***Unfortunately, there is no way I can write this blog post without giving away spoilers to the last episode of the Poirot series. My apologies.***
“He [Poirot] cares deeply how other people see him because he cares deeply about other people.” (McArdle, par. 9)
When I started this new blog, I decided to focus more on writing and psychological reality in writing art. But when the Agatha Christie Blogathon came up, I knew I couldn’t pass this one up, as I am a huge fan of the Poirot series. I decided to write about Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case because this particular episode has stayed with me since I saw it last year on PBS during one of their fund drives. Seeing the episode again and writing about it made me see how psychological reality works on its deepest level in the more popular art of television.
For those of us who are huge fans of the series and have seen all (or most) of the episodes during the 25 year run of the Agatha Christie’s Poirot series, the evolution (alibi darkening) of tone and character came to a head with Curtain, the last episode of the series. As Molly McArdle, in her detailed article about the series, states:
“Though the show’s bread and butter plots [continued] to revolve around love or money, as the series has progressed, Poirot … dealt with more serial killers, dead children, abusive families, mass murders.” (par. 24)
One of the reasons why the series endured for a quarter of a century was because of the excellent cast. Poirot is played by British actor David Suchet. Suchet is one of my favorite actors because of his intense performances and his skill at embodying different types of characters. His portrayal of Poirot, for example, is nothing like his equally astute performance of the 19th century greedy and ruthless philistine Augustus Melmotte in The Way We Live Now and just last year, he played Lady Bracknell, complete with 19th century women’s garb, in The Importance Of Being Earnest. Suchet turns the rather two-dimensional character of Poirot portrayed in Christie’s books into a multi-faceted and sometimes puzzling man. Hugh Fraser plays Hastings with a charm and bumbling that we take to immediately. The two other main supporting members of the cast, Philip Jackson’s Inspector Japp and Pauline Moran’s Miss Lemon round out these two with lighter but no less insightful undertones.
Curtain is set up like many of Christie’s other mysteries. There is a group of people thrown together almost incidentally, most of whom have known one another to one degree or another. There is a specific location in which the characters remain for most of the story (Sol Stein called this “the crucible”, or, locking characters into a place where they have little contact with the outside world so that tension is bound to form). The actual murder occurs somewhat later in the story to give us a chance to get to know all of the characters involved and what their motives for murder might be to keep us guessing on who may have done it.
But Curtain takes on more psychologically twisted material than Christie’s previous works, weaving past with present to reveal not much of a rosy future. Poirot is there to solve a few very deranged murders, some of which happened years before because he is convinced that the future will bring another murder to one of the guests staying in Styles Court (one of which includes Hasting’s daughter Judith, played by Alice Orr-Ewing). His premonition proves to be correct but the solution to this murder is not as cut-and-dry, from a moral perspective, as in Christie’s other books.
Curtain sets a much darker and more pessimistic tone not only in the crime that is committed but also in the characters. Both Poirot and Hastings have not only grown visibly older but their lives have an air of foreboding to them. We are as shocked as Hastings when he first sees his friend after so many years apart confined to a wheelchair and suffering from severe physical ailments that have sapped his physical strength. In McArdle’s words, “Suchet’s cheeks are hollow, his ink-black hair gray, the padding that for so long filled out his waistcoats gone. He is a diminished man.” (McArdle, par. 66). Similarly, Hastings is emotionally defeated and much more serious and severe than he was in past episodes, a recent widower who is estranged from his daughter Judith. Poirot’s mind is as astute and observant as it always was but there is a great sense of urgency, to the point of being emotionally explosive (at one point, he calls Hastings lazy and stupid and orders him out of his room) whereas in past episodes his annoyance was more playful and mild. Hastings, in turn, comes off as more judgmental and less optimistic about the present and the future.
One of the most touching things about Curtain is that it brings closure to the relationship between Poirot and Hastings that goes beyond the camaraderie of associates and friends. Everything that Poirot does in this episode (including some reprehensible things) is done in the name of friendship to spare the ones he loves pain and suffering.
The real theme behind Curtain is the preciousness of life. This is something that is inherent in Poirot’s make-up. As McArdle points out, “Poirot’s genuine engagement and interest in people, rather than merely the crimes they commit, shapes his method of investigation.” (par. 9) It’s almost unfair that Christie, tired of the character she had created in a way that writers who have been revisiting the same character over and over again are, called him a “ ‘detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep’ “ (McArdle, par. 4). Hastings, in his almost naïve simplicity, holds to the same ideals that life is precious. In this episode, they are surrounded by people whose ideas about human life are less than accommodating. For example, one of the guests, Doctor Franklin (Shaun Dingwall) laments to Hastings that “We all die in the end, so what does it matter?” and is content to leave well enough alone when his wife’s death is ruled a suicide even when he admits he doesn’t believe she killed herself. Similarly, in a discussion about euthanasia one night at dinner, Judith argues that it is the duty of loved ones to save themselves the trouble of caring for relatives who become a burden, calling them “useless lives”. This prompts her father to lament to Poirot that his daughter is “cold-hearted”. One guest, Stephan Norton (Aidan McArdle) is the epitome of the devil with his disregard for human life.
The background of both the book and the episode are puzzling and intriguing and attest to the fine line between art and reality. Although Christie continued the Poirot series into the 1970’s, Curtain was written much earlier – during the early years of World War II. The war made Christie aware of the precarious future that might await her and wanted to make sure that the Poirot series had a pat end. She locked the manuscript in a vault, intending not to allow its publication until after her death (it was actually published in 1975, a year before her death). The book is multi-layered with psychological themes not just of life but of time as well, as it refers back to Poirot cases she had already written about (in fact, Styles Court, the location of the events in Curtain, harkens back to Poirot and Hastings’ first case The Mysterious Affair At Styles) but not those cases she wrote about after the 1940’s, leaving an almost eerie premonition of life past and life future.
Similarly, the episode of Curtain, rather than filmed as the last of the series (as we might expect) was actually filmed first. McArdle explains the reason for this:
“The outcome of the story would have made it [in Suchet’s words] “very difficult for me psychologically to leave Poirot in this way” — that is, dead. Instead, the producers filmed the episodes out of order, so that these scenes would not be Suchet’s last for Poirot.” (McArdle, par. 69)
It was almost as if those involved in the show anticipated the long run that the series would take and were emotionally preparing for it so that Poirot wouldn’t really die but would rise from the dead to delight audiences for as many years as it did.
McArdle, Molly. “A Time Lapse Detective: 25 Years Of Agatha Christie’s ‘Poirot’”. Los Angeles Review Of Books. Discus. 25 November 2013. Web. 8 September 2016.