Poirot: The ABC Murders

Poirot: The ABC Murders (1994)
Acorn Media Publishing Inc.
Cast: David Suchet, Hugh Frasier, Philip Jackson
Extras: Biographies, Trivia, Reading List

Hercule Poirot, the Belgian master-detective from the imagination and novels of British crime author Agatha Christie has always been one of my favorite characters of classic mystery thrillers. Unfortunately most impersonations of the character on film didn’t really live up to the descriptions Christie points out in her many novels and only Peter Ustinov ever came close to making an impressive appearance as Poirot. Now, DVD newcomer Acorn Media is presenting us David Suchet as Hercule Poirot and I have to admit that not only the visual resemblance is quite striking, but also the mannerisms and speech seems to be utterly appropriate for the man we got to know so well in our collective imaginations. The film "The ABC Murders" that is presented on this DVD stems from the PBS Mystery television series, in which a number of Poirot’s tales have been explored with David Suchet in the titular lead. The series opened in January 1990 to an overwhelming success and in the following years many more seasons were added, brining to life one mystery at a time at full feature length. "The ABC Murders" was the opening of the fourth season and it is a great example how well produced, written and acted these films were.

"The ABC Murders" is based on Agatha Christie’s novel of the same name – a very good novel I might add. It appears as if someone has taken aim at Poirot (David Suchet) as an anonymous letter suggests. Someone is challenging the master detective and predicts a murder on a specific date. Although Police is never convinced of the authenticity of the letter, Poirot is keenly aware of the threat it poses and as indicated, a murder occurs on the exact day in the foretold city of England. Is it incidental or accidental? After visiting the crime scene, Poirot is of the firm belief that this is the announced murder. He found a train schedule at the site, called "The ABC Railway Guide." Not much of a clue, but too much of an accident, since the anonymous writer signed his letter by the name of "ABC."

Shortly after the murder, another letter shows up on Poirot’s doorstep, announcing another date and locale where a murder will occur, and exactly as foretold, a body is found – with an ABC Railroad Guide nearby. Interestingly the names of the victims and the names of the locations seem to play an important role in the case as Poirot elaborates, as they, too, follow the alphabetical sequence.
Despite his efforts however, Poirot is unable to determine a motive that would allow him to solve the case and helplessly, he and his associate Captain Hastings (Hugh Frasier) have to idly watch in horror as more murders occur and the anonymous writer begins to make fun of Poirot’s inability to solve the mystery. Feverishly the detective goes to work, searching for a clue – then, he eventually finds it!

"The ABC Murders" is a great mystery story, as it consistently misleads the viewer/reader. In this story however, it never appears in a superficial way. The story never withholds vital information because it doesn’t want the audience to unravel the case before the detective. The real beauty of this story is that we follow Poirot every step, visually and mentally, and yet we are completely mislead for the sole reason, because Poirot is mislead. Not until very shortly before the film’s ending, Poirot’s deductive skills and his observations reveal the real murderer and the plot behind it all. Although Poirot will be faster than the viewer to figure it out it is mostly because the viewer is still so caught up in the action that the detective has a clear head start. But given more time to elaborate, the viewer would also be able to figure out the connections and intricacies of this case that are necessary to solve the crime. I love this approach to mystery thrillers as it is not a power play of the viewer versus the writer, but more a real match of wits.

The movie has been perfectly paced to capture the growing intensity as the situation gets more desperate. David Suchet is coming across perfectly as Poirot, deliberate, tasteful, and superior, but not without his own doubts. Add to that the stylish atmosphere of the British settings during the 30s, and you have a murder mystery of the finest breed.

"Poirot: The ABC Murders" is presented in a <$PS,fullframe> presentation on this disc. Although the film was produced for TV and as such presumable shot in a <$PS,fullframe> aspect ratio, I had sometimes the queer feeling as if parts of the image were cropped off. It has to do with the image composition in the film that sometimes allows things and people to fall out of the frame – deliberately so or not, I can’t really tell. While the opening sequence of the film has a stunning sharp look without the slightest noise, the movie itself exhibits some problems. Unfortunately I have not been entirely able to determine where these problems come from, but especially in dark areas of the picture the transfer appears as if someone pulled a comb from the top of the screen to the bottom. It creates a weird artifact that is quite noticeable, especially on larger screens. This artifact is present through the entire movie, but I found that after a few minutes I stopped noticing it. The transfer itself is a bit dark, shrouding almost too many details of the picture in blackness, and creating shadows that appear artificially dark and as a result without definition. Highlights are sometimes harsh, giving the presentation a slightly unbalanced look. The compression of the disc has been done quite carefully without notable <$pixelation,pixelation> or other compression artifacts.

The disc contains a 2-channel <$DD,Dolby Digital> audio track that is well produced. It has a good frequency response and sounds absolutely naturally. High ends a crisp and clear but never appear overly harsh. The dialogues are well integrated and always transparent and understandable. The music in the film is tastefully composed and adds a sensible flair of class to the film that matches the environments of the film perfectly.

Much to my delight, the disc also contains quite extensive information about actor David Suchet, the "Mystery" series and Agatha Christie, including weblinks that will provide even further information. It appears like thoroughly researched release done by someone who truly had his heart in the subject matter, which always good to see as it helps incredibly to enrich the content with valuable information rather than the standard fare.

While the film may not have the production values of the more exotic Hollywood productions that used Hercule Poirot, it is nonetheless a great homage to the super-sleuth and the classic mystery genre. If you have a faible for detective stories and well laid out murder mysteries, "Poirot: The ABC Murders" is a DVD you have to see.

As I mentioned, this release was Acorn Media’s first foray into the difficult to manage DVD format that poses technical problems even to some of the major studios. Although it is not a perfect entry in the market for Acorn Media, as the video transfer could use some improvement, it is nonetheless a greatly enjoyable release that makes me hopeful that Acorn Media will release more films of this Mystery series on DVD. If they keep them coming, I will keep watching them, and I am sure many others with me too.