Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Poirot Returns in "The Big Four"

It is a bittersweet time for fans of the Poirot series starring David Suchet as Agatha Christie's Belgian detective. Since 1989, Suchet has portrayed the quirky sleuth. Since Christie wrote so many novels and short stories featuring Hercule Poirot, we knew there would be another series provided that Suchet wished to continue and that the funding was available. Unfortunately, 25 years have passed and only a handful of stories have yet to be told. It is really an amazing feat when you consider how fickle the public can be. From what I've read, it has been tough at times to secure the money needed to maintain the high quality of the productions. Agatha Christie Limited should be congratulated for making sure the dream of capturing all of the Poirot stories on film was achieved.

Miss Lemon, Asst. Commissioner Japp, Poirot, and Capt. Hastings

The Big Four begins with some familiar faces receiving invitations to the funeral of Hercule Poirot. It is a clever way of reuniting the three characters who started out with Poirot back in 1989: Captain Arthur Hastings (Hugh Fraser), Miss Lemon (Pauline Moran), and Inspector Japp (Philip Jackson). As Poirot's coffin is placed in its grave, the story flashes back to four weeks earlier. There we see Hercule Poirot meeting his old friend Japp, now Assistant Commissioner, at chess match between Dr. Ivan Savaranoff (Michael Culkin) and Abe Ryland (James Carroll Jordan). Savaranoff is a renowned Russian chess champion, while Ryland is a wealthy American involved in the Peace Party. In fact, the event is really a gathering for the Peace Party to spread its message to world on the brink of another world war. The Peace Party was founded by a Chinese national Li Chang Yen. It is Yen's book which has inspired the worldwide peace movement. Ryland has joined forces with Madame Olivier (Patricia Hodge), a prominent French scientist, to lead the Peace Party. The Peace Party has attracted a number of important members in Britain like English diplomat Stephen Paynter (Steven Pacey) and his personal physician, Dr. Quentin (Simon Lowe).

Also in attendance at this event is a newspaper journalist named Tysoe. The reporter was not invited but is there to observe who is there because he believes the Peace Party may in fact be a ruse. Tysoe speculates that the major players in the Peace Party may be an international crime syndicate called "The Big Four." Tysoe has been receiving anonymous tips that "The Big Four" are responsible for various riots and uprisings around the world. When the reporter attempts to publicly question Ryland about "The Big Four" at the chess match, he is removed from the event by Japp's men. Shortly after Tysoe's expulsion, the chess match commences. After a few moves by each player, Savaranoff dies while while moving his bishop. Dr. Quentin goes the Russian immediately, but the man is dead. Was it natural causes or foul play?

Savaranoff's death appears to be a heart attack. However, it is known that Madame Olivier does research with drugs that could mimic a heart attack. In addition, Tysoe is pressuring Japp for answers because he believes Ryland is involved and a member of "The Big Four." Poirot assists Japp in the case because it is a high profile death. Since Poirot is familiar with chess, he discovers that Savaranoff was fond of using the Ruy Lopez opening. It is then that Poirot realizes the Russian was murdered and how it was done. Japp and Poirot go back to the crime scene with Abe Ryland. There Poirot shows the other two men that the chess board was electrified and the bishop was wired to receive the charge. Since Savaranoff routinely used the same opening move, the killer was able to wire the chess board accordingly. Ryland is annoyed by the discovery and leaves in a huff. The American millionaire disappears after his meeting with Japp and Poirot. Is Ryland on the run and in fact one of "The Big Four?"

James Carroll Jordan as Abe Ryland

Another murder occurs shortly after Ryland's disappearance. The victim is Jonathan Whalley, an expert on the Chinese culture. In fact, Whalley wrote a biography on Li Chang Yen, the founder of the Peace Party. This killing suggests that Tysoe's claims of a global crime syndicate led by Yen could be valid. Tysoe has meeting with his source after Whalley is murdered. Unfortunately, Tysoe's inside informant has been stabbed in the back and will no longer be providing anymore tips to the reporter. One very important clue is found in the coat pocket of the informant's jacket. It is an envelope with four cards. Card #1 is a Chinese playing card; card #2 is a monopoly card; card #3 is a queen from a French deck of cards; and card #4 is the death card from a tarot deck. Obviously, Chen is #1; Ryland is #2; and Olivier is #3. The most dangerous is #4 because he/she is the unknown player who is carrying out the evil deeds of the organization.

