THE ABC MURDERS (1936) by Agatha Christie

Christie-ABC-panI realise this might be a bit controversial but I am here to praise both Christie’s classic ABC mystery and The Alphabet Murders, the zany 1965 movie version starring an improbably skinny Tony Randall as Poirot. Yes, it’s a broad comedy and yes, a lot has been changed from the book (including the identity of the murderer) but it’s also great  fun! Not persuaded yet? Let me try a little harder …

The following review is offered Katie’s 2014 Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for links, click here); Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challengeand Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, today corralled by Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom; and Kerrie’s Agatha Christie Reading Challenge monthly Blog Carnival.

“Let us see, Mr Clever Poirot, just how clever you can be. Perhaps you’ll find this nut too hard to crack. Look out for Andover on the 21st of the month. Yours, etc., ABC.'”

This may well be Agatha Christie’s second best-known and most widely copied story after And Then There Were None (which I previously reviewed here) and it finds Poirot towards the end of his career, older if not exactly ready for retirement. Hastings has been off in Argentina running his ranch but is now back for a visit and they get contacted by what appears to be a madman (or mad woman) who is randomly killing people in alphabetical order, leaving a copy of the ABC train timetable next to each body. Thus, after Randall_The-Alphabet-Murders_portraitalerting Poirot to their intentions in advance by letter, ABC kills Alice Ascher in Andover, then Betty Barnard follows in Bexhill and Sir Carmichael Clark in Churston. Hastings’ narration of events alternates with third person descriptions of events in the life of one Alexander Bonaparte Cust, an itinerant salesman prone to blackouts after his experiences in the war. The stories converge in Doncaster when Cust is apprehended after a stabbing in a cinema. Is the story over – is he ABC? And what would have happened if the letter announcing the third death had not been delayed due to a typo on the envelope?

“Well I never,” he exclaimed. “if it isn’t Captain Hastings back from the wilds of what do you call it! Quite like old days seeing you here with Monsieur Poirot. You’re looking well too. Just a little thin on top, eh? Well, that’s what we’re all coming to, I’m sure.”

This is a novel written at the height of Christie’s powers in the 1930s and offers a brilliantly clever device that is beautifully developed, its apparent thriller storyline ultimately revealed to be a traditional whodunit after all. It also has a sort of celebratory feel with Poirot, Hastings and Japp all meeting up much later in their career amid references to old age, the passing of time in general and several links to other Christie books (including Three Act Tragedy / A Murder in Three Acts, which in some regards can be seen as including a dry run for the central ABC plotline).

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The lobby card caption here reads: “Tony Randall as Hercule Poirot discusses sleuthing strategy with a movie Poirot of three decades ago (Austin Trevor), now playing a cameo role.”

The book has been ripped off umpteenth times but has also been adapted legitimately for TV, cinema and even video games over the years. If you want to see a traditional adaptation, and a very successful one at that, I urge you to view the David Suchet adaptation from 1992 co-starring Hugh Fraser as Hastings, Philip Jackson as Japp and Donald Sumpter, who is heartbreaking as the psychologically fragile Cust. For something more radical and adventurous though, you will need to hunt around (‘hunt’ very much the operative word unfortunately) and find a copy of the 1965 movie made by MGM British in the wake of their successful Miss Marple series starring Margaret Rutherford. In many ways in fact this is a case of the baton being passed with the same production crew – including producer Lawrence Bachmann, screenwriters David Pursall and Jack Seddon, composer Ron Goodwin, cinematographer Desmond Dickinson and art director Bill Andrews – transferring from one series to this new one (though sadly only one would be made). There is even a scene in which Miss Marple (and her friend Mr Stringer), played by Rutherford and her husband, meet Poirot and Hastings …

