Thursday, 29 August 2013

Episode-by-episode: Cards on the Table

©ITV
This episode was based on the novel Cards on the Table, first published in 1936. It was adapted for television by Nick Dear and directed by Sarah Harding.

Script versus novel
It's quite surprising, actually, that the writer who delivered perhaps the most faithful script of Series Nine (The Hollow) should come back for Series Ten and deliver one of the more controversial scripts. I happen to like it (for the most part), but he does make some rather peculiar changes that I can't really say I see any reason for making. I enjoy Dear's later adaptations, and they are generally quite faithful, so I wonder what got into him while writing this. In any case, let me list the changes. First, some new characters are added. Colonel Race is replaced by Colonel Hughes, and Superintendent Battle is replaced by Superintendent Wheeler. The first change can be explained quite easily. James Fox, who portrayed Colonel Race in Death on the Nile was unavailable, and the role would have to be re-cast. To avoid this, Dear evidently added an original character. A perfectly acceptable decision, and I think Robert Pugh does a good job with the part, too. The second character substitute is somewhat more difficult to explain. Battle had never been portrayed before in the series, so there is no need to remove him for those kinds of reasons. It seems the reason he was removed was because Dear (or the producers?) wanted to increase the number of suspects by implicating one of the 'sleuths', and Battle/Wheeler was the obvious choice. Throughout the investigation, the Wheeler character shows signs of having a personal interest in the case (he knows that Shaitana was Syrian, he is keen to accuse Dr. Roberts of the crime, and it is revealed that he staged a break-in to search Shaitana's house for some compromising photographs. Poirot discovers the compromising photographs at a somewhat suspicious-looking photographic studio and confronts Wheeler with them after the denouement. Whether Wheeler is a closeted gay man or the photos show something else entirely, we shall never know. In any case, this is a peculiar addition. Third, Dear decides to make Dr. Roberts gay. He has an affair with Mr. Craddock, rather than Mrs. Craddock, and it's Mrs. Craddock, not Mr. Craddock, who threatens to report him. I can't really say I understand that change either. The only reason I can think of is that Dear felt the 'threat' of an affair with a female patient wouldn't be enough of a motive for Roberts to commit murder. To have his homosexuality revealed in a society that had deemed homosexual acts illegal, however, would certainly be considered a reason for wanting to silence those who know his secret. I don't say that this explains why it was necessary to change his motive, but I do think it makes it more understandable - and almost acceptable. Fourth, Dear removes the second murder (and the faked suicide letters), but that entire plot was almost unbelievable (how was Dr. Roberts supposed to be aware that she was deadly ill and that she was thinking of taking the blame - not to mention how he could get hold of her handwriting). Fourth, the third murder (SPOILER) is changed so that Rhoda (not Anne) drowns, and Rhoda (not Anne) attempts to kill her. Also, Despard rescues Anne and not Rhoda. In fact, Rhoda is supposed to be a possessive friend (in Poirot's words to Anne Meredith: 'you were her slave'). Again, I find it difficult to understand why there was a need to change this from the novel (but, of course, it allows for mother and daughter to be reconciled rather than murdered). Finally, as I've already implied, Anne Meredith is Mrs Lorrimer's daughter here. This allows for a much more believeable and emotional 'confession' scene

Apart from the above mentioned changes, however, Dear's adaptation stays fairly close to the source material (indeed, it's only in the final thirty minutes or so that things go off in... unexpected directions. All in all, however, I'm inclined to regard this as a perfectly acceptable adaptation, with some flashes of perfection (the bridge scenes, the dynamic between the four sleuths etc are all superbly done).

Directing, production design, locations, soundtrack
Sarah Harding's direction is wonderful. I particularly like the opening scene at the gallery, inter-cutting with the photographic studio, which brilliantly set up two essential themes; crime as art and photography as (at least partial) motive for crime. Credit must also be given to the production design of this episode. Production designer Jeff Tessler and his team must have had so much fun. Not only are they given the opportunity to design and construct two long-running sets (Poirot's new flat and Mrs Oliver's flat - both strikingly similar to the descriptions in Christie's stories), but the rooms in Shaitana's flat are really exquisitely done, suitably exotic and sufficiently flamboyant. Locations include the 'Peacock House' / Debenham House in Holland Park (doubling as Shaitana's house - and also as Lord Edgware's residence in Lord Edgware Dies (2000)), Leighton House Museum (the interior functions as Shaitana's entrance hall), the Ham House Stables, Alexandra Court, 171-175 Queen's Gate, London (Mrs Oliver's apartment building - which would become the setting for Third Girl as well), Neal&Palmer, Piccadilly Arcade (where Poirot buys the stockings), and the Albert Memorial in London (see photos here). Stephen McKeon's score is particularly effective in this episode, with a suitably mysterious atmosphere to it. Parts of it can be found on his website, e.g. 'Cat and Mouse' and 'Shadows and Light'. Also, I can once again reccomend the 2006 behind-the-scenes documentary of Series Ten - if you can get hold of it. There's plenty of interviews with the cast and crew.

