Sacred Lives: On Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case (2013)

***This post is part of the Agatha Christie Blogathon, hosted by writer and blogger Christina Wehner and the Little Bits Of Classic blog.***

***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.***

AgathaChristie

“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.

Works Cited

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.

 

 

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9 thoughts on “Sacred Lives: On Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case (2013)

  1. What a lovely tribute – to the character of Poirot, to the book, and to the series!

    I remember when I first read the book, I was quite young and really taken aback by the change of tone. Now, following your review, I want to read it again and see the Suchet film (he is marvelous, isn’t he – wonderful what he did with the character of Melmotte, too!). I like how you point out the theme is how precious life is, even in the face of widespread disregard. What an unexpectedly touching theme. I totally missed that when I read the book years ago.

    Thanks so much for participating and for such a fantastic piece!

    Like

    1. Hi Christina,
      Thank you so much for having me! I was also very struck by the change in tone when I saw Curtain. I’d been seeing the series on Netflix (I think I must have seen the first 3 seasons of the series 3 or 4 times, I love them so much!) and I couldn’t believe that THIS was how Poirot and Hastings ended. When I saw Curtain again to prepare for this post, I appreciated the episode much more. I also want to read the book now to see how Christie handled it in her writing. I think Christie definitely had a darker side to her that a lot of people may not realize, since she is the queen of the cozies :-D.

      Tam

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You nailed it! So much of what you wrote I had thought of or wrote in various ways.

        If I may be bluntly honest about Agatha Christie…I don’t like her. I haven’t since reading what you quoted, “Egotistic, whatever whatever.” My blood boils to read garbage like that. Sorry if this sounds corny, but if you are going to create a character, KNOW what kind of person you want your character to be… like deciding on a roomie. After all, if the character clicks, he or she is going to be with you for a while, so you might as well enjoy the adventure together. Instead, Christie treated poor Poirot like a poor relation! That is something I find totally DETESTABLE!

        Since reading that rather cold-hearted assessment, I have made it a point, blog wise, to find ways to make it up to Poirot (fan fiction rocks!) while sticking it to Christie. Which brings me to Curtain.

        I read the book before seeing the movie, but the movie was a lot more moving and emotionally connected. Between you, me, God and the grand piano, I’m sure Christie had champagne chilling in the fridge, waiting for the day where she could declare Poirot dead and she really didn’t care how it got done. She didn’t even care who found him. Whereas, in the movie, it was HASTINGS, as it should have been, in the book, it was the temp guy, Curtis. Hell, poor guy didn’t even get a decent funeral! Bloody pathetic! In my version, not only will the family be involved, but Poirot will get a proper send off, Scotland Yard style!

        Then there was the matter of Poirot’s short temper; fueled by the sense of urgency and the utter frustration of not being able to get around. It’s difficult for someone who is used to being able to just get up and go to NOT be able to get up and go. In a way, Hastings own frustrations with his Ice Princess daughter made him a bit more understanding of Poirot’s anger . At the same time, though, I kind of understood Poirot’s impatience. Hastings figures, “Fine, if you don’t think I’m helping out, get Boyd Carrington to do the work”. PROBLEM. At that point neither of them was sure who X was. So who’s to say it wasn’t Carrington? And even if it wasn’t, the way he banded about info, the odds are that such talk would fall on the ears of the real X and that would mean death for whoever spread such info, as well as the source.

        And then there’s the dinner from hell. I mean really. What kind of conversation to have at dinner time! What do they do for breakfast? Discuss Abortion over scrambled eggs?!?! Ma Foia! (SHEESH!) Anywho, the talk centers around Euthanasia; getting the old and ill out of the way. That’s Judith’s view and Norton was practically salivating to get her onto her prey. He kept daring her Bet ya don’t have the guts to do it! And all of this within earshot of a 70 (estimating) year old man with a heart condition! But this discussion put Poirot on the scent of the killer. From there, it what all about timing.

        Once the case is solved, Poirot is repentant of his hurtful behavior and spends his last days in the company of his dear friend, who is almost a son to him. This is when Poirot asks the question I applaud Kevin Elyot for having the courage to write and let Poirot say. “Do you think God will forgive me?” Had I been at his bedside, I would have replied, “You need only to ask.”

        Another Poirot fan and fellow blogger said that despite his years of solitude, it is Hastings he feels for. “My heart bleeds for you, my poor, lonely Hastings”.

        Finally, in spite of having done the only thing he felt he could do, to stop Norton’s organized sadism, Poirot is not celebrating his win. Instead, with his dying breath, he pleads for forgiveness. Norton, on the other hand, felt no compulsion to repent for the killing of any of his other victims. He didn’t feel anything for them. For that matter, not even for himself, when Poirot has a gun pointed at him. Rather, he simply smirks, and that cockey move seals his fate.

        I miss him. In spite of the fact that I can watch re-runs til I wear down my dvds, it will always come to Curtain. Poirot’s dark Victory.

        Like

      2. Hi Gillian,
        Wow, thank you so much for the thoughtful comment! I’m so glad you liked the analysis :-). You’ve given me a lot of food for thought about the way Christie dismissed the character of Poirot. It will probably be something I’ll tackle in a future blog post.

        Tam

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent analysis of the book and adaptation. I have to admit that, although I’ve re-read most of Christie’s novels several times, I’ve never re-visited this one. I really hated it on first reading – didn’t think it fitted the tone of the rest of the books at all, and felt Christie had committed a crime of her own in the way she dealt with her characters. It gave me a major insight, though, into just how much fictional characters become “real” people – I kept trying to remind myself it wasn’t really true, but it felt true! Perhaps it’s long enough ago now for me to try it again without re-opening those old wounds… perhaps! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi FictionFan,
      So glad you liked the post :-). I totally felt the same way when I saw Curtain. I really did not like it at first. But seeing it again sort of gave me a new perspective on it and I could appreciate the darker psychological tone. It was fascinating to me to learn that Christie wrote the book at a time when she feared she may not make it to the end of her life (i.e., during WWII) and I’m sure that affected how she viewed the characters.

      Tam

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Fascinating look at a book that always leaves me melancholy.

    You may be interested, if you haven’t already seen, a 1986 TV short film that starred Peggy Ashcroft as Agatha Christie fighting through an emotional night with spirit of Hercule Poirot played by Ian Holme over the writing/publication of “Curtain”. At one point in frustration, she runs her hands through her hair and says “Jane never gives me this much trouble”.

    Like

    1. Hi Patricia,
      So glad you liked the post. I haven’t heard about the short TV film. I definitely have to check that one out! It certainly seems like Christie had her love-hate relationship with Poirot. As a writer, I can understand her calling Poirot an “egocentric little creep” and wanting to kill him off, but I always loved the Poirot character (and Suchet’s embodiment of him only made me love him more :-D). The same thing happened to Conan Doyle, I think. I read somewhere that he was dying to kill Sherlock Holmes off so he could move on to other things but there was such a pouring of outrage from the public when he did it that he was forced to bring Holmes back from the dead. Now that’s powerful characterization!

      It’s interesting how readers can come to love a character that the writer hates.

      Tam

      Like

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