All of these tragedies are damaging the Peace Party's efforts. Madame Olivier is continuing the party's work. However, it seems that one of her biggest supporters, Stephen Paynter, is having doubts about what they're doing. Paynter is found dead in his room after his conversation with Madame Olivier. His death was a particularly cruel one. Paynter was placed face down onto a gas heater and his head was charred. The investigation leads to accusations against Paynter's ne'er-do-well nephew who was visiting. However, Mrs. Paynter points her finger at Madame Olivier who she knows was her husband's lover. She thinks her husband had broken off the relationship on the night of his death. But, could it be that Olivier was acting on behalf of "The Big Four?" Madame Olivier disappears not long after Paynter's death which gives Tysoe's theory more credibility.

Patricia Hodge as Madame Olivier

After each of these events, the audience is shown an actress, Flossie Monro (Sarah Parish) receiving bouquets of roses. The card is signed each time "4 kisses." Flossie has no idea who her secret admirer is. The fact that the flowers contain a message that includes the number four, implies that Flossie must be connected to "The Big Four." But how?

Flossie Monro with Poirot
Hercule Poirot decides to go back to the Whalley crime scene. After all, if Li Chang Yen really is the head of  "The Big Four," there may be more evidence in the Whalley house. When Poirot returns to the Whalley house, the housekeeper mentions that the author's only living relative has yet to be seen. It seems that Whalley has a nephew who lived with him years earlier. It was before the current housekeeper's time. However, she tells Poirot that a number of the nephew's things are stored in the house. When Poirot begins looking through the nephew's possessions, he discovers numerous items related to a repertory company. It is then Poirot decides to follow this lead. He begins interviewing all the actors in the company. It turns out that Flossie Monro was a member of the troupe. It is not long after Poirot starts this line of inquiry that he follows a lead to an apartment where a bomb explodes. This brings us back to Poirot's funeral.

The story has given us the pieces to put together. Can we put together the all evidence and solve the case? Can Japp? After all, Poirot is not around to solve it... or is he? I highly recommend watching The Big Four to find out.

This production was absolutely stunning. British productions are so on target in capturing an era. You truly believe the events are happening in late 1930's Europe. In addition, I love the style of the storytelling. The montages after each murder or disappearance were reminiscent of old style film making. My only complaint about the movie was there was not enough of Miss Lemon and Captain Hastings. In the original book, Hastings was back from his South American ranch on business and winds up assisting his friend in the investigation. In addition, Countess Vera Rossakoff, the one woman who truly intrigued Hercule Poirot, was left out of the film although she is a character in the novel. However, I must admit that the screenplay by Mark Gatiss and Ian Hallard was very good. It took the basic idea Chrsitie had and turned it into a true murder mystery. The original book was more of a spy thriller and not well received. I think this version is worthy of Agatha Christie in her prime and very entertaining. Hopefully, the next four movies will be as well done.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

It's Not a Comeback... It's a Return!

Norma Desmond I'm not. However, the words seemed to fit my situation. I've been absent from my blog since December. I've continued to follow many blogs (though I've been a lurker) and continued to vote in CMBA elections and memberships. However, I have not felt inspired enough to write. This past school year was like a bad after school special. I was also sick fairly often with a virus that just kept resurfacing. I decided that it was time to start writing again -- so here I am.

I've decided to begin blogging again because I will be covering David Suchet's  return for his last series as Hercule Poirot on PBS. The final Poirot series was already broadcast in England, but my local PBS station will begin broadcasting it tonight. While I look forward to watching these well produced and acted shows, I feel a sadness knowing that it is the last Poirot series. Suchet will have starred in dramatizations of all of Hercule Poirot's adventures. In fact, fans will have to be prepared to see their detective die in Curtain.

I've always thought it was a pity that Agatha Christie did not live to see David Suchet give life to Poirot. Prior to Suchet, I would have to say that Albert Finney best captured Hercule Poirot on screen. As a reader of Agatha Christie since a young age, I was always disappointed by the efforts to portray Poirot in film with the exception of Murder on the Orient Express. While several of the Peter Ustinov films are very good detective movies, Ustinov did not fit the description of Poirot nor capture his personality in my opinion. As Mathew Prichard, grandson of Agatha Christie, has often said, "We must laugh with Poirot, not at him." Tonight begins the four last opportunities to experience the magic Suchet created as we lovingly say good bye to the character with whom we not only laughed, but with whom we cried.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas Art

Merry Christmas to all! Here are some sketches done by my hubby, David Hardy. I hope you all enjoy them!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Tribute Sketches by David Hardy

December, 2013 has been a sad time for classic film fans. We have lost Eleanor Parker, Audrey Totter, Peter O'Toole, and Joan Fontaine. I have spotlighted Eleanor Parker and Joan Fontaine and included sketches done by my talented husband, David Hardy. I decided to share the other tribute sketches he has done. I hope you enjoy them!

