Jul 12 2010

Murdering the Orient Express

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Some twenty-ish years ago, the BBC (and by extension on this side of the pond, PBS) began running a TV series based on Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, starring David Suchet as the quirky little detective.

And it was brilliant. David Suchet perfectly captured the strange mixture of warm, insightful playfulness and cold calculation that made Poirot so formidable a detective, not to mention nicely embodying Poirot’s long list of idiosyncrasies without becoming quite the grotesque that other actors had tended to turn him into in the past. Hardcore Christie purists might grumble about the way Col. Hastings, Inspector Japp, and Miss Lemon were crammed into every story with a crowbar because they were “part of the regular cast,” and there may have been moments when the series veered a bit towards being a situation comedy that just happened to have detective stories in it. But on the whole, it was brilliant. And many people, myself included, said of this series, “Man, I wish they’d do Murder On the Orient Express!”

But that was twenty years ago. Poirot had a great run in the U.K. and over here, but eventually was cancelled as all good shows must someday be. Like so many other great TV detectives, David Suchet’s Poirot moved on to the occasional “movie special” instead of the regular weekly offering, allowing them to take on Christie’s longer works without abridging the heck out of them. Unfortunately, something changed along the way. Hercule Poirot, the quirky and offbeat Belgian detective who winked and chuckled at English society, became POIROT, ZEALOUS DEFENDER OF LAW AND ORDER! And his cases went from being charming parlour games, to GRIM CRIME DRAMA.

And thus, twenty years later, we are finally presented with David Suchet as Poirot in Murder On the Orient Express … and the series that used to portray Poirot so perfectly, instead gets it all wrong.

We start on a sour note with Poirot solving a case which results in a young and promising military officer blowing his brains out, spattering gore all over Poirot’s face. This scene, while unpleasant, at least has a hint of a precedent in the actual book; the scene that follows, in which Col. Arbuthnot and Mary Debenham happen upon a woman being viciously stoned to death for adultery, not only didn’t appear in the book but is completely contradictory to the deliberately-pedestrian way in which the the book starts. Things keep going from grim to grimmer as Poirot boards the train, meets Ratchett and turns down his job offer, and various characters begin throwing religion at each other and praying all over the place. (Do what now?) And Poirot finds himself telling Mary Debenham that the woman who was stoned to death “knew the rules of her culture” and that by breaking them she invited being brutally stoned to death in the street.

Wait, what?

The train may stay on the rails, but this script sure didn’t. 0.o The screenwriter (or director, or whoever it was making these decisions) was so intent on making a Big Damn Point about “justice” vs. “law” — whatever that point was, I never could quite figure it out — that they were perfectly happy to twist Poirot from a likable ex-cop who did amateur sleuthing as a mental diversion into a cold zealot who cares only about The Law (in capital letters) and believes that the slightest slip leads instantly to anarchy and barbarism. On top of this, all of the charm, all of the pleasant “conversationality” of Christie’s writing is thrown completely away, leaving only a bleak landscape where what little humor there is seems like a bitter jab instead of a friendly nudge. This Murder On the Orient Express has Poirot scowling and barely able to stomach the presence of Ratchett during the job offer and essentially refusing even to speak to him, instead of the book’s lighthearted exchange of, “At the risk of being personal, I don’t like your face.” By the end, both Poirot and the suspects are all nearly frozen to death, croaking at each other in grim darkness, and the presentation of the “right” solution to the Yugoslavian police is an angsty dark night of the soul for Poirot, instead of gently handing the decision to M. Bouc, the director of the line, and “retiring from the case.”

SPOILER ALERT: In one of the most egregious twists of character, even if it is a supporting character, Col. Arbuthnot, the steadfast British officer who was so upset that Ratchett was murdered instead of being sentenced to death by a jury of twelve, “the civilized way,” pulls out a gun with the intent to murder Poirot in order to prevent him from telling the police what actually happened — thus not only perverting the character, but also the whole damn point of the story. This, to me, falls under the heading of the screenwriter (or director, or whomever), putting themselves and their own desires above the work, which is something I always resent in any adaptation.

I don’t know the motivation behind turning Poirot from light whodunnit into bleak melodrama, and honestly I don’t care. But one idea that occurred to me was that they may have done it deliberately to distance themselves from the 1970s Albert Finney version of Murder On the Orient Express. That version is a grand symphony, a tribute not only to Agatha Christie but to the glories of old Hollywood and pre-war Europe, with the Orient Express itself all but waltzing across the screen in its own exuberance. What better way to be different from its exalted elegance than to be harsh and grim, right?

Unfortunately, for all of Albert Finney’s chewing the scenery in the 1970s film, he is at least chewing the scenery in ways compatible with what Agatha Christie actually wrote. The 1970s Murder On the Orient Express is an extremely faithful adaptation; one that even Dame Agatha herself was pleased with, after a lifetime of seeing her works hacked up and generally mucked around with. (And crying all the way to the bank, it’s true.) Admittedly, that leaves the makers of the Suchet version in a tough spot: how do you make a faithful adaptation of such a famous work, without simply doing again the extremely faithful adaptation that’s already been made? The key there I would think would be in letting it ride on David Suchet, with his subtle, nuanced, warm and humorous Poirot taking the stage instead of the eccentric, french-horn-laughing, wild-eyed Poirot of Albert Finney. Twenty years ago, when I was wishing for the David Suchet Murder On the Orient Express, that was what I was wishing for. The 1970s version had everything right except Poirot himself — the new version seems to get everything wrong including Poirot himself.

