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.
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org, post a comment on one of my blogs, or get in touch on Twitter @pchronology. (I used to call myself HickoryDickory)