Monday, December 21, 2020

The Alphabet Murders

My sister was a big fan of Agatha Christie when she was a teenager. I never really got into reading mysteries, but when one or another of the movies based on Christie's stories has shown up, I've always been willing to give them a try. Recently, that meant watching The Alphabet Murders, based on Christie's book The A.B.C. Murders.

Tony Randall shows up, sans make-up, at the beginning of the credits to inform us that he's going to be playing Hercule Poirot, Christie's Belgian private eye who just loves a good mystery. Poirot shows up in London to see his tailor, followed by a man from Scotland Yard, Capt. Hastings (Robert Morley). Scotland Yard ostensibly wants to keep Poirot safe since his being harmed while in England would create an international incident. But the real reason is that Scotland Yard doesn't want Poirot involved in investigating a murder on English soil.

Of course, you just know that there's going to be a murder and that Poirot is going to wind up investigating it. At a public swimming pool, the clown Albert Aachen, who does a high-diving routine, gets killed by a poison dart to the neck, the killer leaving behind a copy of a guidebook called ABC London. Not long after that, a woman with the odd name of Amanda Beatrice Cross (Anita Ekberg) shows up where Poirot is taking a steam bath and gives Poirot a bowling scorecard.

So Poirot goes to the bowling alley, which is where he meets Betty Barnard, an instructor there. Not that Poirot needs a bowling instructor, but that's another story. Anyhow Barnard gets killed, and Poirot puts two and two together. The first victim had the initials AA and the second BB, so the next is going to have the initials CC.

Scotland Yard, meanwhile, knows fully well that Poirot is trying to investigate, and at every turn, Hastings and his boss Inspector Japp (Maurice Denham) try to get Poirot deported and sent back to Belgium. But every time, Poirot is able to outwit them, on his way to ultimately solving the murders. Well, with a little help from the police who keep him from getting bumped off.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Poirot learns that Amanda's psychologist has the initials DD, being a man named Duncan Doncaster (Guy Rolfe). He also learns that the CC who seems to be the next victim is one Carmichael Clarke, who has family set to inherit a large sum of money should he die. But how does it all tie together?

Frankly, I found the mystery in The Alphabet Murders to be rather convoluted and unsatisfying. I think that's in no small part because director Frank Tashlin and the writers seem to have decided to make this a rather more comic mystery, with the casting of Randall. Tony Randall is not a bad actor by any means, and can certainly do comedy. But I get the impression Tashlin wanted Randall to be way over the top here, and a little bit of Randall's Poirot goes a long, long way.

I thought the print TCM ran didn't look so good, and since it was 4:3, I figured it had to have been panned-and-scanned. But a look at IMDb suggests that it was in fact filmed this way.

If I were going to introduce people to Agatha Christie movies, I think I'd start with the 1974 Murder on the Orient Express. I also like the Margaret Rutherford Marples, even though supposedly Rutherford isn't anything like the Marple that Christie wrote. The Alphabet Murders would be far down the list.

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