Despite the use of the same crew, the major difference here, presumably in a desire to add more than a touch of Inspector Clouseau’s antics to the mix, is the decision to  reunite the star and director of media satire Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), Tony Randall and Frank Tashlin. Like that film, we begin by breaking the fourth wall and having Randall introduce himself directly to the audience. Standing outside the studio he is transformed with much use of makeup into Poirot but as the camera keeps following him, he tell it (us) to leave him alone as he is in London not to fight crime but to see his tailor (he is very nattily dressed here thanks to a wardrobe supplied by Hardy Amies). So the camera goes elsewhere – specifically to a swimming pool, where an ‘aqua clown’ is rehearsing his act and where he is killed by a poisoned dart fired by an air gun. In another ironic touch, after an ABC guide is flung into the swimming pool, his scream can still be heard even once he is under water. There are lots of amusing touches like that in a film that undeniably privileges fun over fidelity to the original text.

Christie_Morde_des_herrn_ABC_german

Utterly bizarre German poster that has nothing whatsoever to do with the way either actor appears in the film.

As this was meant to usher in a new series, Poirot, Hastings and Japp here all meet for the first time. Hastings (Robert Morley) works for the secret service and is tasked with safeguarding Poirot on his trip to the UK (he is clearly based in Belgium for the purposes of the film) and it is a running joke for the first hour that Poirot, who frequently gets himself arrested, keeps finding ways to elude his minder until the two finally decide to work together. There are comic set-pieces on horseback and in a steam room as Poirot is chased with maniacal  glee by Amanda Beatrice Cross (Anita Ekberg, who appears dubbed throughout) who claims to be the murderer. It turns out she is under a physician’s care and is therefore a version of the Cust character, though she decidedly cuts a much more glamorous and flamboyant figure than the character in the book.

This inverts the trajectory of the book, in which she is now chasing Poirot in the grip of some sort of mania – but is she really the guilty party? After a climax high above the Thames, Hastings and Poirot head for a train journey in which all is cleared up – or a bit anyway. There are some very amusing in-jokes, like having former 1930s Poirot actor Austin Trevor have an extended cameo as a butler, and lots of visual invention as Tashlin does almost anything to keep viewers off-balance – one dialogue scene with suspect Julian Glover takes place in between the snores of his sleeping wife, while the first meeting between Poirot and Hastings is filmed so that their mouths are disconnected from their faces via the strategic placing of a mirror.

Tashlin, before making many of Jerry Lewis’ best comedies and my second-favourite cowboy spoof, Son of Paleface with Bob Hope, worked in cartoons over at Warner Bros and there is much of that sort of scattershot energy here. It makes for a very swinging 60s and madcap take on the material and Randall as the crotchety, beaky and bald Poirot (courtesy of some clever work by uncredited makeup artist, Stuart Freeborn, though there were rumours that Randall was already in private life a bit more follically challenged than he normally appeared …) actually does very well here. I had a great time with it and I just wish the team had made several more frankly. I hasten to add that I am well aware that this is a minority view …

Alphabet_murders223DVD Availability: Sadly this appears to be completely AWOL though it did appear on VHS once upon a format ago … I have no idea why it is unavailable but as a result I have kept a close guard on my copy from TV for well over a decade now …

The Alphabet Murders (1965)
Director: Frank Tashlin
Producer: Lawrence P. Bachmann
Screenplay: David Pursall, Jack Seddon
Cinematography: Desmond Dickinson
Art Direction: Bill Andrews
Music: Ron Goodwin
Cast: Tony Randall (Poirot), Anita Ekberg, Robert Morley (Hastings), Maurice Denham (Japp), Guy Rolfe, Sheila Allen, James Villiers, Grazina Frame (Betty Barnard), Cyril Luckham (Sir Carmichael Clark), Julian Glover, Margaret Rutherford (uncredited as Miss Jane Marple), Stringer Davis (uncredited as Mr. Stringer)

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge in the ‘made into a movie’ category – and it’s my first bingo too!

vintage-golden-card-marked-xvii

 

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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44 Responses to THE ABC MURDERS (1936) by Agatha Christie

  1. Sergio – I have to confess I’m one of those irritating purists. I really am. But that said, I do trust your judgement on the film (which I must confess I’ve not seen). The book I agree is one of Christie’s best. And that means that it has indeed been – erm – borrowed from quite heavily. It’s an interesting character study on several levels too, at least in my opinion.

