Monday, June 16, 2014

Poirot: Three-Act Tragedy (BBC, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was an episode of the long-running (13 seasons, and still going!) BBC-TV series Poirot, based on Agatha Christie’s famous detective character Hercule Poirot. Frankly, I find most of Christie’s work boring because for all her ingenuity at constructing elaborate (sometimes way too elaborate to be believable) murder plots, she didn’t give a damn about character complexity or consistency — which was why the 1937 British film Love from a Stranger, based on a Christie story called “Philomel Cottage” and starring Basil Rathbone as a Verdoux-esque serial killer of women who’ve just come into money, was such a pleasant surprise: it was a psychological thriller instead of a whodunit, and for once in her life Christie actually created a multidimensional and complex villain. Alas, the present episode was based on one of her mechanical-box mysteries called “Three-Act Tragedy,” adapted by Nick Dear, politely directed by Ashley Pearce and with David Suchet expertly playing Poirot as the annoying, supercilious ninny he comes off as in her books as well. Most of the story takes place at the country estate of well-known actor Sir Charles Cartwright (Martin Shaw), who keeps throwing dinner parties at which someone gets knocked off after drinking an alcoholic beverage. The first to go is the harmless Rev. Babbington (Nigel Pegram), who dies after ingesting a martini served from a collective tray — and the initial assumption, reinforced by a coroner’s verdict, is that Babbington, an old man, simply keeled over and died of natural causes. Well, that’s suspicious enough given that this is an Agatha Christie story, and nobody in a Christie story ever dies of natural causes — she wasn’t about to pull the gimmick some other mystery writers used of having the supposed “murder” victim either turn up alive after all or die of something that didn’t involve the intervention of another human — and Poirot and Cartwright are vacationing in Monte Carlo (mainly so director Pearce can get in some cool shots of the Orient Express as it looked in the 1930’s, when the locomotives were still steam-driven) when they receive word that two days earlier, at another Cartwright-hosted dinner party, Cartwright’s lifelong friend Sir Bartholomew Strange (Martin Shaw) also croaked, in his case just after drinking a glass of port wine. As usual, Christie throws a lot of suspects our way — mostly the regular dinner guests at Cartwright’s parties — and a few odd curves, including the failure of police lab techs to find any residue of poison in the glasses from which the victims drank (explained eventually by Poirot’s deduction that the killer had the sleight-of-hand skills of a stage magician and switched the glasses so the ones the cops examined were poison-free) before a climax, set on the stage of a theatre, in which Poirot reveals that the killer was … well, you don’t have to read this if you don’t want to, but it was Sir Charles Cartwright himself.

It seems he had fallen in love with a femme fatale — or as close to one as Christie was capable of writing, which wasn’t very — nicknamed “Egg” (Kimberley Nixon), only she expected him to marry her and he couldn’t do that because he already had a wife whom he couldn’t divorce because she was a mental patient in a sanitarium. (I strongly suspect Christie stole this plot device from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, a literary classic by a British woman author miles ahead of Christie in talent and intrinsic interest.) Instead of doing the seemingly logical thing and killing his wife — Cartwright explains that he didn’t do that because he’d have been the prime suspect, though if he could get away with knocking off an elderly minister who couldn’t do him any harm and passing off his first killing as a natural death, surely he could have done the same with a middle-aged woman in a mental institution! — he went after his lifelong friend Dr. Strange (later the title of a Marvel comic book, by the way, though that Dr. Strange wasn’t an M.D. but a stage magician who used his powers to solve crimes) because the good doctor had been the best man at Cartwright’s wedding, which he underwent under the name “Mugg” (his birth name) and therefore figured he could make a bigamous marriage with Egg since, once he knocked off the doctor, no one would associate the famous Mr. Cartwright with the insignificant mental patient Mrs. Mugg. As for the murder of the reverend, Poirot calls it a “dress rehearsal” Cartwright went through to practice his murder method — aw, come on! That’s far-fetched even by Christie’s standards! It’s precisely the coincidence of two similar deaths at Cartwright’s dinner parties that leads both Poirot and the police to investigate! There’s also a red-herring suspect, an inexperienced butler named Ellis who turns out to be … you guessed it, Sir Charles Cartwright in disguise, using his acting skills to play a butler and then have the character “disappear” to set up a false lead. There’s a certain poignancy in the final confession Cartwright makes — though I think that’s more Martin Shaw’s skills as an actor (he bears an intriguing resemblance to Claude Rains) than either the writing or the direction. If you must watch filmed entertainments featuring Hercule Poirot, stick to the big-budget movies Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile from the 1970’s, with their multi-star casts and performances as Poirot by Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov that at least make the guy tolerable and don’t leave you wondering why the killer de jour doesn’t just knock him off! One final point about “Three-Act Tragedy” is that the small role of Lady Mary is played by Jane Asher, an actress with connections to rock ’n’ roll royalty; she was Paul McCartney’s principal girlfriend in the mid-1960’s (Roger Corman, who directed her in Masque of the Red Death in 1963, recalled her telling him, “My boyfriend is in a band — want to come see them?” Corman begged off, little knowing that within a year Asher’s boyfriend and his three bandmates would be the biggest pop-music stars in the world!) and her brother Peter was the “Peter” of Peter and Gordon and later the producer who pushed James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt to superstardom.