BWW Recaps: AGATHA CHRISTIE'S POIROT: DEAD MAN'S FOLLY Wickedly Delivers
PBS' Masterpiece Mystery continues its broadcast of some of the final adventures of Agatha Christie's brainy and eccentric detective, Hercule Poirot, with the movie-length (90 minute) version of DEAD MAN'S FOLLY, starring David Suchet in his signature role. Based on Christie's 1956 novel, this version stays relatively close to the original plot, with some judicious editing and re-interpretation. While not accompanied by his mainstay companions of many episodes (Capt. Hastings, Inspector Japp, Miss Lemon), this plot intertwines Poirot's likewise eccentric and charmingly maddening friend, crime writer Ariadne Oliver (Zoe Wanamaker). They inhabit a complex plot beset by double meanings and double identities, aided by strong production values including superb period costumes and a fabulous location: Christie's own Greenway Estate. Viewers familiar with Christie plot elements and ruses will probably catch on quickly to suspicious behaviors that scream: "look at me, I'm a clue", but they are likely to catch novices unawares. Identifying the villain is probably easier than identifying the motive here, and folly, whether of character or architecture, is an important theme. SPOILER ALERT: Eyes should be fixed on Sir George Stubbs (Sean Pertwee), whose hail-fellow-well-met demeanor is a thin veneer over a core of wickedness.
The episode creakily opens on a dark and stormy night, as Sir George and his wife Hattie arrive at their Devonshire country home, Nasse House, where she is quickly revealed to be a histrionic and insufferable type. Soon Poirot is on the scene, having been summoned post-haste from London by Oliver, who is writing a "mystery hunt" storyline for a fete hosted by the nouveau riche Stubbs on the grounds of his estate. Oliver, relying on her well-honed intuition, has got the wind up about various participants leaning on her to manipulate the original story for their own ends. Of course, she assumes that one of those ends will be an actual murder, and wants Poirot to prevent it. (Later we learn it is already too late.) This device allows Poirot to meet, observe, and subtly question a host of hangers-on, many of whom serve mainly as anemic pink herrings. These include the randy architect Michael Weyman, the secretary of a certain age, Miss Brewis, whose unrequited love for Sir George leads to an eye-rolling, barely tolerant acceptance of his wife, the stuffy MP Capt. Warburton and his wife, and Alec and Sally Legge, a young couple whose marriage is on the rocks. Of much greater interest is Lady Hattie Stubbs herself, who is beautiful but intellectually limited and focused only on money, clothes, and lifestyles of the rich and famous. There is also the tragic figure of Mrs. Folliat (Sinead Cusack), a war widow who also lost her two sons, and whose family owned Nasse House for generations; she is now reduced to living in the humble lodge on the grounds. Hattie was orphaned as a child while living in the Caribbean, and Mrs. Folliat became her guardian and ongoing interlocutor. You just know that anyone who pronounces, "The world is a wicked place" is bound to have a significant role as the plot unravels.
Hattie's obnoxious behavior crescendos when she receives a letter from her cousin, Etienne DeSousa, announcing that he will stop by for a visit after many years of separation. Poirot encounters a garrulous boatman (the mechanical amongst the elites), John Merdell, who confides that one of Mrs. Folliat's dead sons was a tearaway and not as saintly as she has let on. Sir George also snags Poirot and implores him to inform him if Weyman is, as he suspects, indeed after his wife. Our attention is also drawn to a pair of female trespassers, who irritate Sir George as he spies them from his bedroom window and converses with his unseen wife. (We've seen this ploy before.) When the fête begins in earnest, it is a crowded affair, and to Poirot's eyes, has a Diane Arbus-like grotesquerie about it. The suave and arrogant DeSousa arrives in the midst of the event, eager to see his cousin. Sir George bustles about, looking for his wife, and Poirot and Oliver take up the search, even checking out the boathouse where the "victim" of the scripted murder is designed to be found in a locked room. Of course, the "victim" is now a real victim: Marlene Tucker, a 14 year old Girl Guide with a fascination for true crime, has been strangled. (Watch for gill-laden references to the number 14 as a sidebar throughout the episode.) As Hattie appears to have vanished, the police are called in, headed by the aptly-named Inspector Bland.
