Monday, October 13, 2014

What Mr. Suchet Saw: Christ in Agatha Christie

Reflections on Murder on the Orient Express, produced for the series Agatha Christie: Poirot, in 2010, starring David Suchet, directed by Philip Martin, screenplay adaptation of Agatha Christie's novel by Stewart Harcourt. Other sources consulted include The Daily Mail and Nick Baldock's essay "The Christian World of Agatha Christie," First Things, August 2009.

[First Photo: Poirot confronts the passengers, 1974]

[Second Photo: Poirot's confrontation, 2010]

I owe Agatha Christie an apology. After my devotion to her murder-mysteries during my early teens, I threw her over for writers more textured and more intentional about showing their world view. Though I delighted in the film Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and the BBC's Poirot series, I gave all the credit to actors who, I said, supplied reality that her two-dimensional imagination did not. But the latest screen adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express co-produced for the Poirot series by its leading actor David Suchet, strips her story down to its bare elements to show a dark, consistent, and religious, world view. 

In Christie's story, while the trans-continental railroad is blocked overnight by a snow drift, someone stabs to death an odious American millionaire.  Seeking to avoid bad publicity, an official of the train prevails upon passenger Hercule Poirot to identify the culprit.  Early in his investigation, Poirot discovers that the dead man was a notorious kidnapper who had killed his young victim even before the distraught parents paid the ransom. (Christie wrote the novel shortly after the sensational real-life kidnapping and killing of Charles Lindbergh's little girl).  Repercussions of the kidnapping spread throughout the girl's household and beyond.   In gross miscarriage of justice, the kidnapper had bribed a corrupt D.A. and absconded with his loot. 

When the justice system has failed, is it not justice for the murderer to be murdered?  The question arises naturally from the situation;  twelve stab wounds on the man suggest a verdict.

Suchet and his creative team highlight the problem by framing the story with images of justice, punishment, and confession.  In the first scene of the movie, taking place in Istanbul, Poirot confronts a soldier who has lied about his whereabouts in a certain case, bringing "dishonor" to his regiment. The soldier shoots himself on the spot, leaving Poirot defensive when challenged for badgering the man so.  Outside Istanbul's train station, Poirot witnesses a mob stoning a woman for adultery. In each case, Poirot maintains belief in abstract justice, strict and impartial. 

Suchet's Orient Express illustrates an observation about God's justice from a character in another Christie novel, The Moving Finger Writes, "God doesn’t really need to punish us.... We’re so very busy punishing ourselves" (Baldock). In Suchet's Orient Express, we see both Poirot and the kidnapper in their separate compartments kneeling at prayers, each praying for forgiveness.  We already knew that the fugitive is fearful of retribution; now we see him tearful with self-loathing.   

Portraying Poirot since the late 1980s, Suchet feels deep sympathy with the character, whom he initially dismissed as a stereotype, as I did.  In his memoir Poirot and Me, Suchet writes how he feared that identification with the character would make it impossible for audiences ever to see him again in more serious roles.  Then he gave Agatha Christie a second look."The Poirot in the books was nothing like the character I’d seen on screen," Suchet tells us. "[H]e was more elusive, more pedantic, and most of all, more human. But I still wasn’t sure whether I should play him" (excerpt in The Daily Mail).

At the same time, Suchet found he was in sympathy with Dame Agatha when he accepted the Christian world view and joined the Anglican Communion.  Her biographer Gillian Gill asserts that religion, though "rarely discussed in Christie's mystery novels" yet "provides the framework for all her writing" (Gill, cited in Baldock).  Historian Nick Baldock, writing in the Christian journal First Things, explains:
From a theological perspective, the detective genre is inclined towards a Catholic interpretation in contrast to the more Protestant thriller; the former deals with the community, the latter the individual protagonist. ...Everybody [in the detective genre] is guilty of something; it may offer hope that the problem has a solution, but evil will not be expunged as a result. It is one  problem with  one  solution; it is a small victory in a much larger, indeed an eternal, war. The detective novel is the world’s most Augustinian genre and not, in consequence, especially reassuring. (Baldock)
In her autobiography, Christie told of the lasting impact on young Agatha when her math teacher got off-subject to say:
To be a Christian you must face and accept the life that Christ faced and lived; you must enjoy things as he enjoyed things; be as happy as he was at the marriage at Cana, know the peace and happiness that it means to be at harmony with God and with God’s will. But you must also know, as he did, what it means to be alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, to feel that all your friends have forsaken you, that those you love and trust have turned away from you, and that  God Himself  has forsaken you. Hold on then to the belief that that is  not  the end. (Christie, in Baldock)
While Suchet's Orient Express is what he called "serious fun" in interviews before its release, the delightful Hollywood version also conjured joy, spirit, and the same meditation on justice.  Director Sidney Lumet emphasized the style of the era, while assembling a cast of stars who brought auras of public personas with them.  The evocative score by Richard Rodney Bennett played with the tension between two distinct themes.  The first, a romantic minor-key piano showpiece that Bennett based on the syllables of the title "Murder on the Orient Express," veers towards tango; the second is a grand, golden waltz to accompany images of the massive train itself.  When the solution is found, the mood is sunny and celebratory.  

Suchet's version, without big stars but acted with conviction, with a tension-building ostinato but no characteristic theme, leaves us with a very different feeling. Justice has been done; all is not right with the world; and Poirot, clutched by self-doubt, clutches his rosary.  It's powerful, and wonderful, and it's all there for the sensitive to see in the original Agatha Christie.

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