In direct response to comments on my Poirot (THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES) post, I've decided to list my own personal favorites from the long-running Poirot and Jane Marple series. These are the episodes I really, REALLY love and you know how I am when I really REALLY love something, I want to share it to my heart's content. So bear with me, my dears, I'm off and running.
For my own personal favorites, the criteria was this: faithful adaptation to the source material (or at least, as faithful as possible considering that film is different from books and some leeway must be allowed), the actors involved and the true Christie 'aura' which is something indefinable unless it's missing and well, you know how that goes.
This is NOT a definitive list by the way, we don't do definitive here. Well, maybe we do (see below), but not every day. I'm no expert, just a life-long fan of Agatha Christie's work.
Joan Hickson - in my view, the definitive Jane Marple.
First up, these are the PBS Miss Marple episodes (or short/term series) I remember best and love most:
THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY (1984) starring Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. An embarrassment of riches as far as the cast and the setting and faithful adaptation to the story. EVERYONE, and I mean, everyone (including Sting's wife whose real name I've forgotten) is brilliant. The twisted 'how-to' of a particularly clever murderer could only be deduced by an equally clever and maybe just an little bit equally twisted Jane Marple.
This is the episode that introduces the oh-so-belligerent David Horovitch as the inappropriately named Inspector Slack. He is such an awful human being - I adore him.
Miss Marple is hard-pressed but too well-mannered to role her eyes when in his company.
A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED (1985) starring Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. Another gorgeous English village setting, another fabulous cast of character actors - the sort the British seem able to produce at the drop of a hat - several nasty murders and an almost impossible villain - though in the book, the clues are fairly given, it's a little harder in the film, they are so subtle.
I find the initial crime in the story to be fairly preposterous considering the options the murderer must have had to do the thing quietly and discreetly - you do wonder why this person would bring all this unwanted attention on themselves. But that's just a minor flaw with the original story and let's not quibble since the results are so agreeable.
John Castle makes for an especially handsome (and suave) Inspector Craddock and Kevin Whately (of Morse and Inspector Lewis fame) is Sgt. Fletcher, his assistant in command.
THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE (1986) starring Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. A view of St. Mary Mead (Miss Marple's abode) as a hot-bed of romantic entanglements, sexual shenanigans and murderous doings - ah, the joys of small town village life. Though in this particular film, the implication that Miss Marple is just another nasty village gossip is hinted at, we all know that not to be the case since she listens more than anything else. Listening is an art, especially when you are on the side of the angels. The story features a fairly pedestrian murder of an unwanted, unloved hubby, still it's the solution that works a treat. Not to mention the deceptively sleepy village ambience.
SLEEPING MURDER (1987) starring Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. The last of the Miss Marple books, I believe. In this TV rendition, the English countryside is sumptuously on display, so much so, that I sometimes just stop the film and sit staring and thinking, 'surely England must be the most beautiful country on earth'. I know it probably isn't, there are many more spectacular places with much more spectacular scenery, but for sheer bliss, for quietly soothing, gently dignified country scenes set in the last century - mythical scenes, really - you simply cannot top the Brits' homeland.
And then there is the perfect country house at the center of the mystery....sigh.
The cast again is superb, the young honeymooning couple at the heart of the story, so very attractive and so very eager to get on with life right after they solve the mystery of the wife's recurrent nightmares. Even when Miss Marple cautions them that digging into the past can have nasty repercussions. And oh how right she proves to be. As always.
Oh, and this is the only adaptation of Christie's books (that I remember, anyway) which shows us Miss Marple's very obliging novelist nephew Raymond (and his rather snarly-faced, daunting wife).
NEMESIS (1987) starring Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. An eerie and almost impossible story (thwarted love is the motivation) to transcribe visually, but this is the best version and again, the scenery is superb as Miss Marple takes a bus tour of the English countryside at the behest of a certain newly dead millionaire, Mr. Rafaiel (whom she met in A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY) whose estranged son (living as a hobo) may or may not be a murderer.
Is it possible to fall in love with a green and yellow bus? I did.
Besides the early 20th century streamlined gorgeousness of the bus and the lovely scenery, there's a delightful cast including an addition: a fussy nephew named Lionel played sympathetically by Peter Tilbury. He is not in the book but here he's necessary so that Miss Marple has someone to bounce things off - things that on the written page were her interior surmises. Actually, the story is not especially logical, nor is it very coherent, but on film it is stunning to see and the cast is absolute sheer perfection.
This is definitely one episode which should be accompanied by tea and scones.