Characters and actors
I have to mention the introduction of Zoë Wanamaker as Mrs Ariadne Oliver. You can read my blog post on the character for a more in-depth look, but suffice to say that this was an inspired bit of casting. She might not be quite as battleship-like as the character from the novel, but to me, she's absolutely perfect as Ariadne, and her coupling with David Suchet's Poirot is absolutely perfect. Also, it's a joy to see Poirot have someone to play off, after an entire series 'on his own'. Of the other guest actors, Alexander Siddig perfectly captures the Shaitana of the novel, and the fantastic Lesley Manville is particularly moving as Mrs Lorrimer (and I'm quite impressed by her delivery of the scripted bridge lines in the interview with Poirot! That's almost as impressive as Benedict Cumberbatch's fast-speaking Sherlock). But of course, having only four (five) suspects and four sleuths, all the actors have time to excel in their parts - and most of them do.

16 comments:

  1. I'm very happy to read your fantastic last posts, because "Evil under the sun", "Murder in Mesopotamia", "Sad Cypress", "Cards on table" and "Death on the Nile" are among my favourite episodes. I've seen each of them again and again.

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  2. I liked the way they wove together Anne's and Mrs. Lorrimer's back-stories, but I didn't think Mrs. Lorrimer suffered enough or redeemed herself enough to be forgiven by Anne. Dr. Roberts' sexual orientation was a departure from the books, clearly, but as a "compromising secret that lends itself to blackmail," it does work, at least in that era.

    As for Anne and Rhoda - my perception was colored by reading, before I saw the adaptation, another site where it was interpreted that Anne and Rhoda's relationship was yet more gay subtext: Rhoda's resentment of Depard's chasing Anne was jealousy OF Despard, and a desire to keep Anne all to herself, not jealousy of Anne having "admirers", as Mrs. Oliver assumed, (and as was the case in the book - where Anne and Rhoda both being attracted to Despard and his waffling as to who he likes is what comes between them. Here, I think he is clearly attracted ONLY to Anne.)

    Maybe the writers on the other site I refer to were assuming Rhoda to be gay just because there's so much obvious gay in the episode (Craddock and Roberts being explicit and Wheeler pretty heavily implied?) Poirot describes Anne as having been Rhoda's "slave" - so maybe Rhoda just liked having someone she could control? Rhoda killed to keep Anne from going to prison...but in the process she also made Anne believe herself a murderer.

    Sadly, there was a time when all lesbians in fiction were either murderers or they were killed or cured (There are quite a few in Christie adaptations, though more in Marple-verse. But curiously, Marple-verse has more genuine female friendship and solidarity. Most women who hang out together in Poirot-verse are kind of frenemies.)

    Something bugged me about the staging of this episode, and I'm surprised no one has mentioned it: Christie was famous for "playing fair" in giving the audience the information necessary to solve the crime. Here, they held back from us information that the detectives had. Example: during the denouement, we see a flashback of Miss Burges telling Poirot that Roberts and Craddock were such enthusiastic "bridge partners." That was first we'd heard of it. Before, when he asked, "Does Dr. Roberts have a regular bridge partner," the scene cut before we found out it was Craddock. There were other little examples like that - information given to us in flashbacks long after the detectives actually got it.

    As for the reveal that Shaitana WANTED to murdered...I realize the alternative (inviting the murderers just for his amusement) makes him incredibly stupid...but the death-wish thing is almost as bad. Particularly since the character showed every sign of enjoying life. And it isn't as satisfying, somehow, to solve a murder of someone who wanted to die.

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    1. "Christie was famous for "playing fair" in giving the audience the information necessary to solve the crime. Here, they held back from us information that the detectives had. Example: during the denouement, we see a flashback of Miss Burges telling Poirot that Roberts and Craddock were such enthusiastic "bridge partners." That was first we'd heard of it. Before, when he asked, "Does Dr. Roberts have a regular bridge partner," the scene cut before we found out it was Craddock."

