Thursday, 4 July 2013

Episode-by-episode: The Mystery of the Spanish Chest

This episode was based on the short story 'The Mystery of the Spanish Chest', which is an expanded version of the short story 'The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest', first published in 1932. It was adapted for television by Anthony Horowitz and directed by Andrew Grieve.

Script versus short story
This is one of Christie's longer short stories, and considering its length and somewhat complex structure, Horowitz's adaptation is impressively faithful to the source material. The episode opens with the duel mentioned in the short story, set about ten years before the rest of the story. We are then introduced to an  opera, Verdi's Rigoletto, attended by Poirot and Hastings (a clever way to allude to the Othello references in the original short story). Horowitz's most significant change, perhaps, is to introduce Poirot to the case before the murder has been committed. Lady Chatterton, who in this version knows Poirot from a previous case, asks him to look into the relationship between Marguerite and Edward Clayton, because she fears that Edward Clayton might be plotting to kill his wife out of jealousy (not because Marguerite has requested his assistance in clearing Major Rich). Instead of inviting Poirot to her party to meet Marguerite, they both attend Major Rich's party, which has now been turned into a much larger cocktail party. This is a very sensible change, both because it puts Poirot at the scene of the crime and because it widens the potential scope of suspects a little. Also, the actual murder is even more brutal than in the source material. Here, Clayton is stabbed through the eye. Japp takes charge of the investigation for Scotland Yard, which enables Poirot to interview Major Rich (in prison), Commander McLaren (who becomes Colonel Curtiss in this version), Burgoyne the butler and Marguerite Clayton. The latter nearly commits suicide, because she has had an affair with Rich and fears he has killed her husband because she implied that she wanted him to (their relationship was apparently never sexual in the short story). Another change between source material and script is that Poirot has Marguerite Clayton arrested in an attempt to get the murderer to reveal himself. This leads to the inclusion of a tense scene at the gymnasium of Curtiss's club, in which Poirot has a very close call. For once, Miss Lemon is not introduced to the plot. Instead, she is away on holiday (providing for some amusing scenes at Whitehaven between Poirot and Hastings). There's also a nice little subplot on Poirot's lack of humbility, and the by now famous quote 'I am not a bloody little frog, I am a bloody little Belgian!'. All in all, then, Horowitz's adaptation is a joy to watch.

Directing, production design, locations, soundtrack
Grieve's directing is competent and well executed. There are some very nice shots, like the opening sequence in the gymnasium in a slightly sepia colour tone, the overview of Marguerite Clayton's bathroom overdose and several shots of the Spanish chest itself. As always, the production design is top-notch. I particularly like the layout of Major Rich's flat. Locations used for the episode include Lincoln's Inn, London, in which both the Clayton's house and Col. Curtiss's club is situated, I believe. The soundtrack is sufficient, but hardly as memorable as in some of the other episodes of the series.

Actors and characters
It's always nice to see different aspects of Poirot's character in these adaptations. Here we have the sociable cigarette-smoker,  the vain (and far from humble) public persona, and the fussy borderline OCD individual (his tisane, the way he sleeps, the way he eats at the party etc). Also, it's nice to see the different social circles of Poirot and Japp highlighted. Japp, as a more working class/lower middle class policeman, is suspicious of gatherings such as Rich's party, while Poirot is thoroughly enjoying himself. Of the guest actors, John McEnery (Curtiss) stands out as a particularly cunning culprit.

6 comments:

  1. I am actually a bit surprised to discover that Poirot and Japp are such different social classes, because Poirot himself worked his way up through the ranks of a police force way-back-when - albeit in a different country.

    I enjoy Poirot's enjoyment of parties. While Christie at times parodied, or referenced, Sherlock Holmes, Poirot's personality is quite different from Holmes and those based on him (and most characters in modern dramas having anything to do with crime.) He is amiable, gallant, and enjoys company - especially that of women, and they find his company a lot of fun.

    After watching some very dark recent series, with pretty much everyone depressed, on drugs, or unable to have relationships, re-visiting some of the early Poirots, with their positivity and upbeat-ness was refreshing. I am sorry they lost it in the last few series.' (Although that might sound funny to say because they still deal regularly with people getting killed, and let's face it, the murder is usually treated as a good thing for most people.)

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  2. "This is a very sensible change, both because it puts Poirot at the scene of the crime..." It did happen in some of the stories that Poirot was on the scene before there was a crime, (such as Death in the Clouds and Evil Under the Sun). But this series seems to find ways to put him on the scene of most of his cases before they are cases, as here. I realize that's done all the time in this genre (Jessica Fletcher being the most notorious example), but that's usually because amateur sleuths don't get called in, so they would have to have been there. But Poirot is a professional so it would be plausible for him to be called in even if he wasn't there originally.

    On the one hand, you would think these murderers would have more fear about carrying out their plans under Poirot's nose, because he's bound to find them out in the end. On the other hand, the fact that the murders happen while he's on the scene in the first place makes him look less competent after a while, if it happens too often.

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  4. Speaking to the removal of the carpet and not the chest, why was the chest not removed? To be so full of blood as to soak through its' cracks and into the carpet, surely the piece would be removed for extensive rehabilitation. I have not read Agatha's short story nor the expanded version, did she describe the chest's unmoved location and/or gratuitous blood-spill as it was portrayed in the program?

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  5. Stuart Farquhar12 May 2015 at 15:09

    How odd that Poirot can dance a perfect Charleston even though he's extremely uncomfortable doing it.

    The scene between Curtiss and Clayton at the club surely gives away too much, as does the fact that we know Curtiss fought the duel (which, incidentally isn't quite the same duel from the short story; that was between two Italians).

    It's very melodramatic that Poirot brings Rich to his meeting with Curtiss rather than the police.

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    1. Yes, the adaptation suffers from some of these changes. I understand why they wanted a confrontation between Rich and Curtiss, but it doesn't really make sense.

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I'm a passionate fan of Poirot, Agatha Christie and the ITV series. If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or requests, please e-mail me at poirotchronology@gmail.com, post a comment on one of my blogs, or get in touch on Twitter @pchronology. (I used to call myself HickoryDickory)