, there is no hiss and the music sounds fine.

There are no subtitles or alternative language tracks.

The films are each given a disc to themselves. The only extra feature on Murder on the Orient Express and The Mirror Crack’d is the theatrical trailer. Death On The Nile contains the original trailer and a reasonably interesting 20 minute promotional featurette which has interviews with Ustinov, Niven and the producer John Brabourne. Evil Under the Sun features the trailer and a 10 minute featurette that has very brief interviews with most of the cast.

Each film contains 20 chapter stops.

If you’re a fan of Christie’s mysteries then this is probably already in your collection. One classic film, one good one, one mediocre and one turkey isn’t a bad strike average for this kind of box set, especially since it can be found for a reduced price if you look carefully.

Film
7 out of 10
Video
5 out of 10
Audio
6 out of 10
Extras
4 out of 10
Overall

6

out of 10

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