Audrey Totter

Joan Fontaine

Monday, December 16, 2013

Another Star Joins the Heavens: Joan Fontaine

It was just last week that Eleanor Parker's death was mourned. Now, another leading lady from Hollywood's Golden Age has passed away, Joan Fontaine. I became a fan of Ms. Fontaine after watching Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca. Her portrayal of the ingenuous, second Mrs. DeWinter was beautiful. Watching the evolution of Fontaine's character from a naive, love-struck girl to a loyal, stalwart wife was amazing. I then discovered Suspicion, another Hitchcock vehicle. In Suspicion, Fontaine played Lina McLaidlaw. Lina could have been a one note, spinsterish woman who marries a ne'er do well. However, Joan Fontaine showed Lina to be a lonely, young woman who desperately wants to believe the best about her handsome husband, Johnnie. However, although inexperienced in love, Lina is an intelligent woman who senses that Johnnie is not all he pretends to be. For her work in Suspicion, Joan Fontaine earned an Oscar for Best Actress of 1941.

Tribute sketch of Joan as The Constant Nymph by my husband David Hardy.

Over the years, I've seen numerous films starring Joan Fontaine and read her autobiography, No Bed of Roses. One film that Ms. Fontaine mentioned in her autobiography fondly was The Constant Nymph. Unfortunately, public showings were limited due the author's deal with Warner Brothers and some other legal issues. When I met David, he mentioned that he was lucky enough to see the film during a showing at his library. It was the one film starring Joan Fontaine which I just had to see. Finally, TCM resolved the various legal issues and obtained the rights to the film. I was thrilled and a bit scared when TCM announced the TV premiere of The Constant Nymph in September of 2011. Sometimes, a film does not live up to one's expectations. I was so happy that The Constant Nymph was even better than I hoped it would be. Without a doubt, Joan Fontaine was brilliant as Tessa Sanger. She had a tender, ethereal quality that a muse like Tessa should possess. I am so glad Ms. Fontaine lived to see audiences rediscover this wonderful film.

Joan Fontaine like her sister, Olivia DeHavilland, was a STAR. Fontaine was not a star, like we classify today's crop of movie actors. She had class and a timeless beauty. That is why she will be fondly remembered for years to come.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Another Star Joins the Heavens: Eleanor Parker

My earliest memories of Eleanor Parker were of her TV work. She was Sally Field's oldest sister in a TV movie I enjoyed as a kid, a nifty Christmas murder mystery entitled Home for the Holidays. Yes, Eleanor was a bit too old at that point to Sally's sister, but somehow, she made it work. I also am a child of the Aaron Spelling era. God Bless Aaron Spelling! Thanks to him, I saw stars like Ms. Parker on Love Boat and Fantasy Island. Even as a kid, I knew there was something special about the Golden Age Hollywood stars Spelling showcased. Eleanor Parker was a natural fit for these shows and seeing this classy lady made me look for her movies on TV. In addition, my Dad liked Eleanor Parker so he also piqued my interest in her.

The first movie I saw with Eleanor Parker was The Sound of Music. I must admit that understood why Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) would be engaged to this woman. Parker's Baroness was oozing with sophistication. Yes, I was ok with Von Trapp ending up with Maria, but I felt sorry for the Baroness. The movie that made a true fan had to be Lizzie. Parker plays a woman with multiple personality disorder. I was amazed by performance. Unfortunately, this film was released the same year as Joanne Woodward's The Three Faces of Eve, so it tends to be forgotten. If TCM shows this movie, do yourself a favor and watch it.

As time passed, I had the opportunity to see more of Ms. Parker's films. I think my personal favorite is Between Two Worlds. Eleanor Parker showed at a young age she could hold her own in highly talented cast which included Paul Henreid, John Garfield, Sydney Greenstreet, and Edmund Gwenn. But I also enjoy Scaramouche, Valley of the Kings, and The King and Four Queens. These films are wonderful examples of Parker's star power and screen presence . By the 1950's, it was clear that Eleanor Parker had become of one Hollywood's top leading ladies.

TCM will honor Eleanor Parker on December 17th with a mini-marathon of her films from 6 am to 8pm. There is no modern version of Eleanor Parker. She was a unique actress. Parker had the ability to play in gritty films like Detective Story and The Man with the Golden Arm. However, she was equally solid in westerns like Escape From Fort Bravo or adventure films like The Naked Jungle. Eleanor Parker was one of the last great stars of old Hollywood and she will be missed.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

CMBA Film Passion 101 Blogathon: A Daughter's Education

I have always believed the most valuable gift my father gave me was the introduction to the world of classic film. In my opinion, my Dad's passion for film was cultivated by his godmother, Gertrude. Gertrude was my grandmother's cousin and a former Ziegfeld girl. Although Gertrude was never a star, she loved theater and took my Dad into NYC to see shows. I remember that he told me going into the city with her was fun. Gertrude still knew some people in the business, so my Dad got to hear their stories. I think it was a natural progression for my Dad to start watching old movies on TV that hearkened back to a time of truly great stars.

