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Thursday, May 26, 2016

Dismay at Cards on the Table

I have not been able to write for a few weeks due to the illness of one of my household members; but things are looking up and I am anxious to get back to writing!

I was going to watch Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Cards on the Table again, but I made the mistake of rereading the book, and remembering some of the changes the screenwriter had made, I looked up several reviews. Nope. Can’t watch this again after all, at least not yet.

If this were another group of characters, if there were no Poirot involved, it might have worked. The movie isn’t bad as a piece of modern cinema. But this is Agatha Christie, and this is her oddball detective whose passion is for order, symmetry, and method of using those little grey cells. This is the Christie world. The movie doesn’t quite create the right atmosphere.

It is supposed to be the ultimate locked room mystery, with perfect symmetry as a feature that honors one of Poirot’s major idiosyncrasies. There is a party with eight guests. Four are detectives; four are probable murderers. Mr. Shaitana, the rich and eccentric host, hopes to be the catalyst for catching at least one of the murderers and bringing the recreant to justice.

In the novel, he is not expecting to be murdered. In the movie, he is, which is an okay change, just a little odd. His character doesn’t seem to be suicidal to me.

Symmetry is important to the story as Agatha Christie envisioned it, as I said. Her initial opposition has four sleuths against four suspects. She twists and turns the story so that symmetry is intact throughout, from the roles the characters play to the justice they mete or meet.

By the end of the book, the four suspects are revealed as three villains and one victimized romantic hero. The sleuths are revealed as three detectives and one satiric fraud of a sleuth. The three villains all meet justice in the form of death for committing murder. One suspect turns out to be other than a villain, with light satire involved.

The movie alters the symmetry by altering the characters’ story lines.

Superintendent Battle becomes Superintendent Wheeler, and furthermore he becomes a homosexual who has been photographed in compromising positions. Mr Shaitana has the photographs; thus Wheeler is a suspect himself. Given that the setting is the 1930s, homosexuality was not only outlawed in Britain, but if it became known, it would definitely end Wheeler’s career, as at this period of time there were highly conflicting attitudes toward gays. Rich aristocrats could just barely afford to be known or suspected of being gay, as long as they did not make a spectacle about it. Avant garde artists and theatrical types could get away with it. Not so a police superintendent who was expected to uphold the law. This change in the character of one of the sleuths destroys the initial symmetry of having four law-abiding detectives in opposition to four suspects. It also alters the later symmetry.

Anne Meredith in the movie becomes an innocent woman whose roommate Rhoda committed the murder of a former employer, of which Anne was suspected. Anne survives a drowning attack by Rhoda whose homosexual attraction to Anne is the motive. This is nearly opposite of what was true in the book. Agatha Christie wrote Anne as a murderer who tries to drown Rhoda due to jealousy over Major Despard, to whom both young women are attracted. Murderer Anne in the book gets the justice due her by drowning in her attempt to kill Rhoda. But in the movie it is Rhoda who dies in the drowning incident, and Anne is saved by Major Despard. Thus the movie has Anne being completely innocent. But with Anne being the character at the original card party and Rhoda offstage until later, the symmetry is hugely altered in the movie.

Before we analyze the results to the symmetry, we need to look at more changes.

Mrs. Lorrimer, another of the suspects at the card party, in both book and movie is a murderer of her husband. In the book she is found out by Poirot only because she confesses before she herself is killed by Dr. Roberts. Thus justice catches up with her. In the movie she is made out to be the mother of Anne Meredith who wants her daughter’s life not to be ruined, so she confesses to the murder of Mr. Shaitana to save Anne, whom she thinks guilty. She is supposed to be suffering from a fatal illness in the book before she was killed; I can’t remember whether the movie had her be fatally ill. But in the movie she seems to be excused for killing her husband.

Dr. Roberts of the book is a womanizer. He has had an affair with one of his patients, Mrs. Craddock, and this leads to him killing her husband and then her to avoid a nasty scandal. In the movie this is changed to his having had an affair with Mr. Craddock, but the effect is the same.

