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.
The enforced intimacy heats up the relationships and pace of action. Waring becomes increasingly infatuated with Mrs. Clayton, and she reciprocates, despite the risks she is taking with her jealous husband. Gustave appears to be on the edge of nervous collapse. Mrs. Rice comments on the uniformly bad art in the hotel, and is shocked by the disappearance of her customary brooch. Poirot speaks directly with Samoushenka, who asserts that her maid Nita is dead. Dr. Lutz is infuriated by Poirot's intrusion on his patient and dismisses Poirot with psychobabble, which does not fool Poirot one minute: he knows the ballerina is not mad. He also accepts a poignant gift of jeweled cufflinks from the Countess, which she is quick to say are not stolen property.
We are increasingly privy to a noble streak in Waring, demonstrated when he breaks into the Claytons' room during a fresh assault; this time Mrs. Clayton clubs and kills her brutish husband with a large ashtray. Mrs. Rice admits to disposing of the body by heaving it out the window and down the mountainside, but fears she has been observed. Waring offers to bribe the hotel manager with a thick roll of bills, so that the ladies will not be held responsible for the murder. Alice is also attacked, but is not seriously hurt; she asserts a literally well-heeled male guest must be the culprit.
To further save his ladylove, Waring confesses to Poirot that he killed Mr. Clayton, but Poirot is one step ahead of him. The Clayton/Rice relationship is actually that of sisters, and they are grifters. There never was a Mr. Clayton, and the elaborate charade was done in league with the hotel manager to get their hands on the sizeable bribe. Poirot also learns he has an ally in Schwartz, whose pose as an insurance investigator is superseded by his real identity as the real police officer (not Gustave). When it is Poirot's turn to be attacked by an intruder, man is revealed to be Gustave, who claims he is Marrascaud and leaps into the abyss. Poirot does not believe this confession for one minute, and the mystery deepens when the original staff member whom Gustave replaced is found murdered. Poirot believes Gustave was merely an accomplice of the real arch-villain.
Poirot gives a list of items he wants the manager to collect from the guests and has them assemble in the dining room for the classic, impossibly dramatic Christie denouement. SPOILER ALERT: Poirot's first order of business is to clean some of the "terrible art"; underneath, it is indeed the sought-after Hercules painting. Samoushenka's writing case is found to hold the priceless diamond necklace that was stolen in London three months before; her possession of a blond wig points to her having made up and impersonated the non-existent maid Nita, in whose persona she spent some carefree moments with Williams back in England. The Countess has the missing brooch, up to her old tricks. Poirot confronts Alice, who had beguiled Gustave, and who was a guest at LeMesurier's party months earlier. She had used charm and wit to get the art and the jewels, and obviously enjoyed committing a murder to boot. Alice manipulated the ballerina to hide the jewels, with the aide of her second, more suave accomplice, Dr. Lutz. It is his name listed in the book margin as Marrascaud, as she has maneuvered events to frame him alone for these crimes. As various characters (in an unintentionally comic moment) pull guns on each other, Waring knocks Alice out cold and all are arrested Alice/Marrascaud mocks Poirot's vanity and threatens to take future revenge. Her mother, the Countess, asks him to spare her, as he has done with her in the past, but he refuses. In the closing scenes, Poirot reunites Williams and Samoushenka, culminating in a bittersweet moment: as he observes their joy, the cufflinks from the Countess remind him of the happiness he could have known if he had followed his heart years before.
While this episode's labyrinthine plot teeters on self-parody, THE LABOURS OF HERCULES does succeed in charting The Next Step in Poirot's life story arc. There are no light moments as Poirot contemplates the roads not taken and realizes that he has sought out duty and justice, as opposed to the more usual quests of romance and family. In the hands of Suchet's masterful portrayal, this story could just as easily be characterized as Poirot's "love's labour's lost".
Photo Credit: Acorn Media