  2. Colin says:

    A long time since I read the book but I also agree that it’s probably one of Christie’s best – very clever and, something I don’t always get from her work, quite affecting too.

    Now I’ve never seen the film yet I’m willing to take your word on it. I like Tashlin’s work a lot and I see no reason why that madcap, and very funny, style shouldn’t be applied to this story. I know we’ve talked about this subject before and I guess I’m repeating myself – I don’t care if movies are not faithful to the books which inspire them. It’s nice when they are but I don’t see it as a major sin when they’re not.

    • Thanks very much Colin – when it comes to literary fidelity in adaptation, I am definitely a polytheist! What can really annoy me though is if I feel the changes have been made for bad reasons – I’m going to do a post next week on My Friend Maigret and the 2 French TV versions and then one I ended up focussing on made, I think, lots of changes all for the wrong reasons! Glad you’re a Tashlin man – but then, you just ooze good taste!

      • Colin says:

        I can’t comment on the film in this case and whether the changes are for good or bad reasons. The Rutherford Marples play pretty fast and loosewith characterization and stories – not even real Marple cases for the most part – but I like them a lot. The changes there seemed to be done to accommodate the presence of Rutherford – I reckon that ought ot qualify as a good reason.

  3. Noah Stewart says:

    I saw this film within the last month on Turner Classic Movies (in Canada), so I expect it will be available more often in the future. Turner re-runs its films frequently and often releases them on DVD, so you might try TCM.com in the future if you’re looking for a DVD copy. (It’s not available as of today.) I’m sorry to disagree with you, but I didn’t enjoy it much; I don’t care for Robert Morley’s mugging and I think the replacement of Mr. Cust’s character with one played by Anita Ekberg is meretricious. For me this film had very little to do with Poirot the literary character and also very little to do with the original book. I suspect I would have found it more palatable had it been made merely as a movie and not a “Poirot movie”; I think if I had treated the character’s name as an unfortunate coincidence, I might have liked the film more. But for me, it’s not funny and it’s not a good mystery.

    • I don’t think you liked this one Noah … :) Which I understand – what can I say, I knew I would have a hard time persuading people of this, and not without reason, but it really tickles my funny pone and because it opens with such a postmodern flourish, then all bets are off and I find it a fascinating pendant to the Rutherford Marple films (which were hardly more faithful, lets face it, just less overt about it) – thanks for the great feedback chum.

  4. TracyK says:

    This was a fun post. If I ever get back to my effort to read all the Agatha Christie books (in order for each series), I am only 6 books away from reading this one. Someday I will get there.

    I would definitely watch the movie if it was available. I love Tony Randall. To me, changing the identity of the murderer is a plus. That way it would not ruin the book for me.

  5. Probably my favourite Christie of all so I’m intrigued by the film. You never know, it might turn up on TV one day.

  6. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    This is one of my favourite Christies (possibly influenced by the fact that I read it in Andover, where I grew up!) I’ve yet to see the film – I’m sure I could approach it with an open mind….. :)

    • You would definitely need it Karen! Thanks very much – I did enjoy re-reading this one, and had forgotten that it is meant to be one of the cases from near the end of Poirot’s career – always amusing when authors did that and then backpedal as they continue to write about the characters for several more decades!

      • kaggsysbookishramblings says:

        Indeed – poor Poirot was quite ancient by the end of his days!!

        • Somebody calculated he was about 150 by the time he died I think – certainly, if he was retirememnt age when we first meet him in STYLES he must have been well over 110 by the time he died circa 1975!