I wonder why the screenwriter chose to put so many homosexual affairs in one movie among so few people. I don’t care particularly if characters are gay or not, but this is Agatha Christie, and it feels out of place. Of course this was not unknown at the time, but she didn’t write these characters this way and I can’t see what the point was to make all the villains into gay people. It certainly doesn’t do a thing toward advancing the cause of acceptance for gay people to make them all twisted villains.

Roberts is the murderer of Shaitana in both the book and the movie, but the weapon is changed, again, seemingly pointlessly. What was the purpose? And Roberts does not kill Mrs. Lorrimer in the movie. Why not?

Only Major Despard of the suspects turns out to be totally innocent in both book and movie. You could argue that changing one of the sleuths in the movie to a suspect (Supt. Wheeler) actually preserved the symmetry, but this is not so, because two suspects are innocent in the movie: Major Despard and Anne Meredith.

But here is another element: this is the book in which Ariadne Oliver is introduced, the murder mystery author who is included as one of the sleuths. But is she really a sleuth? Agatha Christie, creating her own alter ego, ruthlessly skewers Mrs. Oliver with the ironic characteristic that she operates not on logical principles, but on intuition. However does she write successful murder mysteries? It doesn’t matter; she is essentially a comic character and we love her eccentricities. But she is not really a sleuth—she is a fraud, shown ruthlessly by Poirot to be entirely wrong in all her deductions. Nevertheless, like the lovable Captain Hastings, she uncovers essential clues. In the movie she uncovers the clues and is not nearly as silly as in the book, though she does go with her wrong intuition and changes her mind a lot. Somehow she is more admirable than in the book.

Major Despard as a suspected murderer turns out to be a fraud too, so Agatha Christie neatly undercuts the suspect-sleuth roles for this pair, keeping the symmetry as she reduces the number of her suspects and sleuths by one each.

The truth about the murder Major Despard was suspected of committing actually reveals him to be a comically uncooperative romantic hero. To further the stereotype, he gets to save the girl he loves (Rhoda) from drowning, and the end of the book suggests that they will ride off into the sunset together. It is a brilliant way to present his story.

The movie presents him in so many action scenes that the Romantic Hero idea is pretty heavily obvious. He and Anne Meredith are the pair who will ride off into the sunset in the movie, uniting two suspects in total innocence.

The movie furthermore ruins the entire symmetry of the book. At the end of the book we have three detectives and one comical satire—an author of murder mysteries classed with the detectives; and we have three murderers who face death for their crimes, and one comical satire—the unwilling romantic hero whose actions made him a suspect in a murder.

By contrast, at the end of the movie we have two detectives and the author-detective, a disgraced detective who is cleared of murder, one murderer (Roberts) who was at the original party and is faced with death for his crimes, one murderer who was at the original party who does not face death for her crime, one murderer who was not at the party who dies in trying to commit another murder, one suspect at the party who is innocent of murder, and one suspect at the party who is innocent of everything shady except being somewhat an idiotic Romantic Hero.

Where is the beautiful balance that Poirot would have approved? It is not in the cards on this table.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Revenge Is the Dish Best Served Cold

When I told my friends that I was finally reading Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Count of Monte Cristo, a number of people told me Edmond Dantès is redeemed at the end, but somehow I don’t think so. I don’t think this qualifies as a book about Christian forgiveness and redemption.

When Edmond Dantès is wrongfully imprisoned for fourteen years, he and his fellow inmate, Abbé Feria, plan to escape, and the good Abbé tries to get Edmond to forsake his revenge plans. But the Abbé dies, and Edmond has no intention of giving up any part of his plans after he escapes and discovers the Abbé’s fantastic tale of untold and unclaimed riches is true. Dantès believes that his good fortune is a sign that God approves of all his plans.

Dantès plans to pursue his vengeance as soon as he has done good to people who were good to him. He finds that his father has actually died of starvation, but his former master, Pierre Morrel, is on the verge of financial ruin, so he saves him and helps his children. He gives a ship and captaincy to the sailor/smuggler who befriended him after his escape from prison. He is generous to various people who can be useful to him, from the Nubian, Ali, to the Italian bandit Luigi Vampa, to the wrongfully enslaved Albanian princess Haydée.

