Warner Bros. // 1989 // 757 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bryan Pope (Retired) // December 27th, 2006
"There is a great deal of wickedness in village life."
With all due respect to the late Dame Agatha, calling this collection "classic" might be overstating things a bit. The eight stories upon which they are based may warrant that adjective, but the television movies that have sprung forth from them most certainly are not.
Maybe I've simply been spoiled by the old-fashioned Hollywood grandeur of Sidney Lumet's Murder on the Orient Express, or even its distant, less opulent cousin, 1978's Death on the Nile, but the adaptations here are, at best, only fitfully entertaining. At worst, they are nondescript and directed with the same finesse as an average episode of Murder, She Wrote. Most offensive is how Hercule Poirot and Ms. Marple, Christie's two most famous sleuths, have been (for budgetary reasons, one can only assume) plunked down into the garish '80s. There's something not quite right about seeing dear, sweet Jane Marple of St. Mary Mead knitting by the pool while young nubiles prance by in spandex.
To identify the culprit(s) responsible for this DVD travesty, let's follow Poirot's lead by examining the suspects in ascending order, innocent to guilty:
Thirteen at Dinner (1985)
Hercule Poirot is on the case when Lord Edgeware, the estranged husband of an American actress, is murdered. Director Lou Antonio shoots his film from interesting angles and puts the London locales to good use, giving this outing a distinctly European flavor and elevating it several notches above the other entries in this collection.
Peter Ustinov's take on the Belgian detective is more firmly grounded in reality than Albert Finney's comical portrayal from Murder on the Orient Express, and here, as in Death on the Nile, he is appropriately droll and aloof. He is also perfectly matched by Faye Dunaway, setting aside her Oscar credentials to have fun in a dual role. Look for Amanda Pays, riding cult stardom at the time thanks to "Max Headroom," and David Suchet, who would later go on to headline A&E's "Poirot" series.
Stylish, and boosted by John Addison's witty score.
The Man in the Brown Suit (1989)
Stephanie Zimbalist is a bored American on holiday in Egypt who steps out of the Cairo airport and into international intrigue and a murder mystery.
The direction and production values are nothing to sing about, but the always appealing Zimbalist and Rue McClanahan are a lot of fun as amateur sleuths working together to link a murder, missing diamonds and a mysterious gentleman in a brown suit. Suspects include Edward Woodward, Tony Randall and Ken Howard. This entry had no business working as well as it did.
Murder is Easy (1983)
Helen Hayes may receive top billing, but don't be misled. This is not a Ms. Marple mystery. In fact, Hayes' character buys the farm within the first eight minutes, kicking into gear a fast-paced story about an MIT computer genius (Bill Bixby) trying to figure out who stopped kindly Lavinia Fullerton (Hayes) from providing Scotland Yard with the name of a murderer.
Bixby is surprisingly nimble and funny, and he's assisted by a strong supporting cast, including Olivia De Havilland, Lesley-Anne Down and Jonathan Price.
Dead Man's Folly (1986)
Detective novelist Ariadne Oliver (Jean Stapleton) plans a "murder hunt" at a sprawling English manor, only to have it interrupted by a real murder. Ustinov's Poirot is crankier this time around, showing little patience toward even his devoted traveling companion, Hastings (Jonathan Cecil), but Stapleton is a delight. As Oliver, the author who so brilliantly plots out murders in her books but only occasionally hits the target in real life, Stapleton has great fun stealing every scene, a much-welcomed crime in an otherwise drab movie. Even the presence of the lovely Nicolette Sheridan can help only so much.
Sparkling Cyanide (1983)
Every bit as tacky as A Caribbean Mystery (more on that in a moment), but the mystery benefits from some good old-fashioned lust and greed, plus a supporting cast that is a hoot.
The blandly pretty Deborah Raffin is Iris, a woman who becomes a prime murder suspect when her sister, the conniving wife of a prominent lawyer, is poisoned at a dinner party, but it's Nancy Marchand who clearly understands what fun there is to be had with this material. She plays her role of Aunt Lucilla like a drag queen on a bender.
Fun fact about Christine Belford (Iris' murdered sister): While you may know that she had a role in John Carpenter's Christine the same year this movie was released, you may not know that she once lived in the infamous haunted house in Amityville, New York. Dame Agatha would be proud.
Murder With Mirrors (1985)
Any one of the many residents of Stonygate Manor could be trying to slowly poison the grande dame of the house, Carrie Louise Serrecold (Bette Davis), and it's up to Miss Marple (Helen Hayes) to find out who before it's too late.
As good as Hayes is, she's much too American and an ill fit as the spinsterish Marple. Still, if you insist on giving her a try, let it be this entry. She's supported by sumptuous set design and better-than-average supporting cast, including an extremely young Tim Roth, John Mills and, of course, Davis, who's no stranger to the world of Agatha Christie (she alone makes Death on the Nile worth sitting through at least once).
Murder in Three Acts (1986)
While at a party hosted by movie star Charles Cartwright (Tony Curtis), the Reverend Babbington partakes in a poisoned martini and drops dead. A party this size means many guests and many motives, and it's up to Hercule Poirot to sort out all the clues.
Another large supporting cast of '80s-era character actors, this time with little to do but fill out too many party scenes, waiting for their motives to be made clear. Emma Samms is gorgeous despite a shaky American accent, but Curtis looks lost. This is also Ustinov at his most unpleasant, and by the end we're ready for him to hit the road and make room for Suchet's more agreeable portrayal of Poirot.
A Caribbean Mystery (1983)
Major Palgrave makes the grave mistake of trying to show a vacationing Ms. Marple an incriminating photo of a murderer. Palgrave is soon found dead, leading Ms. Marple to suspect that another guest at this Caribbean resort wants that photo to disappear for good.
The cast is dotted with familiar faces (Swoozie Kurtz, Barnard Hughes, Season Hubley, Cassie Yates, Beth Howland, Jameson Parker and Brock Peters), but it's not enough to overcome listless direction and rock-bottom production values. The locale looks more So Cal than St. Lucia, and the occasional shot of a Caribbean street market is clearly stock footage. The film is so far removed from the source material that it is hardly recognizable, and Hayes looks positively embarrassed. A cheap-looking production.
Warner Bros. brings the Agatha Christie Classic Mystery Collection to DVD in a handsomely packaged box set consisting of eight discs individually packaged in slim cases. Each film clocks in at around an hour and a half, and they are presented in their original full-frame formats with Dolby Mono audio. The package includes English, Spanish and Korean subtitles, but no extras.
Review content copyright © 2006 Bryan Pope; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 757 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Agatha Christie Web Site