Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Death in the Classic Position

I've been watching the television ads for the new adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, with Kenneth Branagh both directing the film and playing Hercule Poirot, and it's made me ask myself a number of questions.  For starters: why are they remaking this movie and who is the intended audience?  Wouldn't most people who want to see this movie at all likely know the solution to one of the most famous mysteries ever written?  And what's more, wouldn't a large number of these people, detective fiction fans, have seen the first movie, at least on DVD or through streaming?  Strange.  Maybe they intend to change the ending so that the "killer twist" mentioned in the ads surprises people familiar with the story.  But beyond that, this sudden appearance of big budget Agatha Christie has made me reflect on something else. 

How many stand out films have there been adapted from works of the so-called Golden Age of Detective Fiction?  How many topnotch flicks come from stories or novels written during that period of narrative puzzles and eccentric detectives circa 1920 through the 1940's?  There have been numerous good to great films derived from the 20th century's hard-boiled fiction side, film noirs and private eye movies, but from that earlier period (which Raymond Chandler ripped into), when murders occurred on country estates and in locked rooms, on trains and in libraries, precious few.  It's a bit odd. Granted, since 1980, when PBS' Mystery first aired, the Golden Age has been well-covered on television.  The adaptations of Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and company have been impeccable. As far as I'm concerned, David Suchet is the best Hercule Poirot ever on film or television, and Joan Hickson the greatest Miss Marple.  The detail lavished on these productions takes you back to a past era, and usually (there have been notable exceptions) the adaptations are faithful to the plots and solutions of the original sources. But what about up to 1980, when films provided the primary adaptations?  I can think of a handful of films adapted from the Golden Age authors I would call superlative.

The original Murder on the Orient Express (1974), with Albert Finney as Poirot, is quite entertaining, and I enjoyed Death on the Nile (1978), where Peter Ustinov, more restrained than Finney, took over the role of the Belgian detective. Both films are expensive productions with all-star casts, and they capture the quality of the Christie novels well. All the suspects keep looking askance at one another, and nearly everyone who is not Poirot has something to hide.  In the usual fashion, he finds himself on a train or cruise ship where the passengers are a weird lot and the motives for murder plentiful. Neither film gets so broad that it turns comedic, like the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple movies of the 1960's, but neither takes itself too seriously either, keeping the period aspect of things, with the class and racial distinctions, light.  Most importantly, both handle their complicated plots well.  They build up to exciting denouements where the clues have been provided but the sleight of hand deftly done.

The 1945 version of And Then There Were None, directed by Rene Clair, is dark and filled with suspense - a strong movie - but does not follow through on Christie's completely bleak ending. Of course, it's among her most famous books, and to this day, if I had to pick a favorite Christie novel, I'd pick this one (or maybe The ABC Murders). The movie adheres closely to the novel and packs a wallop. The only flaw is that insistence on the somewhat happy ending, which even more recent versions (much weaker movies) have clung to.

But what about Golden Age authors other than Agatha Christie? I'd say the two best movies adapted from this era's detective fiction are not from Christie books.  One, a little creaky but lightning fast, is The Kennel Murder Case, from 1932.  Michael Curtiz directs this Warner Brothers version of the S.S. van Dine novel that features detective Philo Vance, and the movie is like a van Dine novel come to life. There is absolutely no fat, as in 73 minutes, a murder in New York unfolds among the people connected to a Long Island Kennel Club dog show.  The characters have just enough depth to do what the plot requires. William Powell is the suave Vance. The murder involves a locked room, and the movie actually pauses a moment before Vance delivers the solution to give the viewer a quick close-up of all the suspects so that you have a moment to make your guess before the final revelation.  If you haven't seen this movie, don't let its age put you off.  It's a textbook example of how to tell a tricky but fair mystery on film in a minimal amount of time, with absolute clarity. Lots of fun.

But my vote for the top adaptation from a Golden Age mystery novel, without question, is the British film Green for Danger, directed by Sidney Gilliat.  It was made in 1946 and taken from a Christianna Brand novel written two years earlier.  

To begin with, the setting is unusual - a World War II hospital in the English countryside. Germany is losing the war but bombing Britain incessantly.  So immediately the stakes are high, and the story has a connection to reality not often seen with this type of mystery.  Green for Danger is set in a confined location (the hospital) and has its tight cast of characters (the hospital's doctors and nurses), but it doesn't come across as a mere game or abstract puzzle.  At the same time, it is an ingenious whodunnit with two murders and a climax set around an operating table. Each of the main characters, professional people doing stressful work, adults with genuine problems to deal with, is layered and complex, and the script is filled with nuance and humor.  Above all, there is the detective, Inspector Cockrill of the local police, and he is played by Alastair Sim, an absolutely unique actor.  Sim is so good as Cockrill, peculiar, unpredictable, witty, usually brilliant (but not always) that you only regret there were no more Cockrill films made.  It's hard to describe his performance exactly, but imagine a very British version of Lieutenant Columbo's grandfather (who looks a bit like John Lithgow) and maybe you'll get some idea.  Add to that a stellar British cast of character actors who play their parts perfectly, and you have a film that weaves together mystery, humor, atmosphere, and tension about as well as this kind of film can.  I saw Green for Danger recently by renting it on Amazon, and I couldn't have had a more enjoyable hour and a half.  I only wish there were more films like it - a classic mystery par excellence.


Kristopher said...

There are so many excellent Agatha Christie novels that are far less well-known. I really wish Branagh had deemed to film one of them rather than Orient. I'm pretty sure this is going to be a huge flop - don't get me wrong, it looks lavish, the actors are very strong, and you really can't fail with that plot - but like you said Scott, who is going to see this when they know the ending so well? (Don't even get me started on that ridiculous mustache) Perhaps on DVD, but I just don't see folks paying movie theater money to see this. Time will tell.

Holly West said...

My take away from this post--I haven't seen (or read) enough golden age detective stories/movies/novels. Of course, I knew that already, but this puts me to shame. :-)

Martin Edwards said...

Excellent post. I share your enthusiasm for the film of Green for Danger as well as the book.