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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.

1 comment:

  1. The twisting of the story in the screenplay is actually the result of the homosexual activism of the movie industry. There was a period of time in which scriptwriters felt that they must put a homosexual character into every story or it would not be accepted. It is not, as you note, very effective in encouraging acceptance of the group to make most of them villiais. In a similar fashion, nearly every contemporary movie has at least one sex scene in it. Often these scenes have little or nothing to do with or to add to the plot. They look more like the writer was using a generic checklist to gain acceptance of his or her screenplay in the "sophisticated" movie making community. It appears that such a checklist was used in this distortion of Agatha Christie's original story.

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