Now Poirot's investigations can begin in earnest, interviewing the suspects, revisiting the scene of Marlene's murder, and speculating about Hattie's whereabouts. Public opinion is divided as to whether Hattie is dead, or whether she has run off with another man, while her husband becomes increasingly and righteously indignant. The motive for Marlene's murder is also unknown: did she witness a murder and was killed to keep her silent? When Hattie's flamboyant hat is found near the river, it is supposed that she is dead and her body dumped in the water. With much character assassination aimed at DeSousa, the police interrogate him and wonder of wonders, Hattie's ring is found in his blazer; the perfect framing is complete.
Some time later, with a trial for capital murder fast approaching, Poirot returns and uses Oliver as a sounding board. He visits Mrs. Folliat, who clearly knows more than she is telling. Despite his confrontation, she will only admit to suspicions of unnamed others. Poirot is surprised to learn that the boatman is dead, supposedly drowned while drunk, and that his granddaughter was the dead Girl Guide. Marlene's sister drops the tidbit that the enterprising teen "saw things and was paid not to tell". Poirot is now convinced of DeSousa's innocence, and believes that the boatman was also murdered, again as a guarantee of silence.
Poirot goes to the lodge to lay out his solution of the mystery to Mrs. Folliat, with the police in tow. He presents an incredible story, but one that plays well in Christieland, where old sins frequently resurface and play havoc with the present. SPOILER ALERT: Mrs. Folliat's younger son did not die in an aviation accident as she originally claimed, but instead committed a local sex crime as a teen, and was spirited away to South Africa. Faking his death and now a career criminal, he sought one more chance from his mother, who blessed his new identity as Sir George Stubbs, and further sweetened the deal by allowing him to marry her wealthy but presumably incompetent ward, ensuring both a healthy income and continued ownership of the estate by the rightful descendants. Unfortunately, Sir George had previously married a grafter in Trieste, and this very-much-in-the-picture first wife joined with him at Greenway House in time to kill the real Hattie and assume her identity. The neat plan is foiled by the impending arrival of DeSousa, who can clearly tell a hawk from a handsaw. The faux Hattie must make a quick getaway as one of the ambling trespassers, and this wrinkle dovetails splendidly with a way to eliminate the cunning Marlene, who has made use of her grandfather's tittle tattle to blackmail Sir George about his true identity (are you getting all this?). As DeSousa is expected to swing for the murders, Sir George plans to rejoins his wife in Italy, Mrs. Folliat will stay on at Nasse House, and all should be right with this crooked old world. Poirot has even twigged that the pathetic real Hattie is buried under the monstrous folly (hence the double entendre) on the grounds of the estate. As the police close in, Mrs. Folliat asks Poirot a few minutes' grace to speak with her son. He knowingly does, and shortly two gunshots are heard from within the house, allowing Poirot to neatly wrap up this villainy and decrease taxpayer expense for trial and execution. Poirot, as always, has the last word: "bon".
This episode, like many in the later canon, tends to be unremittingly and rather heavy-handedly dark. There are only a few major, fleshed-out characters, and the others simply fall by the wayside. There is also the rather clichéd and fantastic use of disguised identities that is a staple for Christie but would not pass muster in any reasonable part of the world. Hard facts and literally concrete clues also help to make the case, but the real delight in seeing these adaptations lies in following Poirot as he does all the hard intellectual work with nary a crease in brow or trousers. Suchet's brilliance is in making it seem credible in spite of itself. Not only does Poirot not suffer fools (or follies) gladly, but he is, himself, nobody's fool.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of (C) ITV Studios for MASTERPIECE