A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY (1989) starring Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. The story that introduces us to the grumpy millionaire Jason Rafiel (see above) and which should have been filmed first, but again, I say: why quibble - it all works out in the end. Here the millionaire on holiday in the Caribbean is played by Donald Pleasance. We all probably remember his score of gleeful bad guys in films from the 80's. Here he's a good guy. More or less.
Worried nephew Raymond has sent Miss Marple off on a holiday to Barbados - her health has been wonky lately - for rest and relaxation. But as we all know, where Miss Marple goes, murder is sure to follow.
Here she interrupts the well-laid plans of a serial killer with a defined modus operandi which only Miss Marple is able to spot - just in the nick of time.
I definitely miss the English countryside in this episode, but the cast and story is so good that I can bear symptoms of scenery withdrawal with a stiff upper lip.
Besides THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES, the following list is comprised of a few of the PBS Hercule Poirot episodes (and films) I remember and love best (prodded by the list at Netflix and IMDB): There are, of course, others I watch here and there depending on mood, but in general, these are the ones I turn to when I am in search of a definitive Poirot fix:
THE ABC MURDERS (1992) starring David Suchet as Poirot. This is one of my favorite Christie books, so for me to salute the film adaptation is a 'big thing'. I only have one quibble which I will get to shortly, but aside from that, all is well in 'pretend' serial killer land. Christie was the first (at least that I can remember) to use the complex 'trick' of one murder hidden in the midst of several others in order to throw the police off the killer's real motivation. A brilliant stratagem. In the book it is practically impossible to guess the killer's identity until the very end - although once all is revealed, it's head slap time- well, of course! you shout.
I like that Inspector Japp is all over this episode (I love Philip Jackson) as well as Hastings (Hugh Fraser) who seems to me particularly dense in this one - but then he's just come back from the wilds of Argentina (with a stuffed cayman (similar to alligator) as a gift for Poirot) and can be forgiven if he's a bit rusty.
My one quibble is the casting of the killer. Sometimes just from the actor chosen you can get an idea where the story's going and I'm afraid that is the case in this episode. But maybe that's only because I'm so familiar with the whole thing from having read the book many times over the years.
THE ADVENTURE OF THE CLAPHAM COOK (1989) Starring David Suchet as Poirot and Hugh Fraser as Hastings. In which we were first introduced to David Suchet as Hercule Poirot and Hugh Fraser as Hastings. (Oh, happy day!) Here Poirot is humbled into accepting the case of a missing cook (he actually has to go to Clapham, for goodness' sake) and before long is involved in a more heinous crime - stolen bonds and a garroted body in a trunk.
This is not a whodunit episode as we know early on who the miscreant is, the fun is in the foiling of the plot. And it's also an episode in which the casting duties begin as they mean to go on. In other words, the cast of character actors is superb as it will remain so over the course of the series. Where do they find these wonderful actors?
In this episode, Poirot receives a rather loud rancorous scolding from an ostentatious house-wife and essential info from the adorable below-stairs servant (sweetly played by Katie Murphy). There's also a nice scene stealing turn by Daniel Webb as a weisenheimer railway porter. Not to mention, a last minute chase at the docks for a killer bound for South America but more importantly there's the wonderful scene of Poirot and Hastings trudging about the countryside while a fussy Poirot laments the lack of pavement and states that the country is fine for 'little furry things' but Poirot enjoys the 'good air of the town'. Lovely stuff.
FOUR AND TWENTY BLACKBIRDS (1989) Starring David Suchet as Poirot and Hugh Fraser as Hastings. A favorite of mine primarily because of the spot-on casting and the scene, early on, showing Poirot dining with a friend (his dentist) on roast turkey and all the trimmings. "No French geegaws tonight!" There is such warmth and charm in this scene of two old friends at a restaurant where, coincidentally, they take note of an older gentleman, a well-known artist, who is uncharacteristically breaking his hard and fast rule of 'no thick soup' or 'blackberry crumble'.
You can see I am very big on charm as a component of my Poirot episodes.
I also love watching Poirot and Hastings at the art institute, chatting with a worldly-wise artist's model who just minutes before had been posing nude. The look on Hasting's face is priceless.
"The auburn hair, mon ami, always the auburn hair."
Though in truth this episode does deviate from the original story in fairly significant ways, it is one of those very rare instances where the television script is actually better than the original short-story source. You will hardly ever hear me say that about Christie.
THE THIRD FLOOR FLAT (1989) Starring David Suchet as Poirot and Hugh Fraser as Hastings. An offbeat episode, it almost all takes place indoors - inside Poirot's apartment house in London - the rather claustrophobic hallway and stairs, a dumb waiter contraption and a flat either above or below Poirot's (can't remember which) where a dead body is discovered.
