The Five Best Agatha Christie Screen Adaptations (according to me…)

More than once during the writing of Agatha Christie on Screen I had someone say to me, ‘I haven’t seen an Agatha Christie film – which one should I watch?’. It’s an entirely reasonable thing to ask, but also tough to answer, because the films and TV adaptations generally offer very different balances of characters, incident, plot, mystery and (often) comedy – and different audiences react to these elements in different ways.

Although my book isn’t entirely devoid of opinion, when I was writing it I decided that as this was a history of how Agatha Christie’s stories were brought to screen, readers were not necessarily interested in what I had to think. I was particularly aware that my opinion differs from many Agatha Christie fans, and casual audiences, and I had to be respectful of that, and not let my own opinions weigh too heavily on my discussion of the different productions.

So, having now finished the book, allow me to indulge in a very personal blog post where I can tell you what I really think!

Before I start, there are three omissions that some of you may be surprised by and I want to acknowledge. Firstly, the René Clair adaptation of And Then There Were None from 1945 – a film that has never really worked for me, being rather lacking in suspense and feeling very old fashioned for the time. It is probably the best Christie adaptation to that point, but  has been surpassed many times since.

ATTWN 1945

Secondly, none of the films starring Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple appear. While I don’t despise the films as violently as some, I also don’t think they’re very good. The scripts are thin at best, and they’re all over the place tonally (the line between amusement and irritation is frequently crossed), while the films never feel like any care has been taken with them. Rutherford is the best thing in them, but doesn’t play any Miss Marple I recognise. As I didn’t see them when I was young I have no real nostalgic affection towards them, either, and I think this often plays a part when audiences enjoy them now.

Rutherford

Finally, and most controversially… no, Murder on the Orient Express is not on this list. Sorry. I would say that the opening reel, showing the kidnapping that sets the film’s events into motion, is probably the best sequence in any Agatha Christie film. But the film is then crippled by both Albert Finney’s portrayal of Poirot, who I never believe can be a real person, and the strict adherence to the book’s structure. On the page, we are guided through a maze of clues and contradictions, but on screen Poirot interviewing everyone in turn eventually becomes a bit of a chore.

Murder_on_the_Orient_Express_-_UK_poster

So, without further ado, my top five:

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Witness 1957

This list is in no particular order – except for this one. The 1957 Billy Wilder film of Witness for the Prosecution is, for my money, the single best screen adaptation of an Agatha Christie story. There were several early TV adaptations of this short story on both sides of the Atlantic, but it was the success of Christie’s own stage adaptation that really made it a hot property. It was suggested to Alfred Hitchcock, but he was more interested in Dial M for Murder, and after a few wrangles it eventually became a pet project for Billy Wilder.

Writing with Harry Kurnitz, Wilder produced a screenplay that does the near impossible by making one of Christie’s very best stories even better. (A later blog post will give details of a few other adaptations that, I think, manage to surpass Christie’s original stories.) Wilder and Kurnitz add wit and warmth, filling out the characterisation and adding further incident. This includes the flashback sequence that sees Marlene Dietrich’s performance of ‘I May Never Go Home Anymore’ – this has often been derided, but not by me, as I think it’s essential that we see the relationship between the character of Christine, played by Dietrich, and Leonard (Tyrone Power) away from the court case that has seen the latter accused of murder. Although the cast is exceptional, including Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, Dietrich steals the show – especially in one extraordinarily difficult scene (you’ll know which I mean if you’ve seen it).

Witness 1982

The film was remade as a Hallmark TV movie in 1982 starring Ralph Richardson and Diana Rigg, alongside a host of recognisable British actors. The script was a condensation of Wilder and Kurnitz’s screenplay but, aside from an atmospheric opening, the final product doesn’t rival the 1957 film.

Evil Under the Sun (1982)

Evil

After the success of 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express, the film’s producers John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin looked to find another glamorous Christie book to film. The press reported that the next project was to be Evil Under the Sun, again starring Albert Finney, but Death on the Nile was always the preferred follow up, and Finney was never likely to reprise the role. So it was that, in the end, it took until 1982 for this tale of murderous events on an island made it to the screen, by which point Peter Ustinov was playing Poirot.