C’est la vie!

-The Gneech

CORRECTION: I should mention here that Agatha Christie’s Poirot is made by ITV, not the BBC; my apologies. It’s all “British television” to me. :)

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May 16 2010

H.P. Lovecraft Collection, Vol. I — Cool Air [review]

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Inspired by the recent H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast episode covering the original short story, I decided to try my luck with The H.P. Lovecraft Collection, Vol. 1: Cool Air, originally released in 1999. I was a bit nervous — Lovecraft has often been less than well-served by film — but I must admit I was impressed with this production.

The plot is very faithful to the original story: in an unspecified year of the 1920s, Randolph Carter (nudge, nudge, wink, wink — Lovecraft never identified the narrator of his story by name), a young writer new to “the city” (presumably New York, given that almost every character in the story except the protagonist is a European immigrant) takes up lodging in a cheap-but-clean-enough apartment building and works himself to exhaustion trying to make a living in the poorly-paying horror pulps. A mysterious leak of ammonia into his apartment from the tenant directly above leads to the revelation by the landlady that he is the once-great Dr. Muñoz of Barcelona, now retired and sick, requiring peculiar treatments for his mysterious illness — including a gasoline-driven, ammonia-based cooling system that keeps his apartment very cold, even during such an unusually-warm summer as they’re currently experiencing. When Carter is suddenly struck with a heart attack, in desperation he pulls himself up the stairs to collapse at the doctor’s door.

Dr. Muñoz, retired and sick though he may be, pulls Carter back from the brink of death and gives him a mysterious medicine that will preserve Carter from “any more such fits in his lifetime.” The two then strike up the beginnings of a warm friendship, Carter providing Dr. Muñoz with company in his long, illness-forced seclusion, and Dr. Muñoz providing Carter with the only intelligent and sympathetic conversation he can find. Dr. Muñoz reveals that in Spain twenty years ago, he was first diagnosed with a rapidly-degenerative condition that would surely have killed him except that he and a colleague managed to hit upon a formula that was something closer to witchcraft than known science, but would keep Muñoz alive — as long as he was kept cold.

For a brief period, life continues in this vein, and Dr. Muñoz reveals more details of his previous life, including the death of his wife during a cholera epidemic and ruminations his enclosed-in-a-cage existence. And all is well, if melancholy, until one day Carter is alerted by thumping from the room above, apparently a call for help from Dr. Muñoz. Carter runs up to find the doctor in a state of near-panic: his cooling machine has broken down, and Dr. Muñoz can’t survive if the temperature goes up too high. As Carter runs off to find ice and an electrician, Dr. Muñoz’s condition rapidly goes from bad to worse, leading up to the final awful revelation.

Make no mistake: this film, much like the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s later Call of Cthulhu, is filmed in black and white and largely on the cheap. Although there is just enough costuming/set/prop work to establish “the ’20s,” it depends entirely on the acting and direction to carry it through. In fact, it looks almost like a student film. Carter’s antique typewriter and Dr. Muñoz’s early-early model air conditioner probably took most of the special effects budget.

That said, the acting and direction are just fine, so this really isn’t a problem. Jack Donner in particular, in the role of Dr. Muñoz, is extremely effective. He plays the role with a kind of understated intensity that could easily have turned into camp in the wrong hands, making the whole thing very believable. Bryan Moore, as Carter, is slightly less polished as an actor but still never distracts from the moment. As the audience-stand-in character, his somewhat-weary-but-still-plugging-away young Carter has just enough characterizing to be believable, without drawing attention away from Muñoz, the true star of the show.

As a Lovecraft fan, my only real kibitz with the piece is a certain undertone of schmaltzeyness which doesn’t quite fit. Dr. Muñoz pines for his lost wife Rosa (material not in the original story) to the point of tears and has nightmares in which he’s searching vainly for her; and he repeatedly tells Carter “not to underestimate the power of human will.” Where the short story’s version of this idea implies a certain “stubbornness from beyond the grave” creepiness, in the film it ends up sounding almost like a “You can do anything if you wish hard enough!” sort of homily. The added material about Rosa puts a dreamy interlude where the original story has Dr. Muñoz undergoing rapid degeneration, necessitating that he delve further into the occult and constantly crank down the temperature until it’s finally at sub-zero levels. Thus the crisis brought on by the failure of the air conditioning unit, the final straw of a rapidly-approaching doom in the short story, comes off more as a sudden strike out of the blue in the film, blunting the final horror just a tad in my opinion.

That, however, is primarily a matter of emphasis. Dr. Muñoz’s lonely nightmares of searching for a peace with Rosa that he can never find certainly suggest as bleak a picture as anything Lovecraft put to pen, so it’s hard to say that the changes are wrong; if anything, I would guess that it was a way to cut out a sequence that would have taken a lot of resources to film and required a lot more filling in of details. Lovecraft had the luxury of summarizing Dr. Muñoz’s descent in four paragraphs; Moore and his team had a 45 minute film in which to tell the whole tale.

So, all in all, a fine production, and well recommended to any fan of Lovecraft, weird fiction, or even just indie film. It’s available on DVD, or to watch instantly via download on Netflix.

-The Gneech

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