Agatha Christie and the Detective Film: A Timetable for Success

Article excerpt

A long time ago, before all transcontinental roads were superhighways, and before every motel along the way became a member of a conglomerate's chain, each of its structures frozen in the uniformity of jerry-built opulence, there were little motels - or weren't they called "motor courts"? Many of them used to offer a special amenity to their guests: in the office, a pile of dogeared books, free for travelers to take to their rooms, with an honor system understanding that the tomes were not to be packed off in suitcases, but returned to the management at checking-out time. It was in such an impromptu lending library, after rejecting the proffered Max Brand and Zane Grey Westerns, that I first became acquainted with Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot. In an hour or so, I had joined the legion of Christie devotees.

Miss Christie and her famous detectives, Poirot, Miss Marple, Tuppence and Tommy, have for many years been guiding readers gently but engrossingly through enigmatic labyrinths of clues false and authentic, in a world peopled with characters alternately likable, laughable, and despicable. Without resorting to any of the graphics of sex and violence employed by most twentieth century mystery writers, the mistress of mis-direction has caught the fancy of millions of readers, with tales of ghastly murders committed in small English towns, at fashionable hotels, and especially on the crack trains of Europe.

The grande dame of mystery fiction as well as a real Dame by virtue of the Order of the British Empire, Agatha Christie has written about 80 novels, almost one for each of her years. The combined sales of the books, according to a publisher's blurb, are some 400 million copies. The Christie novels from' which films have evolved, however, could occupy the slimmest of spaces between two flimsy bookends, representing, until 1974 and the release of Murder on the Orient Express, only seven of her famous books. None of the films had caused much of a stir either critically or at the boxoffice; several had been viewed only in English movie houses.

Acclaimed by most reviewers and doing healthy buisness throughout the United States and Great Britain, Murder on the Orient Express has found a satisfied audience, not necessarily the same personae as the Christie readers, but an enthusiastically responsive group. Certainly there has been none of the angry dissension that recently split Raymond Chandler and Robert Altman fans into partisan camps over The Long Goodbye. And, for the very first time. Hercule Poirot has come into his own as a movie detective, fifty-four years after his debut in The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

Dame Agatha is best known for her detective novels, but even among the comparatively rare appearances of Christie works on the screen, the most successful ones have been drawn from her other writings. If there is a definite reason for the neglect of her detectives in motion pictures, certainly it cannot be lack of interest on the part of film-makers or movie fans for detective films themselves, or a scarcity of literary source material. From the days of Sherlock Holmes Baffled, released in 1903, through Charlie Chan and Philo Vance to Marlowe and James Bond, the genre has flourished. The outstanding Christie film of past years, however, was Billy Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution, based on a long-running play - her own - and without a detective as chief protagonist.

In the movie. Wilder took liberties with the dramatic version, combining his own ironic type of humor with moments of shock value, to make Witness a tour de force for its cast members, particularly Marlene Dietrich. The film itself, Wilder's direction, and the performances of Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester received Academy Award nominations. But it was a Christie triumph, from the view of critics and at the boxoffice, just as the play had been in its New York and London runs.

And Then There Were None, filmed in 1945 and remade as Ten Little Indians in 1966, was based on Miss Christie's novel, but there was no heroic detective in the story. …