Rue McClanahan and Stephanie Zimbalist in "The Man in the Brown Suit"

 Film review: “The Man in the Brown Suit” (1989)

with Stephanie Zimbalist (Anne Beddingfield), Ken Howard (Gordon Race), Edward Woodward (Sir Eustace Pedler), Rue McClanahan (Suzy Blair) and Tony Randall (Rev. Chichester)

written by Carla Jean Wagner

directed by Alan Grint

The Man in the Brown Suit – one of Christie’s early thrillers – wasn’t all that surprising as the inspiration for a rather placid ’80s TV movie. Anne Beddingfield (Stephanie Zimbalist) is a small-time photographer on holiday in the Middle East, with nothing to go home to. So after witnessing the mysterious death of Leo Carton (Federico Luciano), and the interference of a man in a brown suit, she becomes determined to investigate. Zimbalist is very much the plucky heroine of the ’80s but she’s really quite good, underplaying her scenes nicely. She’s able to because – unlike the same year’s abysmal Ten Little Indians – the director remembers that this is a thriller, albeit one with unlikely protagonists, and keeps the pace up.

Much of the action takes place onboard a small cruise ship, on which Anne gains passage while following the clues. The guests quickly become fast friends, but Anne knows one of them is a killer. Which? There’s Sir Eustace Pedler (Edward Woodward) and his keen-eyed butler Underhill (Nickolas Grace), the big-eyed Reverend Edward Chichester (Tony Randall), boisterous American Suzy Blair (Rue McClanahan) and the straitlaced but enigmatic Gordon Race (Ken Howard) who rescued Anne during a previous encounter in Cairo, and seems unhappy to see her onboard the boat. (Yacht, perhaps? I’m not familiar with nautical differences.) Finally, although he joins the party quite late, there’s the handsome Harry Lucas (Simon Dutton) who clearly has his own secrets. As Anne investigates, she becomes aware of stolen South African diamonds, a series of previous – now dead – investigators, and a sincere threat to her life.

For the most part, The Man in the Brown Suit is a faithful adaptation of Christie’s novel. While her thrillers were never as cleverly conceived as her mysteries (and often trafficked solely in stereotype and slightly-too-languid dialogue scenes standing in for action), there could be a youthful vibrancy to her preferred formula: the young people who get unexpectedly caught up in espionage. While Tommy and Tuppence, for instance, were largely played for laughs, Anne Beddingfield is a slightly more somber heroine, prefiguring Christie’s later thrillers which were, sadly, not enjoyable at all. Luckily, director Alan Grint makes this a more than serviceable little film. The yacht sequences, which take up a large chunk of the film, tread the line between thriller, comedy and character study. Grint never ceases to remind us of the film’s principal genre, so even the dialogue-based scenes – in which the experienced, well-known actors get to let loose – are coloured by Anne’s inquisitive gaze, as we’re never sure when a clue may appear from some seemingly harmless conversation (one of Christie’s specialties).

Ken Howard, Rue McClanahan, Stephanie Zimbalist, Harry Louis, Nickolas Grace and Edward Woodward in the costume ball scene of "The Man in the Brown Suit"

It’s not going to blow any competitors out of the water, true: the yacht seems quite small – i.e., we only really see the half-dozen characters we know – yet Harry Louis remains an elusive figure, and one older, female attendant (CLEARLY a man in disguise to everyone but the characters) is able to appear and then disappear with no-one raising more than an “I’ll explain later” eyebrow. And there are a few moments where Anne perhaps talks to herself a little too much. Not that I can judge – I’ve been known to have all-night conversations with myself – but occasionally it’s clear that the director didn’t want to risk the audience not following her observations, so we get her endless, slightly forced, mutterings. Beyond this, the plot is obviously rather simplistic; why no one official seems to be investigating this case, and yet Anne can make such great headway is never really explained. But even though it’s rather threadbare, the plot feels gleeful and adventurous enough for my liking.

The cast are – with one exception – quite lovely. Zimbalist is well supported by Dutton – then known as Simon Templar, The Saint – and cult legend Woodward. Both men are saddled with those annoying 24-type roles: a down-to-earth, generic man who is either ambiguously evil or just a policeman/do-gooder. It can be a real challenge to convey a character while trying to remain ambiguous, but both gents do it well. Grace – known to me from House of Cards – is also very good in a mostly comic role, and has a sardonic edge that reminds me of Tim Curry. He is occasionally given some gauche business where the character’s actions are meant to be subtle, but neither writer or director have written him that way. McClanahan was midway through The Golden Girls when this was filmed, which reminds me of other TV films starring current-sitcom stars – such as the lovely turns by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Michael Richards in London Suite – that I don’t really see happening today. McClanahan is divine, all silky and clever, genuine but yet just slightly doubtful. In fact, the best compliment is that they’re all suspicious without being silly about it.

A "mysterious" butch attendant (I wonder who?) and Stephanie Zimbalist

Well… almost all. Tony Randall seems to have wandered in from another film altogether. He’s all caricature and bug-eyes, becoming increasingly worse as the film goes on. SPOILERS! if you’re blind, but no one could fail to notice his “Master of Disguise” attempts. It’s the one moment where the director perhaps isn’t sure what he wants the audience to feel: the reveal at the end is supposed to be a surprise to the characters, but we’ve already figured out the who, if not necessarily the why. (I suppose we could assume it to be some big red herring, if we’re charitable.) It’s like the crass comedy version of Witness for the Prosecution. 

The final third of the film takes us back to land, and into the land of bona fide thrillers. Things do become a bit more scattered, with the characters running into each other throughout Dar-es-Salaam, and being pushed off cliffs or dodging boulders. The eventual reveals of the characters are not particularly surprising, and one of them leads us to a rather broad performance that reminds me of a supporting character from Wacky Races. It’s bizarre and yet doesn’t feel as silly as it could have, thanks to the comparatively tight direction. Better is the genuine nature of the female characters, often a sore point in TV films of the age. Both Suzy and Anne seem credible: not Lara Croft strong, but never weak and rarely needing a man to save them. A late scene where they trawl through a bazaar hunting for clues is particularly believable.

Look, The Man in the Brown Suit is what it is: an ’80s TV adaptation of a moderate Agatha Christie novel, filmed using a bunch of TV stars playing ambiguous characters. I’m not going to say that it’s a Terence Malick film, no, but it’s an example of where a likable cast and a director who actually enjoys the source material can make a film that – while not something I’ll watch again often – manages to bring the novel to life, with a fair degree of faithfulness. There are only a handful of Christie novels that haven’t been filmed and released on DVD; I’d argue that even the worst of them could be constructed into an enjoyable TV film. I hope so!