BWW Recap: POIROT: THE LABOURS OF HERCULES Flexes Mental Muscle
The penultimate episode in the dramatization of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot stories, THE LABOURS OF HERCULES, starring David Suchet, is now being streamed by AcornTV. This version is indeed an ambitious undertaking, as it attempts to steer her 1947 collection of twelve short stories, united with some effort under the themed umbrella of the mythological trials of Hercules, into one tale.
The resultant coherence is debatable: this is a 90 minute mash-up of five of the original stories, with some borrowed more fully than others. This creates an overstuffed plot-line with elements that are reminiscent of other Poirot episodes that will be immediately recognizable to longtime fans. The uninitiated viewer's brain may hurt trying to follow the mismatched threads here. Instead, the strength of this dark and claustrophobic episode rests in its (and Suchet's) continuing exploration of Poirot's character as he comes nearer to the end of his life and his life's work. The Swiss setting and parallels of great detective vs. evil genius offer an additional salute to Poirot's literary predecessor, Sherlock Holmes (versus Professor Moriarty). SPOILER ALERT: Only a total Christie novice would be surprised that the criminal mastermind is the same person who challenges Poirot to a public battle of wits.
The episode opens in London, at the glittering debut of a wealthy young girl, Lucinda Le Mesurier; the house is stuffed with the rich and famous, including Poirot. But this is not the half of it: this event is actually a sting operation to capture a brilliant art thief and cunning killer, Marrascaud, who all hope will be drawn by a masterwork, "Hercules Vanquishing the Hydra". Lucinda is merely bait, and the lily has been gilded by draping her with an extraordinary diamond necklace. Despite Poirot's reassurance to Lucinda that the police have the situation well in hand, a "secret code" is rendered not so secret, the painting and necklace are both stolen, and Lucinda is horribly slashed to death. Three months later, Poirot's obvious guilt and depression about this outcome are recognized by his physician, who urges him to get a new case as a kind of therapy. Poirot's subsequent fateful encounter is with a young chauffeur, Ted Williams. Williams tearfully relates that he had fallen hopelessly in love with Nita, maid to a famous ballerina, Katrina Samoushenka, who has since decamped to Switzerland. Poirot, touched by the young man's pain and sincerity, takes on the case pro bono. Cherchez la femme!
Poirot heads to the magnificent Olympos Hotel (get it?) in a breathtaking, isolated Alpine setting, where he learns that an undercover sting operation is simultaneously taking place with regard to Marrascaud. As the funicular railway ascends the impossibly steep mountain face, Poirot glimpses his former unrealized love, jewel thief and Russian émigré Countess Rossakoff, descending on the opposite line. Once at the Hotel, we meet assorted suspicious characters, including a manager who seems to have come straight from Italian comic opera. Sounds of Vicious domestic quarrels filter through the old pipes in the rooms, setting the stage for violence. Poirot inquires about the ballerina and her maid; while Samoushenka is on site, she is bedridden with a suggested nervous disorder, and no maid has been seen.
We learn that the earlier violent row can be attributed to a Mr. and Mrs. Clayton; Mrs. Clayton carries the mark of his assault on her face. Her mother, Mrs. Rice, haughtily advises young Harold Waring not to become involved on Mrs. Clayton's behalf, as he is already escaping a sex Scandal back in England. We also see a glimpse of the ballerina herself, depressed, hostile, and obviously over-medicated by her hovering psychiatrist, the imperious Dr. Lutz. A grating guest, Mr. Schwartz, wants to incessantly play the Boticelli game, much to everyone's annoyance. The anxious waiter Gustave turns out to be an undercover policeman, hot on the trail of Marrascaud. Poirot remakes the acquaintance of Countess Rossakoff, and is introduced to her daughter, Alice Cunningham, a sardonic criminologist whose unappealing dog is the stand-in for Cerberus, (guardian of the gate to Hell, certainly appropriate in this case). She tells him that she will write the name of her candidate for Marrascaud's identity in the margin of a book, and that they will compare notes after the fact. Meanwhile, the forces of nature shift the mountain snows, closing the funicular railway, effectively sealing this rather unhappy crew, including one psychopath, together.