This is the best of the high budget film adaptations of this era because it no longer worries about restraining itself from the camp that had only bubbled under the surface to this point. Evil Under the Sun is also a film that feels glamorous, with its beautiful Majorcan locations alongside the highly affected costumes and Cole Porter score, which makes it so much more entertaining to watch. Added to this, the cast are clearly having a ball, especially during the barbs between Diana Rigg’s doomed Arlene and hotel owner Daphne, played by Maggie Smith.

Aside from the pithy put-downs and strong characterisation, Anthony Shaffer’s script balances a particularly complex set of clues and incidents to great effect, while also removing some less effective subplots and sensibly thinning out the crowd of suspects.

Perhaps the scene in which Poirot reveals the workings of the murder goes on a little too long, but the film as a whole is fun, gripping and clever, and what more can you want than that?

Miss Marple: A Murder is Announced (1985)

Marple

I’ve picked A Murder is Announced to represent the BBC’s Miss Marple series, which ran sporadically between 1984 and 1992, but really I am spoiled for choice. There is too much back story to go into here, but Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple is perfect – so perfect, in fact, that those making the later ITV series deliberately cast actresses who would be very different, so as not to invoke direct comparisons.

A Murder is Announced is probably the best overall production of this excellent run of twelve adaptations. It showed that it was possible to stick closely to the book while still making for a highly effective piece of television – even if, at over two and a half hours, it does perhaps run for longer than needed. Alan Plater’s lightness of touch to the script makes the world on screen feel like a real one, rather than a set of suspects waiting to be uncovered.

Poirot: The ABC Murders (1992)

ABC

I was tempted to go for Curtain here, but its inevitably downbeat tone doesn’t seem quite right for a celebratory blog post – I’d rather go to the series’ heyday by flagging up this 1992 adaptation from the Poirot series starring David Suchet. Some days, The ABC Murders might be my favourite Christie, and it certainly hovers in what I consider to be the top tier of her stories. It’s a fantastic premise, of seemingly random murders committed in alphabetical order, with a satisfying resolution.

The real strength of this adaptation is in the emphasis on Cust, a man who we must treat as the main suspect, and whom we even see committing murder at one point… don’t we? Donald Sumpter gives an exceptional performance as this troubled and confused man, and the audience is pleased to learn of his fate at the end.

Alongside this is a set of strong performance from the series’ regulars, and a reinforcement of their relationship, especially when Hastings brings Poirot a rather pungent present back from his travels.

Audiences have their pick of treats from the Poirot series, but this is the best of the bunch.

And Then There Were None (2015)

ATTWN 2015

For the final choice, we come up to date. How nervous were many of us about this adaptation? 2015’s Partners in Crime had not exactly been a huge success, and so expectations were not high for this long overdue take on Christie’s best selling novel, despite the strong pedigree of writer Sarah Phelps. I was lucky enough to see some rushes during filming and was (pleasantly) shocked by what I saw – a lavish production, yes, but also one that was clearly taking this dark tale very seriously. When one person asked me to describe what I saw, I could only say that it looked great… and there was a lot of blood.

This description was to be true of the final three-part adaptation itself. Phelps crafted a brilliantly paced and constructed thriller, with strong (generally repulsive) characters. From this, director Craig Viveiros shot the piece not as ‘an Agatha Christie adaptation’ but a tense, violent, psychological thriller – and he was right to do so.

It was great to see how well received the production was when broadcast, and I hope that this will be an annual tradition of striking, modern, and faithful Christie adaptations.

As ever, much more information on all of these adaptations can be found in Agatha Christie on Screen, which is due out in late 2016, and is available to pre-order now from Amazon UK, Amazon US and most other stores.

The ‘Lost’ Agatha Christie Adaptations

When I started to research Agatha Christie on Screen (which is available to pre-order at Amazon UK and US, since you ask) I was keen to find out more about the adaptations we rarely hear about. In a later post I’ll look at existing adaptations that are not in general circulation (and so effectively ‘lost’ for many), but this first article is a chance to talk about film and television productions that – as far as we know – there are no existing copies of.

My favourite part of writing any book is the research – especially if it’s archival, and I get the chance to look at material that hasn’t been published before. It’s fair to say that files in various archives contained pleasant surprises (full censor notes for the abandoned Zero Mostel version of The Alphabet Murders!) as well as disappointments (scripts missing from the place where they should be), but the piecing together of the available information is the best part of the writing process – especially when it comes to these ‘lost’ adaptations.

