Sunday, 22 September 2013

Episode-by-episode: Three Act Tragedy



[For those of you thinking I've forgotten The Clocks, just relax. I'm following the UK broadcast order, in which The Clocks concludes Series Twelve.]

This episode was based on the novel Three Act Tragedy, first published in 1934. It was adapted for television by Nick Dear and directed by Ashley Pearce, who also teamed up for the adaptation of Mrs McGinty's Dead

Script versus novel
Nick Dear's script stays remarkably true to the novel, with only some minor changes. First, Dear introduces Poirot much earlier than in the book (as has become the norm in the adaptations). He becomes a long-time friend of Charles Cartwright (a change that actually adds to the depth of the story), and he consequently replaces Mr. Satterthwaite (who is deleted). Second, Egg Lytton-Gore gets a somewhat more active part in the investigation, joining, for instance, the search of Ellis's room. Third, Egg's interview with the model from Cynthia Dacres' store is removed (it added little to the plot). Fourth, the character of Angela Sutcliffe (Charles' former lover) is removed - and she doesn't feel missed. Other than that, only minor changes are made to the plot, with some interview sections shortened and some lines changed. As a result, I think we can safely say that Dear's adaptation is a faithful retelling of its source material. 

Directing, production design, locations, soundtrack
Ashley Pearce's direction here is probably not to everybody's taste, but I think the slight artificiality works well. I enjoy the many hints towards the link between the case and the theatre (the theatrical opening scene, the presentation of the dramatis personae, the murders, and the denouement, fittingly set on a stage. Also, I think the scene in which Poirot builds the house of cards (a homage not only to the novel but also to the adaptation of 'The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim') is absolutely exquisite. The production design for this episode is impressive, with several different sets (both real and artificial) beautifully dressed. The locations used are perfect for the adaptation. These include St. Anne's Court in Chertsey (previously seen in 'The Plymouth Express' and Mrs McGinty's Dead) and the entrance hall of Eltham Palace (previously seen in Death on the Nile) doubling as Crow's Nest. Also, the Novello Theatre in London,  Knebworth House in Hertfordshire (doubling as Dr Strange's house), Villa Maria Serena in Menton, France (previously seen as Villa Marguerithe in The Mystery of the Blue Train, doubling as the Majestic in Monte Carlo), Wandsworth Town Hall (doubling as the interior of the Majestic), Claridge's Hotel in London (doubling as Ambrose store), Paddington train station (footage last scene in the Marple episode 4.50 to Paddington, I believe), the Bluebell Railway Pullman carriages (used for the trian journeys), Wansford Station in Peterborough (doubling as Loomouth station), and Little Marlow St John the Baptist Church (used for the exhumation scene). Christian Henson, who took over from Stephen McKeon as composer for Series Twelve and Thirteen, does an excellent job with the soundtrack, perfectly mixing Gunning's theme with his own musical trademarks. 

Characters and actors
By now, Poirot (or rather, Suchet) is starting to move into real retirement, with lunches at the Ritz and yearly visits to Monte Carlo. His friendship with Cartwright somehow seems perfectly natural in this stage of his life. I like that David Yelland (George) is given a tiny cameo in which he is clearly familiar with Cartwright. A small continuity thing I've only noticed re-watching the episode is the fact that Egg is seen reading a book called Travels in Arabia by Dame Celia Westholme (a reference to the adaptation of Appointment with Death from Series Eleven). Of the guest actors, Martin Shaw is the main standout, with a performance perfectly balancing the theatricality of the character (love his reference to Stanislavsky and the roles he have played in the theatre) with the human being, particularly in the denouement scene, which he manages to make both touching and slightly creepy. However, Kimberley Nixon (Egg Lytton-Gore), Art Malik (Sir Bartholomew) and the rest of the cast do an excellent job, too.

16 comments:

  1. I loved the novel but was quite disappointed by the episode - I can't exactly say why but...

    ReplyDelete
  2. I hadn't seen the "Travels in Arabia" book. Good catch!

    ReplyDelete
  3. I liked this episode but I much prefer Tony Curtis in the baddie role in the Ustinov film as he managed to combine charm and menace perfectly whereas I felt that Shaw only conveyed the charm. There is a wonderful scene at the end of the Ustinov film when Curtis is revealed as the murderer and his perfectly judged performance of a dangerous madman alternating between charming and menacing frightens Poirot.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think they/Shaw deliberately emphasised the charm, since he was made a close friend of Poirot in this adaptation. He had to have a significant amount of charm for Poirot to be 'fooled'. Otherwise, as a keen observer of human psychology and behaviour, he would have seen the signs of menace much earlier. But that's just my opinion. Tony Curtis' interpretation suited the Ustinov adaptation, however :)

      Delete
    2. While I agree Shaw doesn't convey the danger of Cartwright, he does play up the eccentricity of the man, treating the investigation as a performance and getting far too caught up in it, which still hints at his madness.

