The Curtain Begins to Fall on “Poirot”

Last night PBS here in America screened “The Big Four”, a television adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel featuring her world-famous private detective, Hercule Poirot.  This kick-off of the final season of the long-running British period television series, “Agatha Christie’s Poirot”, is something of a cultural watershed.  Not only is it a remarkable example of acting longevity, in that David Suchet has now played Poirot in an adaptation of every novel and major story featuring that character, but it also raises some questions about how popular culture has changed in the 25 years since the series began.

I was not surprised to learn, while researching this post, that writer Mark Gatiss adapted the screenplay of “The Big Four”.  Gatiss is the co-creator of the popular series “Sherlock”, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman; he is also one of the writers for the equally popular revival of the “Dr. Who” series.  Last night’s “Poirot” episode at several points felt like a rehashed version of “Sherlock”, complete with an unexpected explosion nearly killing off the master detective.  Regular readers will know that I dislike “Sherlock” intensely.  Nor am I a fan of the revival of the Dr. Who series, even though on both of these points I realize I am in the minority.

That being said, the perceptible changes in the “Poirot” series are not down to Gettis alone, since many writers have worked on the show over the past quarter of a century.  Early episodes, for example, featured a spry, Wodehouse-like dialogue, belying the serious nature of the crimes depicted; there was also a generally bright, Art Deco look and sense of optimism to the series.  Later, “Poirot” developed a more shadowy feel, giving rise to a moodier, more Byzantine atmosphere.  The proceedings seemed to grow darker, with murders showcased in increasing detail, rather than being briefly witnessed and later alluded to.  More recently, murders on the show have often accompanied by acts of outright cruelty and humiliation beyond a simple shooting or stabbing, veering into torture.

A contributing factor to the change in tone arose from the whittling down of the regular cast.  Supporting characters such as Poirot’s sidekick, the sporty Captain Hastings, the perpetually glum Inspector Japp, and Poirot’s ever-efficient secretary Miss Lemon, created more of an ensemble feel in the earlier shows.  The actors played off of each other well, mixing seriousness and humor in an outstanding example of good casting.  The absence of these characters from more recent episodes allowed Suchet to really shine as an individual actor, but it also seemed to turn Poirot in on himself: he found himself doubting, questioning, and losing his cool more regularly.

It was obviously a joy last evening for long-time fans of the series to see the old, familiar characters in the opening scenes of the premiere of this final season.  We were treated to shots of Hastings on his ranch in the Pampas, Miss Lemon with her latest cat companion at her London home, and Japp at his desk in Scotland Yard, all within the first three minutes.  Yet even though they returned to the side of their old friend, Poirot himself is clearly not the same man whom they had last worked with years earlier.  There were moments of the old, upbeat sparkle, but on the whole the levity was long-gone, replaced with a more ponderous, sometimes sinister undertone.

Those who know how the Poirot books came to an end, as indeed shall the series, will not find these shifts entirely out of place. Over the years, Agatha Christie grew tired of her most famous literary creation, and in the 1940’s she wrote “Curtain”, the final Poirot case, to be released whenever she thought the series should finish.  The novel was kept in a bank vault, and remained unpublished until shortly before Christie’s death in 1976.

If the final episode of “Poirot” is anything like the original novel, “Curtain” will present significant ethical problems for some viewers and not for others.  Today, the seeming moral ambiguity of Poirot’s last case is something which our contemporary culture not only accepts, but demands.  Today’s audience, apparently, does not want black and white, it wants shades of gray, as it were.  Viewers want conflicted heroes who find difficulty in distinguishing right from wrong.  “There ain’t no good guy, there ain’t no bad guy, there’s only you and me and we just disagree,” as the old song goes.

Although I find it a pity that Christie chose to end Poirot’s career in the way that she did, it would be unfair to the producers of this final series to blame them for the darkening tone which is completely appropriate to the conclusion of this series.  This ending will also be an opportunity, for those who watch it, to observe what transpires, and ask whether there is a right and a wrong, or whether morality is always ambiguous.  The fact that we would even have such a discussion, of course, shows us that quite a lot has changed in the past quarter century, since the “Poirot” series was first broadcast.

