Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Thirteen at Dinner' (1985)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

There's a long history of movies and TV shows based on Agatha Christie's character Hercule Poirot, a snooty Belgian who solves crimes in London. Probably most notable is the British TV series Poirot (aired on PBS in the U.S.), which ran for 13 seasons from 1989 to 2013. David Suchet starred as Poirot in that series, and he shows up in Thirteen at Dinner as the Scotland Yard inspector who's always one step behind Poirot in his latest murder investigation. The star, however, is Peter Ustinov, who played Poirot in six movies starting with 1978's Death on the Nile (which I wrote about as part of my Bette Davis retrospective) and ending with 1988's Appointment With Death. They aren't exactly a series, though, since they were produced by different companies for different distribution (three for TV, three for theaters) and set in different time periods.

Thirteen at Dinner, based on Christie's novel Lord Edgeware Dies, was a joint British-American TV production that premiered in the U.S. on CBS. It updates the setting of Christie's novel from the time when it was published (1933) to the time of the movie's production (1985), sacrificing some of the genteel charm in favor of references to American action movies and an opening scene in which Poirot appears on a cheesy talk show. Mostly, though, it seems like the change in time period can be attributed to budget constraints, since the movie is clearly working with limited network-TV resources, and some of the production values are pretty low (there are shots that occasionally blur out of focus and some sound problems, indicating that maybe they didn't have the resources for enough takes). The story is also stretched thin at feature length, although it was previously made into a feature in 1934 and served as the basis for a 90-minute episode of the Poirot TV series in 2000.

It's not as exciting a mystery as something like Murder on the Orient Express (probably the most well-known Poirot story), and it doesn't have the single-location elegance of some of Christie's more popular work, but it does have a cast of colorful suspects and some choice bon mots from the always condescending Poirot. Ustinov overdoes it a bit on the Belgian accent and the overstated disdain for foolish supporting characters, and he kind of barrels over the rest of the cast. That includes Faye Dunaway as an American actress whose English nobleman husband has been murdered (for which she's one of the chief suspects) and a young Bill Nighy as the nobleman's perpetually drunk (and perpetually broke) nephew, who's also a suspect. You can see the seed of so many future debauched Nighy characters in just his brief appearance here.

Sadly Nighy only shows up for a couple of scenes, and most of the movie is not nearly as amusing. It's a lot of dull procedural details and perfunctory appearances by red-herring suspects, all leading up to the requisite scene in which Poirot gathers the suspects and recounts his solution to the crime while they all listen (no one ever tries to run away). Despite Poirot directly spelling out the convoluted scenario, it's still a bit hard to follow, and I never quite understood the actual murderer's motive (the reasoning mentioned in the Wikipedia summary of the novel isn't in the movie). Even the modified title refers to a fairly minor event that's barely even depicted onscreen. I'm no Poirot or Christie aficionado, but I'm pretty sure that this forgettable production is of interest to hardcore fans only.

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