Welcome back, folks, as we review Peter Ustinov‘s final two performances as Hercule Poirot. After two big-budget, all-star, location-based extraordinaires, Ustinov had returned to play the character in two, much lesser TV films. But while only one of the four movies – Evil Under the Sun – was really good, Ustinov’s performance is unquestionably delightful, particularly as he was allowed free reign of the character on the small screen. Today, we’ll look at his last two outings: the first a TV movie, and the second his return to the silver screen.

Peter Ustinov as Poirot

Film Review: Murder in Three Acts (1986)

with Peter Ustinov (Hercule Poirot), Jonathan Cecil (Captain Arthur Hastings), Tony Curtis (Sir Charles Cartwright), Emma Sams (‘Egg’ Lytton-Gore)

written by Scott Swanton

directed by Gary Nelson

Wow, the first thing you notice is that we’re a far cry from the all-star films of a few years earlier: Tony Curtis is the only name we’ll be getting this time around, although there aren’t really any weak links in the cast.

A dinner party hosted by Poirot’s old friend, retired actor Charles Cartwright (Curtis) ends when a reverend is poisoned; not long afterward, one of the attendees of that dinner party dies at his own affair. Poirot is called in to investigate two confusing murders, whose connection is unclear, and where neither victim has any known enemies or secrets.

Of the three TV films, Murder in Three Acts is undoubtedly the strongest although, again, it’s largely down to Ustinov. The novel (Three Act Tragedy) has a clever concept but isn’t one of Christie’s most dynamic; here, it comes across quite well: we have no idea how the victims are connected, or why anyone would want to kill them, and there are enough confusing threads – the fact that some people were present at both affairs but many were not, for instance – that the case is intriguing in a different way from your standard Orient Express-type fare. At times, this can mean the mystery becomes more like a film noir, but it all feels somehow natural. In the final third of the film, several of the characters – including Cartwright’s young lover ‘Egg’ (Emma Samms) and the playwright Janet Crisp (Concetta Tomei) – become detectives in their own right, which increases the tension and adds a certain reality to proceedings. Although things occasionally feel a bit too disconnected – it must be jarring for the uninitiated that Poirot and Hastings, our detective figures, all but forget about the reverend’s murder until the second one occurs – but, by and large, the director manages to keep things moving at a nice pace. Curtis is very charismatic as our third lead (rewritten as more of an American matinee idol than the Noel Coward type suggested in both the book and Martin Shaw‘s more recent interpretation of the role on the David Suchet series), and he’s complemented well by the suspects, including Diana Muldaur as his former mistress and Dana Elcar (around the time he started out on MacGyver) as Dr. Strange. There are probably too many suspects, in truth, so several of them don’t get a lot of time to be shaded in, but Lisa Eichhorn and Marian Mercer stand out even with limited screentime.

Overall, I quite enjoyed Murder in Three Acts. Oh, sure, it very much feels like a  TV movie, but I have to admit that I’ve always had a certain soft spot for them, as they remind me of rainy weekends stuck inside as a child, eating bad food and reading on the couch. Beyond which, there’s a great atmosphere thanks to the beautiful house used as the central location and the fact that – although this is the sixth consecutive Poirot film to adapt one of the ‘one-clever-trick-skews-the-whole-investigation’ type stories – things never lag as they did in the previous two movies. The denouement perhaps goes on a bit too long – particularly as the script makes it clear where Poirot is heading very early – but the murderer’s subsequent breakdown is well conveyed, and feels quite natural thanks to all involved. A solid little film, and in fact it beats Suchet’s equivalent in at least one area: the director is far bolder when it comes to parading the crucial clue in our faces. I knew what was going on, and I still had to rewind to double-check!

Tony Curtis as Charles Cartwright, Peter Ustinov as Poirot and Emma Samms as Egg in "Murder in Three Acts"

More to the point, it’s an interesting continuation of Ustinov’s portrayal of the Belgian. Script-wise, there’s a natural evolution of his character, as a subplot runs throughout that he is considering writing memoirs. The naturalistic style that Ustinov had tackled in the previous two films is furthered here, with Gary Nelson‘s direction effectively giving a documentary-like feel to some of the Poirot/Hastings scenes. Ustinov is clearly having such fun here, and the more physical, occasionally abrasive relationship between our central pairing is very well done – even if it goes far beyond the book’s portrayal. There’s a great rapport between Ustinov and Jonathan Cecil. The naturalism is helped – accidentally, I suspect – by the casting of several locals, Spanish speakers who aren’t actors, in a few scenes filmed on location. While their line readings are quite poor, they come together nicely with Ustinov’s performance, creating the feel that we’re just watching this funny Belgian man via hidden camera.