So, I thought I’d open the Agatha Christie on Screen blog with an article that highlights some of the more interesting productions that you won’t have seen, unless you were able to catch them at the time – this is far from a comprehensive list, but they’ll give you an idea of what we’re missing.

 

The Passing of Mr Quinn (1928)

Quinn

What is it?

The first Agatha Christie film adaptation, production of which just pre-dates the German take on The Secret Adversary.

What do we know about it?

Ostensibly this was an adaptation of the 1924 short story that would later be renamed ‘The Coming of Mr Quin’. Directed by Leslie S. Hiscott, this silent film was made as a ‘quota quickie’, following legislation that forced British cinemas to show a certain number of British films. One stipulation was that the story’s original author had to be British – and so Christie was an ideal candidate. In truth, only a few elements of the original story survived, and even the spelling of Quin’s name was changed.  The plot takes some bizarre and convoluted twists and turns (including a trek to a convent, and a completely illogical reworking of the title character as a disguised alcoholic), and was poorly received.

What exists?

A handful of publicity photographs, a detailed synopsis of the film via a novelisation (met with anger from Christie, and never reprinted as a result) and a few reviews give us a sense of the film, but no script or footage is currently known to survive.

How much do we want to see it again?

Quite a lot, although not for entertainment reasons. The whole thing sounds bonkers but as a result it’s difficult to know how it actually came across on screen. We know that it was distributed internationally, as far as Australia, and so there is a chance it may turn up one day.

 

Alibi and Black Coffee (both 1931)

1931 Black Coffee Ad Pos 1

What are they?

The first two films to star Poirot, here played by Austin Trevor, who was only 34 at the time, and did not don a moustache for the role. Both are based on stage productions, the first of which (by Michael Morton) was in turn based on the novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The second, Black Coffee, was originally written for the stage by Christie.

What do we know about them?

Our best understanding of these two films come from the original stage play scripts, which don’t seem to have been heavily reworked for the screen. However, we can also gather a lot from the third film to star Austin Trevor as Poirot, 1934’s Lord Edgware Dies, which does exist. Unfortunately, it is also a lacklustre effort with weak performances (including a seemingly uncomfortable Trevor) and a marked lack of atmosphere. Given the generally poor reception of these two films from the press, we can reasonably infer that they were unlikely to have been any better. However, Trevor later reprised the role for BBC radio and had a cameo in 1965’s comedy Poirot film The Alphabet Murders, so we can assume he was fondly remembered by some of the audience.

What exists?

A few nice photos and advertisements are the only visual material known to survive, with no known copy of the script, so we can’t be sure exactly what changes were made in the transition from stage to screen.

How much do we want to see them again?

While the prospect of seeing the first screen appearance of Poirot is a tempting, in reality we can gather a lot about the films from the stage plays and Lord Edgware Dies, so they probably wouldn’t be too exciting.

 

The Wasp’s Nest (1937)

Wasps Nest

What is it?

The first appearance of an Agatha Christie story on television, Christie’s one act play made its world debut on the medium in a live performance starring Francis L. Sullivan as Poirot.

What do we know about it?

Christie’s script is a good piece of drama that closely mirrors the events in the short story of the same name (give or take an apostrophe and definite article). Some moments probably struggled to work well on screen – one character is forced into near-hysteria at one point, with dialogue that would have been difficult to convey convincingly – but it’s a strong story. Satisfyingly, in the end the whole thing feels like a neat trick that everyone has played an equal part in.

What exists?

A publicity photo or two, plus the full play script (although not the camera script, meaning that we don’t have an idea of exactly how it was shot), plus some broadcast documentation that gives us a few more titbits of information. This includes the fact that the opening music was Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Wasps Overture – what else?

How much do we want to see it again?

A lot – it’s a rarely performed play, with an excellent cast, and it was a televisual first to boot. Unfortunately, it also predates systematic recording of television broadcasts so I wouldn’t bank on someone finding a film recording in the back of a cupboard somewhere.

 

Three Blind Mice (1947)

Three Blind Mice

What is it?

The history of the 1947 radio version of Three Blind Mice is well known, of course – mainly because it was eventually reworked and considerably expanded to become The Mousetrap, a unique theatrical success. However, just a few months after the radio production, an almost unchanged script also formed the basis of a television production.