He has a five-part revenge plan, one for each person who has wronged him:
  1. Fernand Mondego—the man who wrote the damaging and essentially false accusation of treason about him is to be the subject of a most cruel revenge. As soon as Dantès learns Fernand married Mercédès, he plans to kill their son and expose all other crimes he has found out against Fernand, especially Fernand’s treason towards, murder and enslavement of the Pasha Ali Tebelen and his wife and daughter. 
  2. Mercédès Mondego, née Herrera—his erstwhile fiancée did not stay true to him but married his rival, Fernand. Dantès plans to kill her son, and she will be implicated in the ruin and shame Dantès can bring upon her husband. 
  3. M. Danglars—the mastermind behind the treasonous accusation, Danglars was once under Dantès’ command aboard M. Morrel’s ship and hated him unreasonably. Dantès plans to ruin him financially since he has become a rich and comfortable banker. When he learns the Danglars family situation, Dantès plans to use that in his revenge as well. Finally, he makes use of the Italian bandit, Vampa, to starve Danglars into using up his last bit of money for food. 
  4. M. Gérard de Villefort was the prosecutor who could have thrown out Dantès’ case, but because that would have implicated Villefort as being in sympathy with his Bonapartist father, Noirtier de Villefort, the prosecutor sends Dantès to prison uncharged with no trial. Dantès plans to ruin him in any way he can and uses his family against him as well. 
  5. Gaspard Caderousse—formerly a tailor and neighbor of the Dantès family, he was present when Fernand Mondego and Danglars concocted their plot against Edmond Dantès, and although Caderousse was too drunk to participate or even to realize fully what they were doing, he did not speak up later when he could have saved Dantès. Greedy and uncharitable, he additionally nearly let Edmond’s father starve to death before Dantès returned from his voyage at the beginning of the novel. Dantès is curiously of two minds about what to do with him. He seemingly does him good by giving him a large diamond, but Dantès’ knowledge of Caderousse’s greedy nature makes him pretty sure that Caderousse will not use the fortune for a good cause, and indeed, Caderousse turns to crime.
That this is unchristian is unquestionable. What did Christ do with criminals? He got them to realize exactly what they were doing that was wrong, and confess. Then he charged them to repent, or “sin no more.” He forgave them. He did not punish them; unless they persisted in their crimes and punished themselves. He never took revenge on anyone.

Is Edmond Dantès an agent of God in wreaking vengeance against his enemies? These are not explicitly the enemies of God we are talking about. But they certainly are a collection of very unpleasant people at the least, criminal and immoral, and murderous at the worst. In the sense that people who break God’s laws are God’s enemies, this might work. But the Old Testament “eye for an eye” laws of God were replaced by Christ’s merciful laws in the New Testament: compassion, kindness, meekness, charity, forgiveness—these are the mandates Christ laid down. He taught that it is easy to love those who love you, but His higher law was to love those who use you, abuse you, betray you—those who are your enemies.

