The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

"I Owe it all to Agatha Christie"/150,002

A long time ago, in a campus far, far away, I was cast in a production of Ten Little Indians by Agatha Christie. The show was done rather campily--the last stand of my college classmates and I, and I had a gloriously ridiculous role as an ersatz Sherlock Holmes-figure. I got to ham it up with my old friend and fellow tummeler, D'Artagnan.

In fact, I suspect it was on the level of this:

(at 6:30. And yes, that's Jean Stapleton. She sings. It's like Cats, described by Roy Cohn)

I thought of this when, after writing about Curtain: Poirot's Last Case, I got curious enough to do something I hadn't done during its 1989-2013 run, and that is, watch a few episodes of Poirot.

I hadn't watched them during the show's run because I had plowed through almost the entirety of the series when I was a boy, only to become dismissive of her writing as I was drawn to more psychologically astute novelists. And, of course, intellectual snobbery grew on me.

So it was a pleasure to return to these old friends, as mediated through David Suchet's superb performance as Poirot, with an excellent supporting cast. Zoë Wanamaker in particular invests Ariadne Oliver with a precarious comic dignity, as well as heart, that turns any episode she appears in into a double act. (Best moment, when she dismissively introduces the irritatingly complacent Poirot as "my assistant"; only Suchet can glower politely.)

Some of the stories are well-produced trifles, with even less substance than I remembered. But more of them work. Dame Agatha had more on the ball than I remembered, ad some of the stories were brilliantly reimagined.

So, for example, Murder on the Orient Express: How do you film a story that was famously immortalized in 1974, re-filmed (less well received) in 2001, and hasn't been out of print for over 70 years? I mean, who doesn't know the twist ending?

Simple; don't make the story about the mystery.

No, really--MOTOE marks the hinge between the cheerful, long-running series that could have run forever and the story of a man who is coming to terms with the light and dark of his life. From here on, Poirot's moral foundations have been shaken. The script does this by having Poirot's rigidity leave to a suspect shooting himself rather than face disgrace--Poirot's clever exegesis ends not with victory, but with Hercule wiping blood off himself, clearly yearning to believe that the outcome is not his fault. This incident is teased out of the novel's beginning, but a second incident, in which Poirot and two of his fellow passengers are caught up in a crowd intending to stone an adulteress, and Poirot's dismissive acceptance of the culture's norm shocks Mary Debenham, is wholly new. It worked for me, seeing Poirot under judgment, his awkward efforts to justify himself rejected by the young woman whose friendliness has faded to icy politeness because he has not lived up to her moral expectation, gives us a Poirot off balance for once. Then the snow-embedded train, in a naturalistic move wholly lacking in the 1974 film or the novel, loses heat. Poirot's moral discomfort is exacerbated by physical discomfort.

At the end of the story, Poirot does not (as did Albert Finney's version) lightly compound a felony. No, he's insisting on the letter of the law. Enfin, Poirot will prove himself right, mon ami! His desperate self-assurance is shattered when the killers do not live down to his expectations. Poirot, whose moral code, and, indirectly, his faith has been challenged throughout this story, angrily yields, angry at himself, at his mercy that flouts his beliefs, unsure that he is doing right. In a masterful scene, Suchet conveys Poirot's anguish, as he suavely lies to the authorities, using his great prestige to secure the freedom of the killers, as they watch, hardly daring to believe that he is showing the mercy that he had refused to show. Point's anger is in Suchet's posture, his clutched rosary, his stalking away when he has finished his lie. He is ashamed of what may be the finest act of his life.

He has more adventures, some light, some dark, but he is on the road back to Styles Court, where he will meet the killer "X" who will pose the final and most serious challenge to Poirot's beliefs.


As I logged on to write this appreciation of a writer I once naively over-valued and then arrogantly undervalued, I saw that Anglocat has reached 150,002 visitors. Many repeat, some in error, I daresay, but still--a rather nice thing to see. So I just want to say thank you all--those who flick by and never return, those who stay and comment, those who drop in wondering what the cat is on about today--many thanks for coming on the prowl.


Unknown said...

I loved this post, and in terms of the evolution of your perspective, I can picture a bespectacled Justice Wargrave, perfectly cast, pointing an emphatic pipe at me and declaring, "Exactly, my dear sir!" When I was perusing the catalogue for Ten Little Indians about five years ago, with my well worn script from those many years ago (complete with an address to the costume warehouse on the west side....remember that?), I could not find the title. When I searched for the author, I noticed that her estate now refers to it, "And Then There Were None."

What has not changed is her ability, with the right actors, to create suspense. I miss the old mystery play, where you can ignore where you stand politically for 2 hours. I believe she was a very fine dramatist, for there were not many like her who could achieve repetitive success.

There is a new production of Murder on the Orient Express that is playing at the Hartford Stage after appearing at the McCarter Center in New Jersey. Hopefully, Ken Ludwig has avoided some of his obvious satire and let the humor evolve on its own.

God bless, my old friend.

Anglocat said...

I do remember the costume warehouse! And our adventures in finding improbable garments (my multi-colored Bergamin tweed was almost Colin Baker levels of cringeworthy.)

She was a fine playwright (literally, her plays are brilliantly constructed), and great fun. If you read her novels with Ariadne Oliver, she was a pretty good self-satirist, too.

God bless you, old friend.