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.

10 comments:

  1. An excellent critique and revue , honey ! I expected nothing less ! :D

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  2. I'll just say "hi" for now because PBS in Buffalo won't be showing "The Big Four" for a couple of weeks yet. Must bookmark this article for later - with a nice cup of tea.

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    1. I hope you enjoy it -- I think they reworked the book very well!

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  3. Hi G, I found your excellent article through a search for Poirot related information. I haven’t logged-on to my blog in many months (over a year?), but I wanted to say how much I enjoyed your review of the first of the final portrayals of a much-loved character. I share your sympathies regarding the bittersweet nature of these last appearances by David Suchet; Hugh Fraser; Philip Jackson and Pauline Moran. I have not been on this journey from the beginning, but I feel in some ways as if I grew up with these characters. Your information regarding the original story was particularly intriguing: The Big Four is one of the titles I have not read, and I can’t help but imagine the possibilities in a reunion between Vera Rossakoff and our “little Belgian detective”. I am curious; you mentioned an additional four titles which you look forward to watching. My local PBS station is airing Dead Man’s Folly tomorrow evening, and sadly there are no other Poirot episodes scheduled. Are you lucky enough to have access to all the remaining episodes on PBS or will you watch them through some other venue? I know ACORN TV will be airing the following titles on YouTube: Elephants Can Remember (August 11); Labours Of Hercules (August 18); Curtain: Poirot’s Last Cast (August 25), but I believe each episode is offered as a pay-per-view option. I would be interested in any information you can offer. I look forward to reading to future reviews; thanks again for the lovely memories, Karin.

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  4. Thanks, Karin for your kind words. I have discovered that PBS is only showing Dead Man's Folly and ACORN TV is the only place to watch the others. So unless you subscribe to ACORN TV or have ROKU -- you will have to buy the DVD set.

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  5. Gilby, it was great to David Suchet as Hercule again, although I was disappointed with THE BIG FOUR. I thought DEAD MAN'S FOLLY was much better. Still, I enjoyed seeing Hastings and Miss Lemon after all the years. I am still hoping that PBS will eventually show the remaining three films.

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    1. Unfortunately Rick, The big Four was not a very good book. I think the adaption was actually better than the book itself in many ways. I too hope PBS will eventually show the other 3 movies.

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  6. I thought the adaption was well done as it maintained the suspense nicely and set a charming, melancholy mood. The opening was lovely and the shots at the cemetery in the snow most evocative.

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    1. I agree with you. I wish more American productions could set a tone like the British and Australian companies do.

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