What did Edmond Dantès do to his enemies?
  1. Fernand Mondego, Count de Morcerf. Dantès decides not to kill Fernand’s son because he came to like Albert, the Viscount Morcerf. But Dantès publishes Fernand’s betrayal of Ali Tebelen, the Pasha of Janina (part of Albania), which got the Pasha killed and his wife and daughter sold into slavery. Dantès engineers things so that Fernand’s wife and son renounce him and leave him. He forces Fernand into a corner as regards honor in those days, ensuring that Fernand’s only recourse is to commit suicide. Had he not killed himself, we are left wondering if Edmond Dantès would have engineered someone else taking the life of Fernand Mondego, if Dantès didn’t do it himself.
  2. Mercédès Mondego, Countess de Morcerf. When Dantès learns that she never knew her husband’s part in framing Dantès and that she still loves Dantès himself, Dantès relents and ensures that she can escape Paris with a fortune if she so desires. This is simply Edmond’s usual practice of doing a good deed for one done to him. She sinned against him in ignorance, so she is given a partial pass. But he will not return her love, nor does he explicitly forgive her for the past.
  3. Baron Danglars is manipulated by Edmond Dantès to lose his entire fortune bit by bit. Dantès makes use of Danglars’ wife to help along the financial ruin. He uses Mme. Danglars’ illegitimate son (the result of her affair with Villefort), the son whom even she does not know is living, to become engaged to the Danglars’ daughter—with the implication of incest as the young man is half-brother to his erstwhile fiancée—and then uses the young man’s criminal background to ruin the social prospects of the family. Young Eugénie Danglars runs away; her mother runs another way, and Danglars thinks he has escaped to Italy. But Dantès has him kidnapped by Luigi Vampa, the Italian bandit who is in Dantès’ control, and Danglars is starved until he gives up the rest of his fortune for food. It is a slow and cruel torture.
  4. Gérard de Villefort is tortured by Dantès, who suggests to Villefort’s wife Héloïse that she could murder the people who stood between her and her greedy, ambitious plans for her unpleasant son. Héloïse accordingly murders Villefort’s first wife’s parents, then his father’s servant. She attempts to murder Villefort’s daughter, Valentine, and his father, Noirtier de Villefort. Villefort himself comes to know pretty much who is responsible for these crimes, but he refuses to prosecute a member of his own household until Héloïse reaches the end of her crimes and kills herself and her son. Finally, Dantès exposes Villefort’s long-past affair with the present Mme. Danglars and his attempted murder of their illegitimate infant son, effectively ruining all Villefort reputations in society and ensuring that Villefort will lose his livelihood as well. Had Villefort not gone mad, perhaps Dantès would have ensured that he either committed suicide or was murdered. It seems Dantès would have been satisfied with no less.
  5. When Caderousse turns to crime, Dantès finds and makes use of him, manipulating events so that Benedetto, the illegitimate son of Villefort and Hermine Danglars, becomes his accomplice and kills him.
These revenge plans are all extreme. They are not meant to bring any of the criminals to a state of repentance or redemption. They are meant to kill, or at least to completely ruin, each person. When Dantès finds that one or another of his victims “deserves” a measure of mercy, he carefully applies only so much as he judges that person merits in their treatment of him. In no case is anyone restored to his good graces, not even Mercédès, who still loves him and who has suffered the loss of him all those years, ending in a knowledge of her betrayal by the man she accepted as second best, as her husband. Even she is relegated to a sorry state of comparative poverty and endless regret.

What about all the innocent victims of Edmond Dantès? His plans for ruining his enemies necessarily involved their family members, some of whom are completely innocent, some of whom are pretty much as bad as the ones who originally harmed Dantès.

Albert de Morcerf, son of Fernand and Mercédès, certainly did not deserve the disgrace of his father and the loss of his position. But of course the families of criminals who are caught must necessarily suffer for the crimes their kin commit, even though they are innocent. Albert handles his position with grace, but it’s a little hard on him that Dantès made his father suffer so public a revenge plot.

Eugénie Danglars, the daughter of Baron Danglars and Hermine Danglars, has wanted to escape from her life and destiny for some time so that she could live the free-spirited life of an artist, so she does not suffer too much in losing her societal position and her family’s fortune. She will probably do just fine on her own. Still, she is part of the collateral damage, and she represents another of the innocent bystanders whom Dantès does not care about when he plans to take revenge on his enemies.

Hermine Danglars seems to deserve all that she gets, because she conducts illicit affairs, manipulates the stock markets and her husband’s investments to her own benefit, and seems to have a history of coming out on top of whatever dicey situations her immoral nature gets her into. Nevertheless, she does not deserve the full weight of the wrath of Edmond Dantès, which hits her almost as hard as it does her husband and former lover, Villefort. Had she been a virtuous wife and devoted mother, Dantès would not have cared any further what became of her and her daughter. He did ensure that she knew enough to enrich herself against a coming, vague catastrophe, but that is all he did.