      Delete
  4. Certainly, the character needed to exude charm but then I think that Curtis did also and the fact that Shaw was so lacking in menace even at the very end spoiled the episode for me. Shaw needed to raise his acting above a mere 'damn you Poirot' at this point to properly convey the dangerous lunatic that he had become and which we see so clearly in Curtis's portrayal.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's a fair point. Perhaps they were so caught up with making the crime 'personal' for Poirot that they lost some of the duality of the character (that Curtis managed to convey). I still prefer the Suchet version overall, though (but that might be because I prefer Suchet over Ustinov) :)

      Delete
  5. I was rather disappointed by the fact that Satterthwaite was left out, since he had been left out (and replaced, irritatingly, by Hastings) of the Ustinov version as well. He was, after all, one of Christie's favorite characters.

    ReplyDelete
  6. @Eirik - working my way through the series I realize how many times Poirot is fooled by someone who befriends him...

    SPOILER ALERT: There are, in a sense, two versions of this book published. The culprit and methods remain the same but there is a slight twist to the motive. Cartwright having been treated for mental illness versus...someone else who was institutionalized. The adaptation did not use the version I expected, so I would almost count that as a change.

    ReplyDelete
  7. It's a little obvious that we never get a proper look at Ellis, unlike other episodes involving disguises, where we usually get at least one look at the imposter, framed in such a way as to not arouse our suspicions. (Think of One, Two, Buckle My Shoe where we get a close-up of the fake Sainsbury Seale and a brief conversation between her and Poirot; or Lord Edgeware Dies, where we see the fake Jane at the dinner party and hear her speak.) Here, the pointed refusal to show us the chief suspect only draws attention to itself.

    ReplyDelete
  8. oh well! another impersonation plot by cristie. this utterly unbelievable plot device seems to have been her fall-back option when she ran out of ideas. and she seems to have run out ideas pretty often, given how frequently she use it. in fact, if a story by her has actors as characters, almost without exception there is sure to be some impersonation plot (though device is resorted to even without actors as characters). in contrast, i doubt if there ever were more than handful of real murders that involved impersonation, out of hundreds of thousands committed.

    regular viewers, familiar with chistie and the marked camera avoidance of butler's features would have guessed the murderer very early. i for one was hoping chistie, or adapters, would have twisted the plot to make someone else the murderer given his obviousness, making his impersonation just part of a practical joke gone wrong. no luck.

    poirot does some real investigations here and does find solid evidence, in contrast other episodes.

    one note: it was in fact legally possible, in uk, to divorce insane persons since 1920s. the plot of 2 movies 'a bill of divorcement'(silent one in 1922 and katharine hepburn's debut movie in 1932), and their source play, were explicitly based on the that possibility.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Until 1937, the only legal grounds for divorce in the UK were adultery, cruelty, incest, sodomy, bigamy or desertion. The Matrimonial Causes Act was revised in 1937 to, among other things, allow for incurable mental illness.

      There had been a Private Members' Bill in the 1920s petitioning for divorce laws to be liberalised, but it wasn't passed.

      Delete
  9. Wansford station also doubles as Monte Carlo station in this episode. The same image can be seen as Gare de Nice in "The Mystery of the Blue Train". On YouTube you can see the transformation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vMBRbqF0HX8. Greetz, Judith

    ReplyDelete
  10. I have a copy of "THREE ACT TRAGEDY". I think I understand why Martin Shaw's Sir Charles Cartwright failed to project any menace or lack of sanity. One, Nick Dear changed Sir Charles' motive for killing Sir Bartholomew Strange. And two, the screenplay also made Sir Charles an old friend of Poirot's.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I think that Cartwright was too old in this adaptation. If I remember the book correctly, he is supposed to be 40-50, but this Cartwright could say that he was 75. Watching him and Egg together was distracting and a little bit disgusting.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Martin Shaw was only 55 when this was made.

      Delete

About Me

I'm a passionate fan of Poirot, Agatha Christie and the ITV series. If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or requests, please e-mail me at poirotchronology@gmail.com, post a comment on one of my blogs, or get in touch on Twitter @pchronology. (I used to call myself HickoryDickory)