Poirot, as you know, is fond of 'bright young things' on the make in London, especially when one of them is a lovely and rather ethereal young woman in love with the wrong man. Well, we don't know that, initially, until Poirot steps in - this wise old Belgian does enjoy 're-arranging' the course of true love.
This is one of those episodes that improves upon re-watching by the way.
THE MYSTERY OF THE SPANISH CHEST (1991) Starring David Suchet as Poirot and Hugh Fraser as Hastings. This episode is populated with people one wouldn't really want to know, but that doesn't stop us being fascinated. Here we immediately suspect who the bad guy is going in and while we wait for this repugnant person to get his just deserts, we are mesmerized by a clever plot which is one of Christie's more icky ones. Icky in the way of the murder, that is. Very foul indeed.
In the midst of all the dark doings (a terribly intime crime full of subtle cruelty) we find ourselves smiling at Poirot's evening out with another old friend. She is Lady Chatterton (played delightfully by Antonia Pemberton), a woman of a certain age who has run into Poirot at the opera and requests his help.
We are also privileged to watch Poirot and Lady Chatteron do the Charleston which is one of the highlights of this episode. It is the 1920's after all.
THE INCREDIBLE THEFT (1989) Starring David Suchet as Poirot and Hugh Fraser as Hastings. A mysterious woman in a veil requests Poirot's help in preventing her husband's invention (some sort of airplane guidance thing) from falling into the hands of the Nazis. The setting is the gorgeous English countryside (and you know how much that carries with me) and the time is just before the Brits' official entry into the war with Germany.
The cast and scenery are just plain dazzling. The Nazi sympathizing femme fatale, Mrs. Vanderlyn, is perfectly played by Carmen Du Sautoy, her long slim figure draped in fabulous period clothing. "How English," she says as she appears in a slinky gown on the country house terrace, a late-comer to afternoon tea, "How very, very English."
THE MILLION DOLLAR BOND ROBBERY (1991) starring David Suchet as Poirot and Hugh Fraser as Hastings. The opening credits of this particular episode are wonderfully wrought: a busy throng of business types in black suits and derbies, minions of finance, flow upwards on escalators from the underground, unfurling umbrellas, jostling each other to get to their job destinations in a heavy London rain.
As the name of the episode implies, there will be a million dollar bond robbery but with Hercule Poirot on the scene, the guilty parties will soon be apprehended, all will be well and Hastings will be a wiser man - at least when it comes to the wiles of women.
But not before some heavy-duty obfuscation and the first transatlantic crossing (with appropriate newsreels of the time) of HMS Queen Mary, with Poirot and Hastings on board. This time out, it is poor Hastings who suffers from the 'mal de mer'. The scenes on 'ship-board', as you might expect, are quite delightful.
PERIL AT END HOUSE (1990) Starring David Suchet as Poirot and Hugh Fraser as Hastings. Christie's original story of a particularly heartless murder, is one of her weakest and the cast of characters isn't very likable (this is not a rare occurrence with Christie) but it makes the list because of the spectacular scenery (Devon standing in for Cornwall) and lavish production values.
I also love the ivory three piece suit Poirot wears for most of the film. Hastings too looks rather natty in his 'casual' attire. Those are good enough reasons for me to watch this one over and over again when I have the idea in my head that I want to visit the English seaside as it might have been once upon a time. Even if the insertion of Miss Lemon who was never more that a couple of sentences in a few of the stories is a bit disconcerting. But Pauline Moran makes a lot out of an essentially thankless role.
This is not a comprehensive list, by any means, but enough to begin with, I think.
Oh, and as a last thought, here are three non-Poirot or Miss Marple films made of Christie's early books which are definitely Top-Notch and worth a look-see:
THE SEVEN DIALS MYSTERY (1981) Starring Sir John Gielgud (who is utterly delightful), Cheryl Campbell, Harry Andrews (as Superintendent Battle) and James Warwick.
WHY DIDN'T THEY ASK EVANS? (1980) Starring Sir John Gielgud (again most delightful), James Warwick and Francesca Annis.
THE SECRET ADVERSARY (1983) Starring Francesca Annis and James Warwick as Tuppence and Tommy Beresford. Our first introduction to the wily crime-solving couple. (Though they don't marry until later.)
I've just discovered that the Kindle edition of THE SECRET ADVERSARY (the first Tommy and Tuppence novel ) is available for FREE at Amazon. Hurry, hurry and get your 'copy'. I just did.