Valentine de Villefort is the epitome of the innocent victim of Dantès and his plans. She has done nothing wrong but be born to Gérard de Villefort. Yet Dantès unleashes a poisoner in her house, where she is obviously one of the targets. He only belatedly realizes that she does not “deserve” to die and saves her life.

What was Dantès thinking when he tempted Héloïse de Villefort to poison anybody who was in her way? Did he think, Of course she will poison only the man I want revenge on, her husband, Gérard de Villefort. No! He had spoken with her enough to know that the totally innocent Marquis and Marquise de Saint-Méran would be her first targets. And if he did not fully realize that, he simply wasn’t thinking at all, but soon enough he knew it anyway. He should have realized at that moment that he himself was complicit in their murders. But it went on. She murdered Noirtier de Villefort’s servant, and then attempted to kill Noirtier and Valentine. She killed herself and her young son, Édouard. Morally, Dantès should have had all these murders on his own conscience. But he never even thinks of them. He finally regrets that Valentine was a victim, and he strains himself to save her.

(This crime, urging another person to murder, is what Agatha Christie made Poirot die for in his final case!)

Dantès seems to me to be a pretty amoral character after all. When it suits him, he does good, but generally only if doing so is going to benefit himself, or if it is in payment of some good deed someone did to him. What is scary about him is that he uses and abets criminals in both revenge and reward schemes.

Besides Mme. de Villefort, think of Caderousse and that diamond, and how Dantès uses him to get Benedetto involved in the scheme to ruin the Danglars family. Think of how Dantès uses Major Cavalcanti to pose as a nobleman with Benedetto as his son, in order to ruin Danglars and Villefort both. Think of how he encourages Mme. Danglars to embezzle from her husband. Think of how he uses Benedetto to kill Caderousse and to ruin the Danglars and Villefort families. Think of how he uses the bandit, Luigi Vampa, to kidnap Albert de Morcerf before he realized he was going to save him and use him in a different way. Then he uses Vampa again to effect the final financial ruin and torture of Danglars. Before all of that, think of how he falls in with the smugglers and helps them, and then rewards Jacobo Manfredi with his own ship and crew.

Finally, what was the purpose of his engineering that terrible month of suffering for his friend Maximilien Morrel, when the poor young man is led to believe that his fiancée, Valentine de Villefort, is dead? How easy it would have been for Dantès to tell him immediately, “Don’t worry, I have made sure Mlle. de Villefort was given a drug that simulates death. She will awaken and be fine.” But instead he thinks he has to make him suffer, that he might “deserve” happiness! And he even judges how much suffering might be enough—as if Morrel, should he not suffer enough, might be allowed to commit suicide after all! Why this revenge on a friend?

I can just barely see how someone, stretching for an atonement metaphor, could put Valentine in the position of a Christ figure, an innocent victim put to death because of others’ sins, who comes back from the grave to rescue the dying (Morrel, who was going to commit suicide). But it is a huge stretch, and it doesn’t serve the purpose of redeeming Dantès, who engineered the whole thing. Dantès is not God, or if he is, the god he represents is certainly not the loving Christian God of the New Testament, even if he does endow the couple with all his worldly wealth. Or most of it. Or maybe just a portion.

Our last view of Dantès is as he heads east with his now-lover Haydée, whom we are meant to assume will be wed to him soon. It’s a strange affair, to switch Dantès from being a father figure toward her, to being a husband. This ending smarts when I think of Mercédès.

It doesn’t convince me one whit that he “deserves” his happy ending after all the crimes he committed. His regrets are few considering the long list of innocent victims. The scene in the now-defunct prison where he reflects on his role in inflicting punishment on his enemies is a paltry attempt at repentance, and more than that, an unsatisfying leap of logic to justify him if Christian values are the major premise. But I do not believe they are. At heart, this is a good old revenge tale, fully carried out.

The dish best served cold is unsatisfying to my taste.