Dad (Don Gilbert) and me

My Dad's favorite actress was Bette Davis. Not surprisingly, she is mine too. I can't remember a time when I didn't know who Bette Davis was. I saw her face death with dignity in Dark Victory. I watched as she loved and fought with Errol Flynn in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. I rooted for her when she transformed herself in Now, Voyager. Most of all, I remember being completely engrossed by Bette's passion and screen presence. I still marvel at how she could convincingly be a supportive, loving wife as she was in Watch on the Rhine. Then, she could brilliantly portray a character like Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes, who was the complete opposite.

Although Bette was Dad's favorite leading lady, he did not limit his viewing to just the films of Ms. Davis. He encouraged me to watch a variety of wonderful films with other actors and actresses. He loved Lifeboat with Tallulah Bankhead so he made sure I got to see it. Apparently, he loved this movie so much that he would stay up every time it was on the late show. It got to the point where my grandfather would hear the opening and ask if that "damn ship" was sinking again? Another movie my Dad loved was Casablanca. He watched it every time it was on TV. His favorite part is where Paul Henreid has the band play La Marseillaise and the patrons of Rick's Cafe sing along. Well, in my house, Dad always sang along too. San Francisco was another film dad introduced me too. And, yes he sang the title song along with Jeanette MacDonald.

My Dad encouraged me to learn more about films of Hollywood's Golden Age by giving me books about the era. Some of my favorites that still have today are: The Warner Brothers Story by Clive Hirschhorn; Garson Kanin's Together Again; and The Golden Age of B Movies by Doug McClelland. I also could look up my favorite stars in The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years by David Shipman. In fact, I enjoyed browsing this text for hours to discover even more actors and actresses of the era. It was this book that piqued my interest in Ruth Chatterton and Kay Francis. As a result, I looked for their films on TV and found several films that are still favorites of mine like Dodsworth and One Way Passage.

Watching pre-1960 movies became my norm by the time I was old enough to choose what I wanted to watch. I vividly remember how great weekend programming was in my childhood. I loved "The Bowery Boys" and Abbott and Costello movies. The weekend usually meant Creature Feature and Chiller Theatre to satisfy my monster and sci-fi needs. I have to say that the Universal monster movies were my preference. But I distinctly remember Christopher Lee scaring the hell out me as Dracula in the Hammer films. As lover of mysteries, Sunday afternoons could be spent with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson or Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan.

I know my first crushes were Golden Age movie stars. George Brent without a doubt was the very first. He wore clothes so well and had a quiet strength which I admired. Obviously, Errol Flynn was another crush. Honestly, I can't name another actor who had the personality and good looks that Flynn did in his prime. William Powell's sophisticated looks and wonderful sense of humor made me love him. And who wouldn't want a Southern gentleman like Joseph Cotten as a boyfriend?

It's hard to explain to anyone born after 1980 what it was like to anticipate the showing of a movie on TV. I remember how excited I was in 1976 that Gone With the Wind was going to make its TV premiere on NBC. It was shown in two parts and there was NO way I was going to miss it. Watching The Wizard of Oz was an annual event not to be missed in the Gilbert household during the 1970's and 1980's. Every Thanksgiving meant WWOR's annual showing of King Kong, Son of Kong, and Mighty Joe Young. Other movies that were shown yearly and were "must sees" for me were The Poseidon Adventure, March of the Wooden Soldiers, and Miracle on 34th Street. And is it me or is the Christmas season not as much fun without It's a Wonderful Life showing daily (even hourly) on PBS? For the children of the VCR and DVR age, the idea of watching a show when it is on or not getting to see it at all seems ludicrous.

Today, I have a huge and diverse movie collection. I have a sizable library of books about the films and stars of Hollywood's Golden Age. Thanks to TCM's community, I met my husband David. If it weren't for my Dad introducing me to the magical world of classic movies, I might never have found David. Dad provided me with a wonderful education in cinema. An education that created a passion. A passion that led to another soul who shares the same passion. I think Dad is smiling up in heaven that the education he provided for his daughter has led to genuine happiness in her life.

David and me
All I can say in closing is THANK YOU DAD!!!

This blog is dedicated to the memory of my father Donald Gilbert (1944 - 1996)