After two big-budget, all-star Poirot films, Peter Ustinov‘s series took an unexpected turn into that dreaded genre: the TV movie. And, as if that wasn’t enough, it also helpfully shifts the entire tone and chronology of the films, for good measure! Today, I’ll be looking at the next two films in Ustinov’s Poirot sextet:

Film Review: Thirteen at Dinner (1985)

with Peter Ustinov (Hercule Poirot), Jonathan Cecil (Captain Arthur Hastings), David Suchet (Inspector Japp), Faye Dunaway (Jane Wilkinson / Carlotta Adams) and Bill Nighy (Roland Marsh)

 written by Rod Browning and directed by Lou Antonio

Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot

It’s a jarring turn, as we open with David Frost interviewing Poirot as part of his television program – in the 1980s. The ageing Poirot of the books felt out of place even by the late ’50s; here, instead, Ustinov makes him a character who, certainly, comes across as eccentric, but hasn’t lost his ability to interact with the world, as evidenced here when – after some initial awkwardness – he manages to get Frost’s audience on his side. The change in chronology is not a bad decision, but it doesn’t gel with the previous two Ustinov films which were clearly period pieces. I guess we can’t expect too much continuity when these new films were made on such tiny budgets, probably mostly going to Faye Dunaway‘s salary, and Ustinov’s facial hair, but it will certainly make for an odd twist when we reach the final film in this series…

Thirteen at Dinner – or Lord Edgware Dies, as it should really be known – is one of those tough stories where certain elements of the trick threaten to overtake the entire piece. Lord Edgware’s death happens while the prime suspect – Dunaway’s film star Jane Wikinson – is at a dinner where she couldn’t possibly be missed. The investigation centres around Jane, her lookalike – television star and impressionist Carlotta Adams (also Dunaway) -, and the possibility that Edgware held other secrets which may mean that someone took the opportunity to frame Jane all along.

I’ve always liked TV movies: there’s a certain coziness about them that reminds me of staying home from school and having toasted cheese sandwiches at midday. There’s plenty of ‘TV movie’ standards in evidence here, from the slightly mottled looking film print and the tighter interior spaces, to the light music that plays as Poirot and Hastings (Jonathan Cecil) investigate. While there’s not very much in the way of opulence, the film’s style at least eschews those trademarks like the sudden zooms that were popular in the ’70s, which I find tend to date films quite easily. A lot of this is down to Lou Antonio‘s inspired – if bipolar – direction. The camera constantly surprises us with uneven angles and unusual shot choices, while much of the dialogue (outside of interrogation scenes) is almost reminiscent of a Robert Altman film, particularly with Hastings and Poirot as they wander the streets and debate elements of the crime. There had been vague hints of this in Evil Under the Sun, but this will be a trademark of Ustinov’s performance for the following films, until he is forced to revert to his original, quirky portrayal in Appointment with Death. On the other hand, Antonio doesn’t entirely forget that he’s doing a TV film in an established series, so there is still the lavish glockenspiel music and other kooky touches on the soundtrack that remind you you’re watching Poirot. It’s an uncertain in-between from a directorial standpoint, clearly evident of Antonio sticking to the format while playing around where he can, but works for the most part.

Jonathan Cecil as Arthur Hastings

To the good: the cast is suitable, although with almost none of the names we were used to. Bill Nighy makes the most of his role, as does Diane Keen. Jonathan Cecil joins the cast as Hastings, who here is not so much a veteran of active service, but an intelligence officer. His time “behind a desk” is something Poirot points out on more than one occasion as interrupting his reasoning skills. The Hastings and Poirot connection here is very, very Holmes and Watson: they appear to share an apartment, and their relationship is ever so slightly adversarial, with Poirot chiding Hastings and later sarcastically wishing he had Hastings’ simplistic logic (although he does later apologise, which is another thing the real Poirot would likely never do!).

Those aren’t the only Holmes/Watson elements of the book: it seems as if, when choosing Poirot novels to adapt, the producers wanted to go with the most Holmesian books, those that feel more like a ‘how’ than a ‘who’ or ‘why’ murder. Fair enough: rather than settle on insular, character-based, family murder mysteries, it’s safer to rely on a sprawling story with a twist in the tale. In this case, though, people may be surprised by the workings of the denouement, but it can’t come as too much of a shock, surely? The basic clues are set up very early on, far more so than in the novel. Nor does the film have the tightness of Ustinov’s earlier films. In fact, it’s infuriatingly constructed: we don’t even see the eponymous dinner until the denouement, which is quite obnoxious, if I’ll be honest. We don’t even get flashbacks during the interrogation, which seems to go against the logic of changing the book’s title. There aren’t many feasible suspects, and Dunaway all but disappears halfway through the film, leading to an uneven structure overall. (In the final third of the film, the action pauses for a languid scene in which a relaxed Poirot attends a cocktail party and is propositioned for a film!)

Thirteen at Dinner is not a write-off: as long as you can adjust from the theatrics of ‘Evil Under the Sun’ to the tone of a tele-movie, it’s a watchable hour-and-a-half. Dunaway manages to be charismatic in spite of the ‘ambiguous’ acting such a character must employ, and she’s suitably different as each of her two characters. Cecil is rather good as the meek Hastings, clearly having a great time with Ustinov: all of their dialogue – although scripted, I’m sure – comes across as natural, almost improvised, and even when they depart from their novel counterparts, the characters feel real. Indeed, both Poirot and Ustinov seem stronger here, partly because of this relationship. Ustinov is now undoubtedly the film’s star, and he commands the screen at every moment. But ultimately, this is a TV film – for all the good and all the bad that brings.