Pauline Moran, Philip Jackson, David Suchet, and Hugh Fraser in "The Big Four" (2013)

Pauline Moran, Philip Jackson, David Suchet, and Hugh Fraser in “The Big Four” (2013)

 

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You Must Remember This: Meaning and Pop Culture Relics

The recent re-discovery of a Hollywood treasure once presumed lost, and an item up for sale in an upcoming auction of movieland memorabilia, have set the film world a-buzz.  Tara, the mythical home of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind”, was not a real place, but the stage set that was built for the 1939 film certainly was: in fact, it has been sitting in pieces in a barn in Georgia for decades, awaiting restoration.  Meanwhile, this November Bonham’s auction house in New York will be selling off a private collection of Hollywood history, which includes the piano on which Dooley Wilson played “As Time Goes By” in the 1942 classic “Casablanca” for Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart.

It may seem curious that these pop culture objects of little intrinsic value carry such excitement, when they come to light in news stories or auction catalogues.  After all, hundreds of movies, concerts, and sporting events take place every year, and the vast majority of them are quickly forgotten, the detritus of their production disappearing into basements or scrap heaps.  There is no museum containing the cast-off socks of basketball players from the 1982 Philadelphia 76’ers, so far as I am aware.  And even if such a thing still exists, I cannot imagine that there is a huge market for anyone to own something like Robin Williams’ furry hat from 1982’s “Moscow on the Hudson”.

The survival of any pop culture item often depends on who is entrusted with its care.  Somewhere in one of her jewelry boxes my mother has an old, yellowed lace handkerchief of her mother’s.  Back in the 1940’s, grandmother had gone to see the legendary Spanish bullfighter Manolete work his blood-stained magic in Barcelona.  Manolete was a handsome, hugely popular figure in Spain after the Civil War, who drew crowds of admirers because of his very reserved technique and persona, in which he never made a show of himself to the crowds, as had many bullfighters both before and after him.

My grandmother, being a very elegant and beautiful lady, happened to draw the matador’s gaze when he entered the ring, and she gave him her handkerchief to carry during the fight, an echo of the Medieval tradition of courtly love and carrying your lady’s favor into battle.  After his successful dispatch of the bull that day, he returned the handkerchief to my grandmother, who of course kept it as a relic afterwards.  It was an object which became the more precious after Manolete was killed in 1947 at the age of 30, when he was gored by a bull during a fight in Andalusia.

Why do we hold on to these relics of past popular entertainments?   One very obvious reason is that of trying to preserve our memories.  As we grow older, to be able to draw out some piece of ephemera which reminds us of another time, is to have a bittersweet way of remembering who we are and where we came from.  This is something which human beings seem particularly keen on doing: one does not see birds flying about carrying bits of previous nests, or snakes dragging their old skins along with them as they slither through the underbrush, each reflecting back to a time when they were just hatchlings.

However that sense of a personal, infused meaning which encapsulates part of who a person was at a particular point in their life does not last forever.  Grandmother could pull out that old, stained handkerchief in her declining years, and remember back to a time when she was the belle of the ball.  After her death, her daughter could do the same, calling to mind her glamorous mother and telling the story of that handkerchief to her own children.

Yet the significance of such an object changes, as it goes forward in time.  Today Manolete is merely a name, the bullring where he fought has been converted into a shopping mall, and long-departed grandmother is the haughty grand dame whose portrait gazes confidently back at the viewer above the piano in her daughter’s living room.  The relic of the lady and the bullfighter will retain a personal value for the descendants of the lady who owned it, only for so long as an interest in her life remains.  After that, the value will either disappear entirely, or it will change to become that which may be ascribed to something once touched by a famous person.

At that point, grandmother’s handkerchief becomes no different from Scarlett’s home or Sam’s piano.  The people who lived through the experience of that particular entertainment are no longer around to provide context or personal meaning for these objects.  Vivien Leigh and Dooley Wilson have been gone for decades, and as each year passes, fewer and fewer people directly connected to the making of either “Gone With the Wind” or “Casablanca” remain.  So while we may admire the achievements of those who made and worked with such things, we are rapidly reaching a point where we will not have any personal connection with them.

This is why pop culture relics often survive to go on into a kind of materialist afterlife.  Long after the people who are associated with them have shuffled off this mortal coil, we can tell the stories of who they were and what they meant to our culture, by looking to those objects which once meant something to them.  Thus, while there may be no significant monetary value in something like an old, upright piano, appreciation of that piano’s significance to popular culture far outweighs the monetary worth of the object.  Whatever becomes of grandmother’s handkerchief, I certainly hope we may yet get to see Tara rebuilt, and Sam’s piano sitting in pride of place at a public institution.

Sam Dooley, Humphrey Bogart, and Ingrid Bergman in a scene from "Casablanca" (1942)

Dooley Wilson, Humphrey Bogart, and Ingrid Bergman in a scene from “Casablanca” (1942)

Fangs of Steel: Is Dracula the New Superman?