  7. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have read the book. I have seen the TV episode (1992). I have also seen the film The Alphabet Murders (1965).
    The book is one of my favourites. A brilliant novel. I would definitely include this novel in my Top 100 Mystery Books.
    The main idea of the book was first used by G.K. Chesterton in a Father Brown story.
    “Where does a wise man hide a leaf?”
    “In the forest.”
    “But what does he do if there is no forest?”
    “:He grows a forest.”
    The TV episode (1992) is a more or less faithful adaptation of the book. Hence if one likes the book, he will definitely like the TV episode and vice versa.
    The film The Alphabet Murders (1965) is however something different. The very beginning where Poirot introduces himself to the audience clearly indicates that it is first a comedy and then only a mystery. A spoof.
    Poirot is shown as a buffoon though he ultimately solves the crime. One is reminded of Inspector Clouseau of the Pink Panther series.
    The Agatha Christie purists may hate this film, but one must understand the purpose of this film. It is a farce, a comedy meant to raise laughs.
    I found the film quite amusing and enjoyable. I also liked the background music.

    • Thanks Santosh, I think we are in agreement here (and I do love Chesterton’s ‘Sign of the Broken Sword’, though you could argue that the sentiments expressed in his ‘The Invisible Man’ also apply here). Yes, the score by Ron Goodwin is great fun, I agree, even if not quite as good as his ‘Miss Marple’ theme.

  8. Yvette says:

    I don’t think you’ve convinced me, Sergio. But you get an A+ for trying, and trying very well too. I loved Tony Randall in most everything he did, but I never could get myself to watch this film. I just love Poirot and the original ABC MURDERS and, for that matter, Suchet’s interpretation, too much. In fact, I did include the book in my Top 100 Mystery List. I still reread it every couple of years. The Suchet episode didn’t mess with the original story too much, thank goodness. Although the casting makes the killer quite evident. And yes, Donald Sumpter is wonderful in the difficult A.B. Cust part.
    But really, the book is the thing.

  9. An absolutely fascinating post – and if the film was available I would watch it after reading that!

  10. My first encounte with this brilliant book was via the film tie-in paperback. And to this day, I’ve never tracked the film down. One of these days…

  11. I’m with Margot on THE ABC MURDERS being one of Christie’s best. The MASTERPIECE series of Poirots on PBS here winds up on Sunday.

  12. Sergio, thanks very much for an entertaining review of THE ABC MURDERS. It’s interesting to read about what other people think are Christie’s best mysteries ever and they don’t differ very much. This novel is on my list already. I prefer reading her books to watching their film or television adaptations, which I generally do if they happen to be playing at the time, meaning I don’t seek them out. I have seen a few of the David Suchet adaptations, currently being re-telecast on Indian television; unfortunately, each episode is run in two parts over two days and, as a result, I almost always miss the concluding part on day two.

    • Missing the ending really is annoying Prashant! Sounds like they must be showing the later adaptations of the novels, made for a 2-hour slot. Originally the show ran to 1-hour episodes (and which mostly I prefer).

      • Sergio, you’re right, each part of the two-part episode is one hour long and these recent adaptations have a modern feel about them with many of the scenes being more intense than I remember, probably in the one-hour episodes you mentioned.

        • The earlier episodes were based not on the novels but the short stories and had a much lighter feel with Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon as part of the regular supporting cast. And they began with these wonderful opening titles:

  13. Kelly says:

    I’m not much for “zany”, so the film may not be for me!

  14. neer says:

    Sergio, I must confess that I have completely forgotten the story. Remember reading it and not quite liking it. The movie seems to be a totally crazy fun-filled ride and the German poster might be just to emphasize that it is not to be taken seriously.

    • Thanks Neeru – The German poster is really absurd – sorry the book didn’t stick in your mind though, I always think it’s one of the Christie stories that are truly ‘once read, never forgotten’ but then it does get copied a lot too!

  15. Bev Hankins says:

    Sergio: I have always wanted to see this version of The ABC Murders–but, as you point out, it has been very elusive so far. Maybe one of these days. In general, I am a purist when it comes to adapting books to film–but I can also take a fun twist or a send-up if well done.

    And–congratulations on your first Vintage Bingo!!

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