What do we know about it?

A reasonable amount. We have a full script, and production details including the commissioning process (the execs would have preferred And Then There Were None, but the 1945 film meant that this wasn’t possible), a floorplan of the studio and some transmission info. It opened with a shot of snowy Culver Street (recreated in studio), where we see the murderer (in disguise) home in on their victim. The television production deliberately attempted to mirror the radio version as much as possible. In years to come, several attempts were made to stage the play on British television again, but the rights were not available due to the ongoing success of The Mousetrap. It popped up elsewhere on occasion, though – including on American television.

What exists?

The aforementioned script and production documentation, which gives us a good idea of how the production worked on screen.

How much do we want to see it again?

A perfect story for live television, this would be great to see, but there’s no realistic chance that it was recorded.

 

Witness for the Prosecution (1949)

Witness

What is it?

This story was produced a few times for television, mostly predating Christie’s own adaptation of it into a play (which opened in 1953), and several years earlier than the exceptional 1957 film. Instead, these adaptations were based on her original 1925 short story. One of the more intriguing productions is this 1949 BBC adaptation.

What do we know about it?

The evidence indicates that this adaptation was a considerable embellishment on the original short story. We know this murder victim Miss French was a proper, credited role, while we also know that the production opened with a shot of her body (surely not enough in itself to give an actress such a prominent credit) and that sets included the balcony of a Swiss hotel overlooking a lake. Was this the setting for a flashback to a rendezvous between Romaine and Leonard? Unfortunately, the script hasn’t survived, so we can’t be sure. The production made use of just one film sequence, a specially recorded establishing shot of the Old Bailey.

What exists?

A reasonable amount of production documentation tells us quite a lot about some elements (casting, sets, etc) but frustratingly little about others. No footage is known to survive and the performance pre-dates systematic recording of BBC television broadcasts.

How much do we want to see it?

A lot. Any of the productions of the story that pre-date Christie’s own stage play are of interest, but the implication that this particular version opens out the (excellent) story beyond the original plot is an exciting prospect. Even a copy of the script would be a good find but, unlike many BBC productions, this one is not held by the corporation.

 

The Case of the Missing Lady (1950)

Missing Lady

What is it?

An American television adaptation of a light Tommy and Tuppence adventure, the really interesting thing about this production is that it starred Ronald Reagan as Tommy alongside Cloris Leachman as Tuppence.

What do we know about it?

Very little. We know that it was light hearted, and seems to have been a pretty close adaptation of the (very slight) original story. Reagan seems to have had fun in the role, playing a kazoo in a conscious echo of Sherlock Holmes’ efforts with a violin. Variety described it as ‘mildly amusing’, but then they also called it ‘The Case of the Blessing Lady’, so who knows how closely they were paying attention.

What exists?

Not much, but we do have several nice publicity photos of Leachman and Reagan. Unfortunately, no recording appears to survive, although we can’t rule out its existence as 1950s film recordings of American television shows do continue to pop up in unexpected places.

How much do we want to see it again?

The idea of a future president playing Tommy is enough to make this of interest to more people than Christie fans – it would be good to see how well he carried off the part.

 

Afternoon at the Seaside (1963)

Afternoon at the Seaside

What is it?

One of Christie’s ‘Rule of Three’ set of one-act plays, the BBC transmitted a live performance from the Duchess Theatre, with an audience in residence.

What do we know about it?

This seems to have been a straightforward outside broadcast of the play – there had been similar instances with extracts from plays shown due to key anniversaries or launch nights in previous years, but this was the first time a whole play was shown, albeit a short one. Critics were not kind – one asked if it was ‘part of some Machiavellian scheme to convince viewers that theatre standards are infinitely lower than those of even the worst television drama’. Viewers received it more warmly, however, with 67% of an audience panel giving it a grade of A or A+.

What exists?

Not a lot – a couple of reviews and a small collection of documentation, along with a few photos.

How much do we want to see it?

As a record of a performance of the play, it would be nice to see what the audience of the time saw – but it isn’t one of Christie’s more memorable pieces of work.

You can, of course, read much more about these productions – and lots of other ‘lost’ adaptations, including takes on Three Blind Mice, And Then There Were None and Witness for the Prosecution – in Agatha Christie on Screen, to be published in late 2016 by Palgrave Macmillan.