Film Review: “Cards on the Table,” based on the Agatha Christie novel

This review will cover the feature-length film that tells the story of Christie’s “Cards on the Table,” a Poirot novel published in 1936 during the Golden Age of detective fiction. The film, directed by Sarah Harding with screenplay by Nick Dear, was first aired in 2006. Hercule Poirot, played by English actor David Suchet, stars as the main and recurring character of the series, and he takes his usual role as private investigator when the eccentric and wealthy Mr. Shaitana is stabbed and killed at his own party, with Poirot present.

Mr. Shaitana chooses his guest list very carefully, inviting four famous crime experts and four people whom he suspects to be un-apprehended murderers. He proceeds to hold a dinner conversation about how to commit an undetected homicide, and it seems that he wants the party to satisfy his curiosity: who wins, the archetypal detective, or the master criminal? Before his question can be answered, he is drugged, stabbed, and left in a chair while the others play bridge in the same room. This galvanizes the four party-going crime specialists to attempt to uncover the murderer, presumably one of Mr. Shaitana’s other four guests.

Several elements of the televised Poirot series have increased in quality throughout the lifespan of the show. With an increased budget came better music, improved cinematography, and more completeness in adherence to Christie’s novels. Most importantly, the cast of supporting actors and actresses greatly improved in the latter seasons of the series, and this fact alone has truly brought the show to life. Poirot no longer wades through a sea of asinine British gentry and bumbling policemen, a lonely genius stranded on a planet with little to no sentient life. Instead, Poirot is surrounded by interesting, and complex communities of people, and he works alongside a police force that is often competent, if not brilliant. The depth and believability of the supporting cast is effective at creating an immersive window into 1930s Great Britain while simultaneously creating a foil to Poirot’s brilliance: he is still miles ahead of the rest of them, but they are no fools, and this contrast serves to elevate the impressiveness of Poirot’s intellect without inflating it to comical proportions.

As in all of Christie’s Poirot mysteries, the sleuth must piece together and sort through dozens or hundreds of facts, accounts, and lies in an attempt to find the truth. Poirot inevitably fashions a sort of multidimensional mental puzzle that leads him to *the only possible outcome*, a process that is, from the realist’s point of view, an epistemological fairytale. At the end of the film, Poirot tells a former suspect:

“I knew it was not you who killed him, ****. The murder of Mr. Shaitana, it was committed on impulse, eh? It was an inspiration, a flash of genius! If you had killed him, you would have planned it, and it would have been…dull. Not artistic, n’est-ce pas?”

(-Poirot, “Cards on the Table”)

Attempting to apply Poirot’s crude psychological profiling to a real murder case would have disastrous results, and this disconnects Christie’s style of detective writing from reality, as discussed in prior course modules.

Another commonality among the adventures of Poirot is that the murderer is generally an upper-class Brit who, despite usually having no prior criminal proclivities, decides to enact an incredibly complex and bizarre murder scheme, so as to throw off the police. When a man is found dead on the grounds of his mansion, it is inconceivable to Poirot that two impoverished thugs hitchhiked to the estate, shot him, and stole his wallet; crimes are always extraordinary and arcane in Poirot’s world, and there is something metaphysically very comforting about this fact. Moreover, the culprit often becomes tearfully regretful as soon as Poirot rats them out, either cooperating fully and confessing in detail, or even committing suicide. There are several possible explanations for this theme, and I think a likely one is that the collective British moral compass of the 1930’s was inclined to believe that, simply, evil will collapse when scolded with the full force of proper society, further contributing to the sense of comfort afforded by Christie’s mysteries; evil is merely a naughty child that needs a stern paddling. One more quaintly anachronistic motif among Poirot’s cases is that after being apprehended, the criminal tends to be granted a few final minutes of free agency to hug a loved one, wistfully retrieve a photograph, or stare at the drawing room wallpaper of the family manse one last time. The fact that Poirot and the police frequently afford this level of trust and generosity to known criminals could probably be identified as a form of class privilege, but more relevantly, this kindness also lends itself to a sense of moral and existential superiority in the face of violent crime, a theme that was felt perhaps more strongly in the 1930’s than now.

I would happily recommend the film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Poirot series to anybody who enjoys detective movies. The earlier episodes exude a sort of indie charm that helps ameliorate the strain of the low production budget, and the later seasons of the show are carefully considered examples of mystery film.

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