Thursday 1 August 2013
Episode-by-episode: Dumb Witness
We’ve reached the final episode of Series Six – at which point the series was to enter a four-year hiatus before it was brought back by popular (and largely American) demand. This episode was based on the novel Dumb Witness, first published in 1937. It was adapted for television by Clive Exton and directed by Edward Bennett.
Script versus novel
Exton remains largely faithful to Christie’s original story, with some notable exceptions. First, the setting is moved from the fictional village of Market Basing (and London) to the picturesque area of Windermere and the Lake District (also featured briefly in ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’, and more extensively in ‘Double Sin’). Second, Poirot and Hastings are present much earlier than in the novel (as would eventually become the norm in later episodes – Poirot would be introduced to the proceedings as early as possible). This Exton explains by making Charles Arundell a friend of Hastings’s (again, a possible mate from his army days? – he has the most hilarious nickname for him at least – “Battler” Hastings); they attend an attempt at a boat racing world record on Lake Windermere. This little change enables Poirot and Hastings to be present at the séance referred to in the novel, as well as witnessing several of the events preceding the murder. Third, by making Poirot and Hastings ‘friends of the family’, Poirot recommends Emily to write a second will (and he later blames himself for her death). Fourth, the presence of Bob is significantly expanded – to great success. Here, he becomes a sort of assistant to Poirot, pointing out the impossibility of Emily’s accident and the trick with the mirror. I find that fact particularly funny, because Japp and others often refer to Hastings in the books as Poirot’s dog, obediently following his master! Speaking of Japp, I’m quite impressed that they didn’t fall for the temptation of adding him to the proceedings, not to speak of Miss Lemon (who would undoubtedly fit right in with the séance). That just goes to show that all in all they treat Christie with respect. Fifth, Dr. Donaldson, Theresa Arundell’s lover, is deleted, and Dr. Grainger’s presence is significantly expanded in his place. In fact, he becomes Miss Lawson’s lover and is even killed off in the end! Sixth, Jacob Tanios is portrayed as much more ‘villainous’ than in the novel, with a particular mention of him possibly beating his children (of course, Poirot reveals him to be innocent later on). Seventh, the above mentioned spiritualism is also significantly expanded, and it actually works quite well. Eighth, several of the London scenes are entirely or partially removed (and of course the setting is changed to the Lake District), but some of the money scheming is kept intact in a scene in which Theresa and Charles suggest a criminal act to Bella and Jacob. Ninth, a rather ridiculous attempted burglary at Littlegreen House with two masked intruders (Theresa and Charles) is added to the plot. Similarly, the boat they escape in is pictured at the Trippses’ house (a suggestion that they might be involved). All in all, the changes are done for two main purposes; one, to shorten down the plot (due to the time constraints) and two, to widen the net of potential suspects. They largely make sense and they generally keep more or less faithful to the novel. Two final changes are worth noticing. One is the explanation why Bob isn’t the murderer (or, reason for the accident). In the novel, he has simply been out all night, while in the adaptation he shows Poirot that he always lets the ball fall down the stairs and then leaves it in his basket, so there would be no reason why it should be found at the top of the stairs. A rather clever explanation, I would say. Also, there’s the added hint about the liver capsules. Poirot notices a waiter refilling the salts at the tables of the hotel, which leads him to realize that the murderer simply waited for Miss Emily to take the right capsule. Again, a clever change that doesn’t stray too much from its source material.
Directing, production design, locations, soundtrack
Bennett’s directing is particularly well done in this episode, with absolutely wonderful scenic shots of the Lake District (which look particularly stunning in the remastered Blu-ray editions). He emphasises the red nighttime sky particularly, and he seems to have a lot of fun with highlighting the dog angle of the story, with several shots seen from Bob’s perspective (see, for instance, the interview with Miss Lawson after Emily’s fall – just before Bob shows Poirot his trick). The production design is fabulous, as always. It never ceases to amaze me how they manage to track down all these 1930s props in pristine condition (like the race boat and the peculiar-looking bus). Locations used include Langdale Chase boathouse (used as the boathouse, obviously), Broad Leys boat club (used as the hotel – both interior and exterior), several houses in Keswick, Cumbria, Lake Windermere station, the old police station in Hawkshead and Lake Windermere itself. Gunning’s soundtrack is good and rather memorable, particularly the theme he gives to Bob. It has not been released.
Characters and actors
Suchet gets lots to play with here. We have, for instance, a brief reappearance of Poirot’s suitcases on Lake Windermere station (last seen in Death in the Clouds, I think), his lamentation on the loss of a client (‘Could I have saved her?’). Also, there’s his peculiar little picnic chair (last seen in ‘The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge’), which he brings with him when walking the dog. (His “conversation” with Bob in that scene – in which he provides an explanation of the adaptation title, is absolutely delightful). Of the guest actors, there are several memorable performances, but perhaps Ann Morish (Emily Arundell), Pauline Jameson and Muriel Pavlow (the Tripps) stand out.
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