      True, but we're given enough clues to work it out for ourselves. If anything, the fault is in having the line where Miss Burgess names Craddock at all, because Poirot could easily have worked it out for himself too. We know Roberts claims to have had an affair with Mrs Craddock but they parted on bad terms; she died mysteriously abroad after he inoculated her; he's a ladies' man who has never tried it on with his attractive secretary; and he spends a lot of time behind locked doors with his devoted "bridge partner". Very much in the Christie mould.

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  3. My theory about why they switched the roles of Rhoda and Anne: even after you learn Anne's backstory, the Anne of the book doesn't convince as a criminal...she seems too weak and timid. Rhoda is the tough one.

    I didn't mind the change to the Luxmore story (rather than Luxmore being delirious with fever, he was using tropical hallucinogens and mistreating his wife under the influence.) But it was implied Despard really DID have feelings for Mrs. Luxmore, whereas in the book, she was delusional about that. Which means that once the "bad" girl (Anne in the book, Rhoda in the adaptation) is eliminated, there is no loose end of him possibly being tied to anyone else.

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  4. It's an annoyingly common problem in TV & films etc, but I wish the director and actors had agreed on the pronunciation of Shaitana's name.

    I agree some of the changes are difficult to comprehend, but they nearly all work and it's an enjoyable episode. And yes, despite not quite being the Ariadne of the books, Zoe Wannamaker is excellent.

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  5. Ariadne makes a cheeky reference to the redesign of Poirot's flat by asking if he's redecorated; but he replies that he's moved, implying they've known each other since before he moved into Whitehaven Mansions.

    "Like bleedin' cobwebs they are," may be the funniest line in the entire series. Although Poirot's speech about always being right is hilarious too.

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  6. Strange that they were unwilling to recast Colonel Race here but did recast Vera Rossakoff in Labours. (I know they couldn't have invented another love interest we'd never seen before, but they could have used a different character who wasn't a love interest.)

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    1. And, while I think both ladies (Markham and Brady) did fine jobs in their own ways, I think the the two Countesses seemed to be different people, in a way - with Brady being a bit closer to how she's depicted in the books, but neither of them got the books' character perfectly.

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  7. Although I rather liked this movie, there were aspects of it that I found questioning. Okay, I could take one of the murderers being transformed into a homosexual. But two? I found myself wondering if Nick Dear or the producers of "POIROT" were homophobic. And what they did with the Superintendent Wheeler character left me scratching and shaking my head.

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    1. Yeah, I'm not sure about that change either. Don't get me wrong, I'm not against change per se, but it just doesn't work here. Especially the thing with Superintendent Wheeler. That comes completely out of the blue, in terms of how Christie tended to write police officer characters.

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    2. In Lord Edgware, too...all those coy references to his "perversities." Given the times, that could imply he preferred men to women?

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  8. The thing that bothers me about this episode is that this is the only case in which we see "fake flashbacks". In every other episode, flashbacks only reveal what really happened; however, in this one we see flashbacks of every hypothesis (each suspect murdering Shaitana) which I think diminished the visual impact of the actual reveal.

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  9. this is a really bad murder mystery.
    only thing good about it is that it improves on the book. plot in book is beyond ridiculous; extremely melodramatic, with impossible psychology, far from convincing motives, ultra risky murders(plural), a weak solution that wont convict anybody, etc etc.
    this adaptation improves on motives and psychology by adding lot of homosexuality (too much actually), though one can't commend negative portrayal of almost all homosexuals.
    it cuts some melodrama (not completely) by replacing additional murders, sacrificial suicides, desperate rescues leading new romances, etc, by regular sacrificial confessions, reconciliations, desperate rescues strengthening already budding romances etc etc.

    it continues to have a weak solution that will not convict in court. it also fails to completely eliminate other suspects logically. evidence as presented still fits others very well. instead it relies on mere assertion and murderer's unnecessary and foolish (and psychologically impossible in his case) admittance of guilt.

    furthermore it 'cheats' by hiding important clues from audience (bridge partner's name, what is on photos, shaitana's talk about drugs, etc etc)

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  10. That comes completely out of the blue, in terms of how Christie tended to write police officer characters.


    Christie was not above creating negative police characters. She did so in two of her novels, both published in the late 1930s. But this characterization of Wheeler seemed to come about unexpectedly and a bit unnecessarily. Nor was I fond of the fact that two murderers in this tale were homosexual. It gave the production a homophobic taint that I found very unpleasant and bigoted.

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  11. @Erik: Just curious if you noticed any difference in the furniture described by Dr Roberts in the book to the episode. Starting with "One large settee upholstered in ivory brocade..." I'm absolutely sure he mentioned things that weren't in the book and omitted others. Do know what they were?

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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)