(Incidentally, fun fact about Ustinov: he spoke English, Italian, German, French, Spanish, Russian, Turkish and some modern Greek. What a man!)

On the other hand, there are times when the portrayals feel a bit out-of-place. Transporting the characters to the 1980s hasn’t really had any advantages (other than budgetary ones) and Hastings, particularly seems woefully out of place in this environment. Like poor Hugh Fraser after him, Cecil is given the unenviable task of playing a character who is sometimes ridiculously dimwitted, and there are times when he does overdo the shocked faces he’s been asked to present. (On the other hand, I like how Hastings constantly mispronounces Spanish, such as his “bwenis tardis”. Ha!) And, while Ustinov is a delight, Poirot occasionally comes across here like an Alzheimer’s patient: he falls asleep in the middle of the day, stumbles around the room confused, and spends the first few scenes of the film just pointing at people in the distance and saying “who is that? who is that?”. I think the idea is just to make him eccentric, but I mostly just became concerned!

Film Review: Appointment with Death (1988)

with Peter Ustinov (Hercule Poirot), Lauren Bacall (Lady Westholme), Piper Laurie (Mrs. Boynton), Carrie Fisher (Nadine Boynton), John Gielgud (Colonel Carbury), Hayley Mills (Miss Quinton), Jenny Seagrove (Dr. Sarah King)

written by Anthony Shaffer, Peter Buckman & Michael Winner

directed by Michael Winner

On a tour through Italy to the Middle East, Poirot stumbles across the Boynton family, living in the shadow of the rigorous Emily Boynton (Piper Laurie, in supreme bitch mode and just a year before she was cast in Twin Peaks), who meets her end at a dig in Petra.

Carrie Fisher as Nadine, Piper Laurie as Emily Boynton and Valerie Richards as Carol in "Appointment with Death"

Well, after three TV films – in which one ‘special guest star’ was accompanied by a series of good but less well-known actors – we’re suddenly back into all-star territory, with Carrie Fisher, Hayley Mills, Lauren Bacall and John Gielgud amongst our number. More unusually, after three films set in the 1980s, we’re thrust back into the 1930s, which is thoroughly discombobulating. Of course, this is because we’re back on the silver screen now, and not only will the budget accommodate the ’30s, but this is more what the audience expects. To be honest, it’s a bit of a relief to have such a ‘classic’ looking opening sequence, and as a result, the actors are able to ham it up just a little to fit the genre.

As Mrs. Boynton, Piper Laurie is perfectly cast as the social climbing, stony-hearted matriarch. At the same time, she’s nowhere near as evil as the monster in the book or in Suchet’s adaptation; she’s closer to Jane Seymour in the Marple version of Ordeal by Innocence: a real person, who can go on vacation with her family, but deep down is cold-hearted and not easily able to love. She’s generally threatening when the script requires it, and also has a wonderful sense of smug superiority as she deals with the ‘natives’. Her children and in-laws are suitably scared of her, although none of the children are particularly well-characterised. Carrie Fisher comes off best as Emily’s put-upon daughter-in-law, as she devolves from grace under fire to openly assessing the faults of those around her. Making more of an impression are Lauren Bacall and Hayley Mills as two other travellers whose tour takes them on the same path as the Boyntons. Mills is far less mannered than either her childhood performances or her role in Endless Night, although she gets saddled with a couple of poorly written scenes as part of her character’s exposition. Bacall, meanwhile, is undoubtedly the biggest name in the cast (and continues the repertory feel that marks all four of Poirot’s big-screen adventures) but – wonderfully – she manages to blend in perfectly well, which is a nice change since the ‘big name’ in the previous films – Faye Dunaway, Tony Curtis etc – has usually been given an unfair share of attention. Bacall and Ustinov have great fun together, and their scenes leading up to the climax justify the slightly melodramatic nature of things. Finally, there’s John Gielgud as Colonel Carbury, the token ‘old friend’ of Poirot’s, whose presence in Petra (the events take place in the week leading up to the celebrations of the coronation of King George VI) ties the characters together. Gielgud’s role is really quite minor but he’s a class act through-and-through, both in his militant moments and when he sits down to relax, off-duty, with Poirot.

