Culture

The Golden Age of Agatha Christie Returns This Year

Judi Dench and Olivia Colman in Murder on the Orient Express (2017)/Photo © Twentieth Century Fox

“I wanted to kill Mum and Dad,” a 15-year-old girl tells the British courts. The year is 1976. The mistress of the mystery novel, Dame Agatha Christie, has just died at the ripe old age of 85.

“They expected too much of me,” the 15-year-old continues. “They expected me to be a goody-goody all the time. I wanted to show them I was not. I wanted them dead.”

After attempting to cut the brake lines on the family car, the teen simply torched the garaged vehicle while her parents watched television and the attached house filled with smoke. Their daughter’s defense? She had become “immersed in the detective fiction of Agatha Christie.”

Fans of the two-billion-unit-selling author are not playing around. They take her numerous detective novels quite seriously. And when one of those novels makes it way to the big screen? Well, let’s just say, check your brake lines.

Christie began publishing her mystery novels in 1920, kicking things off with the “magnificent moustaches” and “egg-shaped” head of Belgian inspector Hercule Poirot. Only eight years later, one of Christie’s shorts commenced a decades-long march onto the big screen, but only reached a golden age with Sidney Lumet’s 1974 iteration of her 1934 mystery Murder on the Orient Express.

The string of hits continued with 1978’s “Death on the Nile,” 1980’s “The Mirror Crack’d,” and 1982’s “Evil Under The Sun.” These productions were so jam-packed with stars that legendary graphic designer Richard Amsel had to invent a new visual language for the films’ posters.

The “Murder on the Orient Express” theatrical poster features Christie’s brand-name over an art-deco treatment of her bestselling title, with a simple silhouette of the Simplon-Orient and Poirot teetering on his cane. Lumet assembled his cast so that the poster resembles a spoke-ended reel of film.

Lumet practically invented the concept of lynch-pin casting by securing Sean Connery – hot off a decade of 007 – which caused old-timers like Lauren Bacall, John Gielgud, and newbies like Anthony Perkins and Jacqueline Bisset, to fall in line once they learned Connery was attached.

Kenneth Branagh follows a similar tact, snatching both the director’s chair and plumb role of Poirot for himself, while established stars like Johnny Depp and Judi Dench, along with more freshly-minted ones like Josh Gad and “Star Wars” heroine Daisy Ridley, were cast in his remake of “Murder on the Orient Express.” Though she eventually dropped out, the early alignment of Angelina Jolie probably didn’t hurt Branagh’s casting sessions.

French writer and director Gilles Paquet-Brenner, best known for dropping the ball on “Dark Places,” employs a similar strategy, lining up old hands, like Glenn Close and Terrance Stamp, alongside television staples Gillian Anderson and Christina Hendricks for the first big-screen gloss on Christie’s Crooked House.

These A-listers were cast after controversial director Neil LaBute dropped out, dragging his all-star cast – with names like Julie Andrews and Gabriel Byrne alongside up-and-comers like Matthew Goode and Gemma Atherton – behind him like wisps of smoke.

Back in the 70s, Richard Amsel was brought in again to reorder the 14 stars orbiting the British poster for 1978’s “Death on the Nile.” He plucked nine of the bigger names like Bette Davis, Mia Farrow, and Maggie Smith, and tilted them, pyramid-style, around a profile of Tutankhamen to cash in on the King Tut fever that was sweeping the nation.

1980’s “Mirror Crack’d” poster, Amsel again, floats seven tiny stills of Angela Lansbury’s Miss Marple. They appear alongside Kim Novak and Elizabeth Taylor, shown above a single eye, which peeks from behind the titular mirror with the author’s name as big as ever. Meanwhile, 1982’s “Evil Under the Sun” finds Amsel returning to his original formula, vertically stacking starts like James Mason and Diana Rigg around a cane-bound central Poirot.

Posters for both Paquet-Brenner’s “Crooked House” and Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express” lean hard on the Amsel playbook, albeit with a newfound horizontality that lines eight of Paquet-Brenner’s stars on the front yard of his titular house. Branagh manages to squeeze nine of his across what has to be the world’s perfectly squared-off railcar.

But if their posters are not being so much re-imagined as remade – their ominous blackgrounds seem designed by the same hand – can the same be said for the casting? If the golden age of big-screen Christie can be summed up in two words, it’s “heavenly bodies,” and lots of them. “Evil Under The Sun”’ star Sylvia Miles played one half of a theatrical production team opposite James Mason.

What she remembers most is her character Myra’s series of enormous hats by Oscar-winner Anthony Powell. “We weren’t actors,” she says of her golden age compatriots, “we were movie stars. That kind of thing just doesn’t exist today.” She even maintains that the novel’s chilly UK seaside locale was shifted to sunny Majorca, Spain, to keep the all-stars happy.

But if Christie’s films of the 70s and 80s were a last gasp of the collapsing Hollywood studio system, what of today’s versions? If Murder on the Orient Express were to be refashioned, employing the stars of our universe, wouldn’t we be looking at an Inspector Jenna Marbles? Would the irascible American millionaire Rachet be played by Trump antagonist Johnny Depp or the reality star Trump himself? Wouldn’t Michelle Pfeiffer’s wealthy American widow and Judi Dench’s royal highness be plucked from one of the Real Housewives’ franchises?

With just a BBC radio adaptation preceding him, Paquet-Brenner perhaps has more latitude with Crooked House. 0Given it’s a later work, and one of Christie’s personal favorites, it also perhaps has more of a raison d’être among Christie die-hards, most of whom have described the two-hours-plus of Branagh’s film as a hands-folded-across-chest viewing experience, waiting for the foregone conclusion of the quite famous twist ending.

Christie was nothing if not topical. The plot of Murder on the Orient Express borrows heavily from the media event of 1932 – the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s 20-month-old baby – and would have no problem finding a corollary in today’s headlines.

The death by barbiturate injection that kicks off Crooked House is equally timely for our opioid-addled society. It’s never-before-seen ending, another patented Christie twisty, is so shocking even her publisher lobbied the author to change it, which is perhaps reason enough to call this one into being.

One thing is certain: if “Murder on the Orient Express” tops the box office next weekend and “Crooked House” breaks the internet when it’s available on-demand less than two weeks later, we’ll be seeing a lot more of Agatha Christie on the big screen and asking ourselves her age-old question: Whodunnit?