Sunday, February 16, 2014

Agatha Christie, Sue Grafton, and Peter Ustinov (Oh my!)

In the 1980s, CBS broadcast several contemporary adaptations of Agatha Christie novels for U.S. television. Peter Ustinov, who first played Hercule Poirot in the theatrical Evil Under the Sun (1982), reprised his portrayal in three made-for-TV films starting with 1985's Thirteen for Dinner. Helen Hayes debuted as Miss Jane Marple in CBS's A Caribbean Mystery in 1983 and appeared in the follow-up Murder With Mirrors (1985). Hayes was also in a third Christie film, the earlier Murder Is Easy, but she didn't play Miss Marple.

Helen Hayes as Jane Marple.
A Caribbean Mystery finds Miss Marple (Helen Hayes) vacationing for health reasons at the tropical Golden Palm Hotel, a long way from her beloved St. Mary Mead. The first hotel guest to befriend her is Major Palgrave (Maurice Evans), a would-be writer who recounts the true story of a wife murderer. He is about to show Miss Marple a photo of the killer when he's distracted by the sight of one of the other guests. That night, the Major dies in bed, the apparent victim of mixing alcohol and high blood pressure medicine. But, as Miss Marple suspects, the Major is a victim of foul play--and he's not the only victim.

Major Palgrave (Maurice Evans) spots
the murderer.
Although it's fun to watch Miss Marple in a very different setting, A Caribbean Mystery is not one of Agatha Christie's best works. There's a minor plot twist that may surprise some viewers, but Christie fans will instantly recognize one of the author's favorite plot devices. Sue Grafton, prior to writing her bestselling Kinsey Milhone novels (e.g., A Is For Alibi), penned the screenplay with her husband Steven Humphrey. They set up the mystery well and establish the characters quickly, which is no small feat. Christie's novels contain no shortage of suspects and it can be challenging to differentiate between them in a movie with a running time of 100 minutes or less.

The biggest problem with A Caribbean Mystery is Helen Hayes. Although she is likable, as always, her character bears little resemblance to Jane Marple. She doesn't even try to muster a British accent. It's almost as if Hayes is reprising her sleuth from her 1973-74 TV series, The Snoop Sisters, with Mildred Natwick.

In contrast, Peter Ustinov makes a fine Hercule Poirot in Thirteen at Dinner. I know that most Christie purists prefer David Suchet and quibble that Ustinov plays some of Poirot's quirks for comedy. I love Suchet, too, but I also appreciate Ustinov's portrayal of the Belgium detective (as previously discussed at the Cafe).  Plus, in Thirteen at Dinner, you get the best of both worlds: one of Ustinov's co-stars is David Inspector Japp.

The film opens with Lady Jane Edgware (Faye Dunaway), an actress, seeking Poirot's help with obtaining a divorce. Surprisingly, Poirot agrees--only to discover that Lord Edgware has no qualms about splitting from his wife. The divorce becomes moot, though, when Lord Edgware is found murdered in his study--and all the suspects have solid alibis.

Faye Dunaway as Lady Edgware.
The main problem with this adaptation of Christie's 1933 Lord Edgware Dies is that a key casting choice gives away the ingenious nature of the crime much too early. I won't say more at the risk of spoiling the plot. A secondary issue is the decision to update the novel from the 1930s to the 1980s. Hearing characters utter expressions like "dude" in a Christie mystery just doesn't seem right. And Lee Horsley's action movie star, played broadly for comedic effort, decreases the menace in a film that should reflect at least a modest tone of danger. Finally, it's also jarring to see Poirot looking at a model's posterior and remarking" "Not bad." Yes, Hercule admired ladies, but always in a respectful fashion.

David Suchet as Inspector Japp.
Weaknesses aside, Thirteen At Dinner benefits from location filming in England, a clever mystery, and the presence of Ustinov and Suchet. The latter, without his mustache and sporting an English accent, may be unrecognizable to fans of his Poirot series. He and Ustinov work well together and it's also fun to see a young Bill Nighy as one of the suspects.

Still, Ustinov's next Poirot appearance, 1986's Dead Man's Folly, is a significant improvement. And if you want to see a better version of Lord Edgware Dies, then I recommend you seek out the 2000 adaptation with Suchet. It make take some liberties with the novel, too, but it's the better of the two films.


  1. I simply adore Ustinov as Poirot and never compare him or that affection to that I feel for Suchet.

    I remember at the time telling myself that I liked "A Caribbean Mystery" more than I really did. It seemed wrong not to. I didn't know at the time that someday we would have Joan Hickson.

    Another Marple misfire was Angela Lansbury in "The Mirror Crack'd". My sister describes her as "Uncle Jane stomping around in boots".

  2. I thought I would like Helen Hayes better as Miss Marple. In addition to Joan Hickson, I think the latest Jane--Julia McKenzie--is pretty good. I'm glad she replaced Geraldine McEwan. I thought Angela was OK in MIRROR CRACK'D, though in retrospect, she was playing Jessica Fletcher.

  3. I'm with you Rick, though my dislike of Helen Hayes as Miss Marple is greater than yours. She was just all wrong - can't quite put my finger on it, but I think physically, she just didn't look right. I did like Peter Ustinov as Poirot in EVIL UNDER THE SON. Most especially I liked him in that outrageous bathing costume. :)

    P.S. Angela Lansbury as Miss Marple was all wrong too. And I normally adore Angela Lansbury.

  4. Met Ustinov at a party for MWA members when this movie was coming out. Nice gentleman.


  5. Oh pooh! I was hoping you'd cover Murder is Easy too ( one of my all-time favorite films ). I personally love Margaret Rutherford the best as Miss Marple, and rank Helen Hayes second, even though both of these actresses portrayals bore no resemblance to Christie's Marple. They are just so entertaining to watch! Reading this post makes me want to rewatch the Poirot films. Ustinov is the best.

  6. I love a good mystery and enjoy the different portrayals of sleuths. I agree that Helen Hayes doesn't resemble Miss Jane Marple in the least. I really like Julia McKenzie. I simply adore David Suchet as the Belgian who must put the little grey cells to work but also like Peter Ustinov's Hercule Poirot. This was such a fun post, RIck!

  7. For my money, Margaret Rutherford was the best Miss Marple.

    I've never seen David Suchet as Poirot but, judging by the comments, it sounds like he does an excellent job. However, I have a great soft spot for Peter Ustinov and I can't imagine anyone doing a better Poirot than he.