Monday, December 22, 2014

Poirot: “The Labors of Hercules” (ITV/PBS, 2014)

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

I watched the KPBS telecast of the episode “The Labors of Hercules” from the series Agatha Christie’s Poirot, a story I had quirky memories of because in the 1960’s my mother and I checked the book out of the library but never actually read it. The title would seem to be a pun on Hercule Poirot’s name and his “labors” in solving crimes, but it actually refers to a famous series of 12 paintings based on the mythical labors of Hercules (whose real name, by the way, was Herakles — he was the son of Hera, queen of the gods and wife of Zeus, who apparently got tired of Zeus cheating on her with just about every woman who would hold still for him, often turning himself into swans, showers of gold or whatnot, as well as having a Gay boy-toy servant named Ganymede whose name became “cover” for several generations of Gay men the way the phrase “friend of Dorothy” — a reference to The Wizard of Oz — did later, that she decided what was sauce for the gander was sauce for the goose and she’d cheat on him for a change). The paintings have been disappearing from the musea and private collections that housed them, courtesy of a mysterious art thief named Mariscal (at least I think that was the name — it got pronounced several different ways in a show that featured so many British actors doing bad Continental accents it was really tough to listen to). Poirot shows up at the Olympus (get the pun?) resort in Switzerland where Mariscal is supposedly hiding out, and everyone thinks he’s there to catch him, but he’s really been sent by a British cabdriver named Ted Williams [Tom Austen] (presumably Christie wrote this before the genuinely famous Ted Williams, the U.S. baseball player, emerged) who had an affair with Nina, maid to a famous ballerina named Lucinda Le Mesurier (Lorna Nickson Brown) whose character seems to have been copied from Garbo’s role in Grand Hotel, since she’s given up her career, become a recluse and is under the care of a sinister psychiatrist, Dr. Lutz (played by author and critic Simon Callow, of all people). Poirot is also there to resume his acquaintance with a former girlfriend, Countess Rossakoff (Orla Brady), and while he’s there he uncovers a sting operation being pulled by two sisters who pose as mother and daughter — when the older one isn’t posing as a man and luring young men into their trap by claiming to be the younger one’s abusive husband (I’m not making this up, you know!) — and discovers at the end that virtually everyone at the hotel is crooked in one way or another, and that Mariscal, who’s been described as a psychopathic killer as well as an art thief, is really the Countess’s daughter, Alice Cunningham (Eleanor Tomlinson). It also turns out that Dr. Lutz is in on the plot to steal not only the 12 “Labors of Hercules” paintings but some precious jewels as well — exactly how he’s involved remains a mystery but we do get a marvelous moment when he asks Poirot why he always refers to himself in the third person, and gets the preposterous answer, “It helps me keep myself separate from my genius.” (Huh?) Some of the other Poirot episodes have been acceptable and even engaging light entertainments, but not this one; it’s a bore from start to finish, suffering even more than usual from the general problem with Christie’s writing: too many characters and not enough development of any of them. It’s one of those stories I call, not a “whodunit” but a “whocareswhodunit.”