Adventures In Celluloid

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things film.

Dominic Corry: Agatha Christie's return to the big screen

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A scene from the TV adaptation of Agatha Christie's Marple: Murder At The Vicarage. Photo / Supplied
A scene from the TV adaptation of Agatha Christie's Marple: Murder At The Vicarage. Photo / Supplied

With the justly acclaimed Poirot series starring David Suchet and the more recent (though just as good) Marple telefilms that play on Prime, adaptations of Agatha Christie books have been predominantly televisual enterprises for several decades now.

Gussied-up variations on the Agatha Christie classic style whodunit permeate modern television - everything from The Mentalist to CSI can be linked back to her work in some way.

But straight Agatha Christie adaptations feel like a throwback to an earlier era, not so much to a simpler whodunit, but a more classical whodunit. Having grown up on the relatively lavish '70s and '80s big screen Agatha Christie adaptations, I simply adore this style of whodunit - which is probably why I can't stop watching Murder She Wrote re-runs.

Seriously, that show is amazing.

I feel the time is ripe for a remounting of this type of film on the big screen.

Which it why it was so encouraging to read about a new Agatha Christie adaptation that Sony Pictures has acquired for distribution, which comes as close as we get these days to guaranteeing it will actually get made.

The book being adapted is Crooked House, a 1949 murder mystery that features neither Poirot nor Miss Marple as the investigative presence, which will no doubt help distinguish the adaptation from all the TV work.

A report from a year ago about an earlier incarnation of the project indicated an intriguing cast in the form of Julie Andrews, Gabriel Byrne, Matthew Goode and Gemma Arterton - as good a selection of actors for a modern Agatha Christie adaptation as anyone could wish for.

But as this more recent report indicates it is unlikely that cast is still in the frame for the newly funded film.

The adaptation is set to be helmed by Neil Labute, the often controversial director and playwright behind both the critically lauded In The Company of Men and the widely derided Nicolas Cage Wicker Man remake.

Labute is collaborating on the screenplay for Crooked House with Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, who also wrote the last English language film to really evoke Agatha Christie on the big screen - 2001's Gosford Park.

I had high hopes for Gosford Park, and while it is a rich and enjoyable production, I found the whodunit elements to be slightly undercooked. But I've no doubt Fellowes is the right man to bring Christie back to life on the big screen.

In France, Christie has remained a source tapped for films like this 2007 adaption of Towards Zero and 2005's By The Pricking Of My Thumbs. Plus the spirit of Agatha Christie hung all over Francois Ozon's 2002 hit 8 Women.

As much as I love the Poirot and Marple TV series, the Christie adaptations that all my affection for whodunits can be traced back to are 1978's Death on the Nile and 1982's Evil Under The Sun, both starring the great Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot.

There are Agatha Christie adaptations going back to the 1930s, but to me, Death on the Nile and Evil Under The Sun are the definitive works.

The former is the more handsome production, and one of the most purely enjoyable whodunits ever filmed. But the latter is a Swiss watch of a film, a perfectly formed puzzle story with a multitude of acutely pointed supporting performances by such stalwarts as James Mason; Roddy McDowall and Maggie Smith.

The Ustinov adaptations were sparked by the success of Sidney Lumet's 1974 adaptation of Murder On The Orient Express, starring Albert Finney as Poirot. This star-studded film is a fine watch, but I've always been frustrated by the resolution.

The minor golden age of cinematic Agatha Christie adaptations typified by these three films extended to the 1974 adaptation of Ten Little Indians titled And Then There Were None and 1980's The Mirror Crack'd, starring eventual Murder She Wrote star Angela Lansbury as Miss Marple.

These films flourished no doubt partly to the contemporaneous trend for star-studded whodunits that took clear inspiration from Christie, like 1972's Sleuth, 1973s The Last of Sheila and 1982's Deathtrap. These three films are all very much worth watching, even if you're not a big whodunit fan.

Ustinov played Poirot a couple more times: once in a made for TV version of Thirteen At Dinner (1985) and again in a Golan-Globus produced adaptation of Appointment With Death (1988) before the series was rebooted for TV with Thirteen At Dinner co-star David Suchet taking over the role of the famous Belgian detective.

Innumerable modern films look to Christie's Ten Little Indians for inspiration, but insist on subverting it in crass ways. The classic tale of a small group of isolated people getting picked off by one of their own is evoked in everything from Identity to Mindhunters.

The short-lived (but self-contained) 2010 murder mystery TV series Harper's Island executed a reasonably entertaining extrapolation of this type of story, and completists are advised to check it out.

So anyway, it's been a while since we've seen any classic Agatha Christie whodunit-style action on the big screen, and I'm super excited that we may be doing so soon.

As long as there's a bit where everyone gathers in the lounge to hear who the murderer is, I'll be happy.

* Are you a fan of the old '70s Agatha Christie adaptations? Are you amped for her return to the big screen? What other films borrow from Christie do you reckon? Do you find Murder She Wrote entertaining? Comment below!

Follow Dominic Corry on Twitter.

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