BWW Recap: CURTAIN: POIROT'S LAST CASE Packs a Punch
The final, 70th episode in the dramatization of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot stories, CURTAIN, starring David Suchet in his definitive portrayal of the Belgian detective, is now being streamed by AcornTV. This long-awaited episode, a career-capping achievement for Suchet, does not disappoint; it is among the best of the more recent Poirot episodes, and is relatively faithful to Christie's novel, written in the 1940's and published in 1975.
While multiple suspicious characters and blind alleyways abound in this 90 minute adaptation, the plot does not rely as heavily on familiar Christie parlor tricks such as unbelievable double identities. Instead, it explores a much more psychological landscape, particularly in terms of Poirot himself, his longtime friend Hastings (Hugh Fraser), and a diabolical psychopath who revels in provocation rather than personal bloodletting. The posed moral conundrums speak to Christie's power as an author, beyond any entertainment value of the whodunit quick read. The dramatization here also owes its success to good direction, superb production values, and solid acting from leads that fully understand their characters (and in turn character flaws). SPOILER ALERT: It stands to reason that only the master detective himself would have the intelligence and skills to commit the true "perfect murder".
Our first wordless images are of a past trial and execution, the subtext for this episode. We then meet Hastings, Poirot's longstanding (and long-suffering) friend, arriving for a stay at Styles, a manor house and scene of a murder thirty years earlier that brought the two of them together. Now in gloomy post-World War II England, the manor house is no longer elegant; Styles is now a guest house, owned by a bickering, aging couple, the Luttrell's. Hastings, now a widower, has been invited to stay by his daughter, Judith, also a guest, but the real draw is the opportunity to spend time with his aged friend, Poirot. Poirot, keenly intelligent as ever, but betrayed by an enfeebled body and now in a wheelchair, believes that Styles will be the site of another murder, but will not confide his suspicions to the befuddled-as-ever Hastings. While he peevishly mocks Hastings, Poirot also relies on Hastings to be his eyes and ears for collecting information about the various guests, who are not a particularly likeable bunch. They include Judith's boss, Dr. Franklin, who researches alkaloids and yearns to conduct experiments in Africa, if he was not tied down by his manipulative wife, Barbara, an invalid of uncertain and doubtful diagnosis. She in turn uses the aristocratic William Boyd Carrington, a childhood friend who still carries a torch for her. Judith, frequently at loggerheads with her father, seems to be involved in a romantic intrigue with Major Allerton, a womanizer and pill-popper of scandalous renown. There are also two sad sack characters: Elizabeth Cole, the sister of the woman executed in the opening scene for killing their father, and Stephen Norton, a stammering mama's boy who is friend to all and lover to none. All of these people have been parties to some murder scenario or location at some point, with reactions varying from trauma to blithe disregard. Hastings, himself a party to so many of Poirot's investigations, remains something of a naïf, easily shocked by the wickedness of the world.
The perpetually nagged Capt. Lutrell shoots his wife on the flimsy pretense of mistaking her for a rabbit, but she is only winged and quickly recovers. Hastings dutifully reports these events and related conversations to Poirot, whose agitation and ill-temper beget a rather cruel appraisal of his friend. The great detective, bedridden and fuming, relies on both his cardiac medicine and his nearby rosary. Hastings is troubled by his daughter's behavior and attitudes, and this only increases when Norton winds him up with more information about Allerton's Lothario reputation and his devastating effect on women whom he inevitably abandons. We also see Hastings' pain as a widower, which in true stiff upper-lip fashion, he hides from his daughter. Barbara Franklin leaves her bed long enough to enjoy a stint of retail therapy, with Carrington literally carrying the bags while her saintly husband slaves over his scientific work. Barbara's glee, however, is cut short when she espies Carrington making a play for her nurse.
When Hastings overhears Allerton's come-hither approach, presumably to Judith, he is enraged and goes to Allerton's room and mixes barbiturates into his aspirin. He is stopped in place by a message from Poirot, who administers cocoa to him as a sleeping aid; upon awakening, he is grateful to have been unsuccessful, and is mortified by his own desire to kill. But a real murder does ensue: Barbara Franklin succumbs to a painful death by alkaloid ingestion. Poirot later testifies to events that lead the coroner to label her death a suicide, but Poirot has in fact bent the truth. He tells Hastings that he believes she was murdered. Hastings' suspicions are further aroused when he learns that Dr. Franklin is mightily relieved by his wife's death, as he can finally realize his plans to go to Africa, and is not particularly troubled by suicide, homicide, or anything else. Norton hints that he knows more about this, and soon is asked to visit Poirot. The next morning, Norton is found dead in his own bed, neatly shot through the head, perhaps another suicide. Poirot tells Hastings it was indeed murder, and sends him away. Alone, Poirot suffers a heart attack, but instead of reaching for his medicine, only seeks his rosary, murmuring, "Forgive me".
Hastings is devastated by Poirot's death, and his shock and grief are magnified when he learns that Judith is going to Africa as the wife of Dr. Franklin; she was never involved with Allerton at all, but this raises the specter of her potential involvement in Barbara Franklin's death. A small case by Poirot's bedside supposedly contains all the clues for Hastings to put the pieces together, but he can make nothing of them. A visit to Poirot's former valet reveals only that he was not attending Poirot in his final days because Poirot had engaged someone new, a rather brutish fellow. Four months later, Poirot's final "manuscript", the exposition of the final mystery, is delivered to Hastings. SPOILER ALERT: Poirot reveals that he had finally encountered the "perfect criminal": Stephen Norton. He loved to watch others act out, and set in motion their various jealousies and resentments, lapping up violent outcomes. He exploited weaknesses and planted the seeds of doubt, as with Judith's supposed involvement with Allerton. Poirot also was not physically helpless: this was a ruse to further his investigation of Norton. When he observed Hastings meddling with Allerton's pills, he intervened by dosing his friend with drugged hot chocolate, to literally stop him in his tracks. He does reveal that Hastings inadvertently killed Barbara Franklin; she had in fact planned to poison her husband with his own compound, leaving her free to marry her aristocratic lover. But when Hastings moved a revolving coffee table, Barbara literally got a dose of her own medicine. In his final confrontation with Norton, Poirot describes how Norton engineered many previous murders, in a rather eccentric interchange. Norton, convinced his own chocolate is drugged, drinks Poirot's; but Poirot is one step ahead. He had anticipated this, and drugged both cups. However, as he had become used to the drug medicinally, he was unaffected. He delivers the somnolent Norton back to his own room, and neatly dispatches him with a precisely placed gunshot. Through a copy of Othello, the link is made to Shakespeare's Iago, another evil character who incited others to murderous passions based on lies and innuendo. Poirot specifically bids Hastings to tell Miss Cole about Norton's role in her father's death, subtly suggesting that Hastings and Cole can shed their loneliness together. Poirot justifies his actions because they likely saved others from Norton's predation. He places his judgment in God's hands, and signs out on his life and his extraordinary career.
It is gratifying that this monumental series ends on such a powerful and satisfying note. Suchet has always averred that he wanted to play Poirot as Christie wrote the character, not as an actor's caricature or a figure of fun. As this final CURTAIN rings down, even the notoriously critical Christie would likely be pleased with its gravitas. And while it relies as always on intellectual agility, the pathos is also palpable. This is the occasion for a generation of fans to say goodbye and sadly come to grips with the finality of the series; they have loved Poirot perhaps both wisely and too well.
Photo Credit: Acorn Media