David Suchet as Inspector Japp and Faye Dunaway as Jane Wilkinson in "Thirteen at Dinner"

Finally, it wouldn’t be a review without mentioning my beloved David Suchet, who pops up as Inspector Japp. Suchet himself has lamented this performance, but not only is he delightful, his portrayal gels perfectly with that naturalistic style in which Ustinov and Cecil are speaking (even while playing over-the-top characters!). This Japp is a Cockney gourmand who happily helps himself to breakfast the immediate he arrives in Poirot’s apartment. His relationship with Poirot is also cleverly devised by the actors: he’s not an idiot, but he’s also not about to have Poirot shadow him everywhere… or so he wishes. The scenes in which Poirot and Hastings trail an unwilling Japp are among the liveliest in the film, providing a strong chemistry. Thirteen at Dinner is not as strong as Evil Under the Sun, as lavish as Death on the Nile, or as well-constructed as the later films, but it can at least boast a rip-roaring central trio.

Film review: “Dead Man’s Folly” (1986)

with Peter Ustinov (Hercule Poirot), Jonathan Cecil (Captain Arthur Hastings), Jean Stapleton (Ariadne Oliver), Tim Pigott-Smith (Sir George Stubbs), Constance Cummings (Amy Folliat) and Kenneth Cranham (Det. Insp. Bland)

written by Rod Browning

directed by Clive Donner

For his fourth outing, Peter Ustinov gets to do one of the few books that even David Suchet hasn’t got around to yet. Dead Man’s Folly is yet another puzzle mystery – this series seems to prefer adapting the books where the crux of the mystery is on subterfuge or one elaborate trick, and not on stories where the character relationships are clear from the outset. In this case, deaths occur during a murder game at a country fete, and it is up to Poirot, Hastings and American mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver (Jean Stapleton) to solve the crime.

Dead Man’s Folly actually feels much less like a TV movie than its predecessor, but I suspect that’s primarily because we’re back in squarely British territory this time around, so it takes on similar production values to the contemporaneous Joan Hickson films, rather than looking like an American effort. However, we’re still squarely in the ’80s, so it’s clear that Ustinov’s film series has permanently moved to this timeframe (probably for the best, I suppose, given limited budget).

As with Thirteen at Dinner, the key point of interest here is in the characterisations of our central trio. Ustinov and Cecil have settled in nicely to their relationship, and there’s a wonderful scene where Poirot watches – bemused yet intrigued – as Hastings compiles all the suspects and clues on a pinboard in military style. As Mrs. Oliver, Stapleton is a far cry from Zoe Wanamaker‘s droll author. While both of them are clearly frustrating to their respective Poirot, Stapleton is much more aggressively obnoxious, and far less insightful than Wanamaker. Poirot’s frustration is no less amusing, and Stapleton effortlessly captures her character, but the writing doesn’t do her any favours: Mrs. Oliver remains on the same note for the entire film. Thankfully, the canny Inspector Bland is better written, and Kenneth Cranham serves the script well.

Jonathan Cecil as Hastings, Jean Stapleton as Mrs Oliver and Peter Ustinov as Poirot in "Dead Man's Folly"

As is par for the course with this series, the adaptations are relatively faithful. The older cast members are all satisfactory – Tim Pigott-Smith among them – but, to be honest, no one stands out. The younger cast certainly fail to make an impression: amongst them Ralph Arless and Jeff Yagher, who sadly look like extras from Miami Vice due to some very dated (and surprisingly American) choices of fashion (although I have no idea what people in Britain wore in this era, so forgive my ignorance). A young Nicollette Sheridan (before Knots Landing, but after she had debuted in Paper Dolls) manages to put in a good, soapy performance as Lady Hattie Stubbs.

On the one hand, this is a better constructed film than Thirteen at Dinner. However, much of the film, sadly, is overplayed: Mrs. Oliver’s opening exposition shows us each of the suspects in flashback and – while it may be a deliberate directorial choice in line with the game at the murder’s centre – it doesn’t work for me. Much like Suchet’s Three Act Tragedy some twenty-four years later, I find that the opulent direction pulls me out of the plot, rather than into it. And, as some of the suspects’ facades begin to come apart, everything feels just slightly overwritten and overacted, as if the film never wants you to forget it’s a MURDER MYSTERY. Maybe I’m spoiled by the efforts at characterisation that define the 2000s TV films, but this just feels like the writer knew the audience would be settling in for a puzzle on a Sunday evening, so they’ll make sure every element is part of the game, even if it dehumanises things and strips them of any depth.

Still, at least the plot moves along at a nice clip, and things do get downright exciting as Poirot and Hastings summon the principals together for closing arguments. Sadly, Dead Man’s Folly isn’t a particularly memorable film, but thankfully Ustinov’s series will pick up again with its final two installments. And it appears that we’ll be getting a new Dead Man’s Folly with David Suchet at the end of 2012, so I’ll just content myself with looking forward to that instead.