Peter Ustinov as Poirot and Lauren Bacall as Lady Celia Westholme in "Appointment with Death"

Appointment with Death is the best Ustinov film apart from Evil Under the Sun, although it’s not without its flaws. On the plus side, there are quite a few nice directorial touches: the travel scenes look lovely (although it certainly is obvious that they wanted to justify the location filming by showing as much travel as possible!) but they don’t get carried away with showcasing the landmarks as they did in Death on the Nile. The flashbacks shown during each of the suspects’ interrogations are also a nice classical touch, and there’s some lovely imagery with the fireworks at the end. On top of this, the scene where Dr. King (Jenny Seagrove) finds herself in serious danger in a back-alley in Jordan is perfectly menacing, and it’s really the only time until Suchet’s Murder on the Orient Express twenty-two years later that a Christie adaptation acknowledges the dangers of all this travelling abroad. (At least, of the dangers from outside your own party!) Also, to its credit, the film’s structure mimics that of the novel, spending plenty of time establishing the ‘psychological’ side of the story but without forgetting that it’s ultimately going to become a murder mystery.

As Poirot, Ustinov is commanding as ever, but sadly – back in cinemas – he’s forced to return to playing the quirks of the character, which is a bit jarring after his three films playing the Belgian in a far more naturalistic manner. And – as in Death on the Nile – he takes the annoying tactic of accusing each of the suspects when he first questions them. Poirot suggests that this is a way of making people talk, since humans are likely to blurt out the truth without meaning to, but… well, it’s not exactly the cleverest way of utilising the little grey cells, is it? Having said that, I can’t remember if this is an element of Poirot from the books, so I apologise if it is so. (Similarly, more than one scene relies on Poirot simply listening in on conversations, which is definitely not his way.) On the other hand, I appreciate that the film retains the novel’s time limit to Poirot’s investigation, and I like that he admits to wanting a dramatic locale for his denouement.

But there are a few elements of the film which are not so neatly done. In spite of the lengthy travel sequence, most of the Boynton family fail to stand out as individuals, and the character appearances are quiet uneven (Carrie Fisher all but vanishes after the first half). The denouement is most unusual: Poirot gets halfway through his reveal, dismissing several of the characters from blame, before Bacall’s Lady Westholme cancels the proceedings in her hurry to reach the coronation party.  Although things make sense in retrospect, it’s still an unusual structural choice. The final revelation of the killer’s secret past also feels a bit out-of-left-field, although I think this is true of the novel as well. And a couple of moments in the script are quite silly, and are unable to be redeemed by the direction, particularly when cockroaches appear from nowhere to lap up a spilled drink only three seconds after it hits the ground in a crowded room, just so that Poirot can see them die immediately.

Worst of all though: the music, my God, the music! Somehow, we survived three 1980s films set in the 1980s without anything too offensive to the ears. Somehow, even as we return to the ’30s, we get the worst excesses of the era, with more saxophones than a Whitney Houston single. Not only does the soundtrack completely overpower the travel montages, but it’s woefully inappropriate for the final sequences. Given that Appointment with Death is the most self-consciously and aesthetically ‘period’ film since Murder on the Orient Express, it’s a great pity that the music is doing such a good job of derailing the proceedings.

Peter Ustinov as Poirot and John Gielgud as Colonel Carbury in 'Appointment with Death'

Still, Appointment with Death is  quite an enjoyable film with some very good performances, a lovely aesthetic and a reasonable murder mystery. As with the previous six Poirot films, it is one of the ‘puzzle’ mysteries, where one clever trick manages to skew the investigation in the wrong direction, but – unlike several of the previous – it doesn’t render the rest of the film irrelevant, nor does the direction let it feel irrelevant. Appointment with Death isn’t as intricate and delightful as Evil Under the Sun, nor is it as lavish and buoyant as Murder on the Orient Express. Yet it’s a decent outing, and wins the bronze medal for the Poirot films.

All in all, the Finney and Ustinov films were a worthy showcase for the character, and Christie’s mysteries. Aside from Orient Express, they failed to pick any of my absolute favourite Poirot novels, but they were largely faithful to their respective novels, and both Finney and Ustinov gave spirited and accurate portrayals of Christie’s most famous detective. Only a year after Appointment With Death was released, David Suchet would make his premiere as the Belgian, and would soon take the title of the definitive Poirot (to me, at least). But I enjoyed these films more than I thought I would, and I’m sure I’ll revisit them again in a few years time. Not too often, but certainly on occasion – there’s too much sumptuous location filming, such grand design work and so many classy performances from the days when actors were more than just tabloid wannabes, they’ll be worth the re-watch.

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