Monday, February 7, 2011

"DEATH IN THE CLOUDS" (1992) Review




"DEATH IN THE CLOUDS" (1992) Review

There are two things one should know about Agatha Christie’s 1935 novel, "Death in the Clouds". One, it happened to be one of those ”murder in a locked room” type of mysteries that she rarely wrote about. And two, I have not read the novel since high school.

I would not exactly rate "Death in the Clouds" as one of my favorite Christie novels. But I must admit that screenwriter William Humble wrote a solid adaptation for the "AGATHA CHRISTIE’S ‘POIROT’" television series. Starring David Suchet as Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, "DEATH IN THE CLOUDS" focused upon the murder of a French woman named Madame Gisele aboard a Paris-to-London flight across the English Channel. Madame Gisele’s profession as a moneylender (and occasional blackmailer) to the British and French members of high society has made her wealthy, feared and hated. Her murder occurred during a flight that included Poirot as one of the passengers. Other passengers and suspects included:

*Lady Horbury – the wife of a British aristocrat and former actress

*Jean Dupont – a French archeologist in need of funds for an African expedition

*Jane Grey – stewardess for Empire Airways (in the novel, she was a hairdresser’s assistant on holiday)

*Norman Gale – a British dentist on holiday, who falls in love with Miss Grey

*Venetia Kerr – British aristocrat and close friend of Lord Horbury

*Daniel Clancy – a British mystery author

*Anne Gisele – Madame Gisele’s illegitimate daughter, who was impersonating as Lady Horbury’s maid


Money, class and relationships figured prominently in ”DEATH IN THE CLOUDS”. With Arthur Hastings making a no-show in this tale, Poirot enlisted the help of fellow passenger Norman Gale and stewardess Jane Grey to assist him. And thanks to solid performances from Sarah Woodward and Shaun Scott, the pair proved to be mildly entertaining and made a romantic pair. Cathyrn Harrison gave a complex and interesting performance as Lady Horbury, a former actress who married into the British aristocracy and found herself in debt to Madame Gisele. Harrison’s performance conveyed a conflicted woman that hid her insecurities regarding her marriage behind a haughty and rude mask, and a gambling habit. Actor Roger Heathcott’s portrayal of mystery writer Daniel Clancy struck me as slightly bizarre and interesting. Philip Jackson’s Chief Inspector Japp was just as annoying and entertaining as ever. It was easy to for me to see why the Parisian police considered him an annoyance. However, I found his character’s control of the case on French soil very implausible. And David Suchet gave his usual, competent performance as Hercule Poirot. No . . . I take that back. In ”DEATH IN THE CLOUDS”, his Poirot seemed warmer than usual. Perhaps his friendship with the lovebirds – especially Jane Grey – brought out more of his warmth.

I would not view ”DEATH IN THE CLOUDS” as one of Agatha Christie’s more unusual novels. Well, she did use the ”murder in a locked room” plot device for this particular story. But I found nothing that remarkable about it. I could say the same about this production. However, Humble did a solid job in adapting Christie’s novel. I found his decision to convert the Anne Gisele character into a possible suspect as unnecessary. Her role as a suspect did not go anywhere, once the movie featured her brief wedding and revelation to the police as Madame Gisele’s daughter. The humor of Japp’s presence in Paris tired quickly, once I realized that his appropriation of the case on French soil was very implausible. But Humble, with Stephen Whittaker’s direction, did a solid job in maintaining the movie’s mystery and most of the main plot. And I have to give kudos to both men for using the novel’s original publication year as an excuse to add the Fred Perry/Gottfriend Von Cramm 1935 match at the French Open as a historical backdrop.

One only has to look at ”DEATH IN THE CLOUDS” for a few minutes and correctly assume that it had been filmed during the 1990s. The movie has that sleek, Art Deco style that dominated the production of ”AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” during that period. But since a good deal of this particular story was set in Paris, production designer Mike Oxley’s intent upon maintaining the Art Deco style did not serve that particular setting very well. The Parisian atmosphere seemed to be dominated by stark images of tourist attractions such as the Eiffel Tower and the Sacre Coeur Basilica (which Poirot insultingly referred to as an enormous birthday cake). But I must admit that costume designer Barbara Kronig did an excellent job in recapturing the styles of the mid-1930s, especially for the Lady Horbury character. However, I cannot say the same about the women’s hairstyles. I understand that some women wore chignons during the 1930s. Unfortunately, most of the female characters in this movie wore one, which I found rather ridiculous. Only the Venetia Kerr character sported a 1930s soft bob.

”DEATH IN THE CLOUDS” had a few problems that included Japp’s implausible presence of Chief Inspector Japp investigating the case in Paris. But it still turned out to be a believable and intelligent movie. For me, it was one of the better feature-length movies that aired on ”AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”.

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