The camera arcs slowly as we watch a man dressed in a shiny suit, making his way along difficult terrain.  His exorbitantly long red cape flaps in the wind, billowing out behind him like a sail.  We see him smash his fist into the ground until the surface cracks, just before he leaps into the sky and flies away…surrounded by a flock of bats.

No, this isn’t a story about the love child of Superman and Batman. Rather it’s the trailer to the forthcoming film, Dracula Untold, which purports to tell the legend of Vlad Dracul, the 15th-century Prince of Wallachia (part of modern-day Romania) known as “Vlad the Impaler”, and his transformation into the legendary vampire “Dracula” of the eponymous Bram Stoker novel.  The film will be premiering in U.S. theatres this October, and this is the first glimpse audiences have had of the project. As a friend commented in conversation about the trailer, “A LOT of bats. Bats everywhere. Far too many bats. You saw the bats?”

The film has been some time in the making, and did not finish as it began.  Alex Proyas, creator of dark films which fall into the broad category of sci-fi/fantasy, such as “The Crow”, “Dark City”, and “I, Robot”, was originally set to direct.   Proyas would have been a natural to explore how Dracul became Dracula, a subject which was presented but never fully explored in Francis Ford Coppola’s stylish but messy 1992 film version of Stoker’s novel.  Sam Worthington, an actor well-known to many in geekdom for his roles in films like “Avatar”, was set to star as the bloodthirsty prince.  In order to lower costs, Universal later ended up binning Proyas and Worthington, and sought out a new director and star.

Enter Gary Shore, an Irish director who has never filmed anything on this scale before, being known primarily as a director of indie film shorts and television commercials.  And in place of Worthing we have another “Avatar” alum, Welsh actor Luke Evans.  Although he has a far longer cinematic resume than Shore, Evans has never had to carry an entire film of this size, even though he has played a host of both lead and supporting roles in sci-fi/action/fantasy films like this over the years.

For both director and star the stakes on such a film are fairly high.  Shore has no track record at the box office to draw upon, and no string of previous films that have been the subject of university lectures and fanzine articles, so he’s not going to ruin his reputation if he fails.  On the other hand, if he does fail, he probably won’t get another shot: the fact that one instantly thought of Zack Snyder’s first trailer for “Man of Steel” on seeing this particular trailer is a bit worrying, even if many of the other scenes look interesting.  Evans, who is a rising commodity in filmdom at the moment, certainly looks more like a dark and dangerous Slavic warrior than does the laddish and wide-eyed Worthington, who would have been woefully miscast in the role.  Yet if he fails to draw the attention of sci-fi fans, he may not be offered another opportunity like this for a long time.

There’s also the rather prickly question of how you deal with the invasion of Christian Europe by a Muslim empire in a 21st century film.  Are we going to see a watered-down, politically correct view of the West vs. the East, such as in recent films like “City of God”?  Are the Ottomans going to be kept at arm’s length as a fairly faceless foe, talked about but not examined close up, so that the film doesn’t even have to address the issue of militant Islam?  How is the underlying conceit of the story, that in becoming a vampire Vlad is making a pact with the Devil, going to be treated given the fact that historically speaking, the real Dracul was an Eastern Orthodox Christian, who not only founded and endowed dozens of churches and monasteries, but enjoyed good relations with a number of Catholic rulers, including the popes?

With the superhero genre definitely in the ascendancy right now, it’s not surprising that a studio would greenlight a vampire movie that looks like a superhero film.  Right now vampires are not as hot a commodity as they were a few years ago, during the “Twlight” era, but on the whole they are a reasonably safe bet at the multiplex.  Of course, by trying to turn the story of Vlad Dracul into “Fangs of Steel” or “Bat/Man Begins”, one wonders what will we end up with.

It could be that we will have another roided-out, CGI version of a sword-and-sandal picture, rather than a historical examination of the life of a truly fascinating and complex figure tinged with some fairytale elements.  Or it could be that we have a real development of some of the ideas about obsession and damnation from Bram Stoker’s hugely influential novel, albeit in a fantasy setting.  Or it could be, which is probably more likely, that we get spoon-fed another dose of moral relativism, in which it turns out that a formerly squeaky-clean Kal-El and an undead creature in league with the infernal are both considered to be equally morally ambiguous.

That being said, will I still go see it? Probably – but I’m keeping my expectations fairly low on this one.

Luke Evans as Prince Vlad Dracul in a poster for the forthcoming "Dracula Untold"

Luke Evans as Prince Vlad Dracul in a poster for the forthcoming “Dracula Untold”