Monday, August 27, 2012

The Alphabet Murders

Agatha Christie's character Hercule Poirot has always been difficult for filmmakers to cast.  The caliber and type of actor playing the part has varied greatly over the years --- Peter Ustinov, Ian Holm, Albert Finney, Alfred Molina, and David Suchet have all worn the funny mustache --- but the general attitude toward the character has remained fairly static.  Hercule Poirot is a brilliant amateur detective that earns the respect of Scotland Yard, despite his overblown vanity regarding his appearance.  The Alphabet Murders decides to try something different.  What if this was a mystery with a bumbling detective?  And Poirot was played for laughs?  Wouldn't that appeal to everybody absolutely no one?

The Alphabet Murders is based on Agatha Christie's whodunnit, The ABC Murders, minus only the plot and most of the details.  The film opens with Tony Randall, as himself, addressing the camera and explaining that he will be playing the part of the great Hercule Poirot. 
Subtly, no doubt
If nothing else, I have to admit that was an unexpected choice.  Randall then transforms into Poirot and, after a few gags involving him breaking the fourth wall, the plot is afoot.  Almost.  It seems that Hercule Poirot is not held in high esteem by the British police, even as they find themselves in the middle of a murder spree.  Instead of consulting with Poirot, Soctland Yard sends Hastings (Robert Morley) to guide Poirot safely out of London and on a plane to his homeland of Belgium.  How well does that work?  Let me put it to you this way: when Hastings is onscreen, his movements are accompanied by a tuba on the soundtrack.
Bum-ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum-dum-dum...
The reason Poirot doesn't oblige the Brits is because he was approached by an Amazon a desperate woman (Anita Ekberg); Poirot begins the case out of idle curiosity, but it becomes something more when he accidentally meets her on the street and she claims to not know him.
It's not surprising that he would remember her, though.  Low-key outfit, lady.
Why would anyone ask for Poirot's help and then claim not to know who he is?  What does this mystery woman have to do with the murder of a clown?  Wait...what?  A clown?  Let me check my notes...well, I guess that's right.  Clown murder.  ***sigh***
"Is that really any more ridiculous than anything else here?"

How was the acting in The Alphabet Murders?  Universally overdone.  However, the script did call for broad physical comedy, so I can't fault the actors for playing to the script.  Having said that, Tony Randall was dreadful as Hercule Poirot.  Imagine an actor from the 60s doing an exaggerated impression of a gay Frenchman and you will have the general idea of Randall's performance. 
Don't give me that look.  You're the one mugging the camera for laughs.
Robert Morley played his bumbling supporting role adeptly, although he failed to provide any laughs.  Morley is just very believable when he plays characters who inevitably get locked inside closets.  If his character was suicidal after as a result of his own incompetence, I might say Morley did a fantastic job, but the character sadly is oblivious to failure and embarrassment.  Anita Ekberg was fairly blank as the mystery woman, and the plot gives a reason for that blankness, so...I guess she was adequate?  The rest of the cast is pretty unmemorable and inconsequential to the larger story, although I did recognize a young Julian Glover in a small role and Margaret Rutherford (who played Agatha Christie's other prize character, Miss Marple) had a cameo.

When I look at director Frank Tashlin's body of work, it's not surprising that he made a murder mystery into a farce.  This is a guy whose biggest movies involved Jerry Lewis, so of course he spends a lot of time on "jokes" that no one could enjoy. 
Get it?  The mirror shows the wrong person talking!
Still, The Alphabet Murders could have been a much better movie and a lot of the blame lies on Tashlin.  If his direction had actually led me to laugh, or even smirk, I would cut him some slack.  Instead, he just had two funny-looking men stumble across the screen for the better part of 90 minutes without anything to show for it.  The acting was insultingly broad, the editing was not crisp enough for the gags the script provided, and the mystery is just confusing instead of suspenseful.  I will give credit where it is due --- there are about fifteen minutes in the final act of the movie where this mystery gets interesting.  Not coincidentally, they are the fifteen minutes free of gags.

In all fairness, I should point out that The Alphabet Murders was given the comedic treatment after Margaret Rutherford starred in four semi-comedic movies based on other Agatha Christie works.  It appears that this movie went a bit too far, though. 
Tony Randall was never meant to be a sex symbol
It would be almost a decade before another film was made using the character of Hercule Poirot; after that, he was primarily relegated to public television made-for-TV movies.  I still can't wrap my head around how awful this movie is.  I've recently started to wonder if there have been any good Agatha Christie movies made, but this weak attempt left me depressed.  It's one thing to make a mystery devoid of sense and suspense.  It's another to do that and undercut everything with humor that makes Nancy look like a comic genius by comparison. 

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