Lobster Thermidor

Below is an article about the dish known as Lobster Thermidor: 

LOBSTER THERMIDOR

Has anyone ever heard of the dish known as Lobster Thermidor? What am I saying? Of course people have. I have, yet I have never seen or tasted the dish in my life. 

Before I explain why I had asked that question, I might as well talk about the background and history of Lobster Thermidor. The recipe for Lobster Thermidor was created around 1880 by the famous French chef Auguste Escoffier at a French restaurant called Maison Maire.

The seafood dish consisted of a creamy mixture of cooked lobster meat, egg yolks, and brandy – usually cognac – that is stuffed into a lobster shell. Lobster Thermidor can also be served with an oven-browned cheese crust, usually Gruyère. Once all of this has been prepared, the dish is topped with a sauce made from mustard (usually powdered).

The Maison Maire restaurant, where Escoffier created the dish, was located near a theater called the Comédie-Française. In January 1891, a play written by Victorien Sardou called “Thermidor” opened at the Comédie-Française. It took its name from a summer month in the French Republican Calendar, during which the Thermidorian Reaction occurred, overthrowing Robespierre and ending the Reign of Terror. The owner of the Maison Maire, Monsieur Paillard, renamed Escoffer’s dish “Lobster Thermidor” after Sardou’s play became a hit. However, due to the expensive and extensive preparation involved in Lobster Thermidor, its appearance on restaurant menus have declined over the years and is now usually prepared for special occasions.

Below is a recipe for Lobster Thermidor from the Epicurious website:

Lobster Thermidor

Ingredients

2 (1 1/2-lb) live lobsters
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
1/4 lb mushrooms, trimmed and thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons medium-dry Sherry
1 cup heavy cream, scalded
2 large egg yolks

Preparation

Plunge lobsters headfirst into an 8-quart pot of boiling salted water*. Loosely cover pot and cook lobsters over moderately high heat 9 minutes from time they enter water, then transfer with tongs to sink to cool.

When lobsters are cool enough to handle, twist off claws and crack them, then remove meat. Halve lobsters lengthwise with kitchen shears, beginning from tail end, then remove tail meat, reserving shells. Cut all lobster meat into 1/4-inch pieces. Discard any remaining lobster innards, then rinse and dry shells.

Heat butter in a 2-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat until foam subsides, then cook mushrooms, stirring, until liquid that mushrooms give off is evaporated and they begin to brown, about 5 minutes. Add lobster meat, paprika, salt, and pepper and reduce heat to low. Cook, shaking pan gently, 1 minute. Add 1 tablespoon Sherry and 1/2 cup hot cream and simmer 5 minutes.

Whisk together yolks and remaining tablespoon Sherry in a small bowl. Slowly pour remaining 1/2 cup hot cream into yolks, whisking constantly, and transfer to a small heavy saucepan. Cook custard over very low heat, whisking constantly, until it is slightly thickened and registers 160°F on an instant-read thermometer. Add custard to lobster mixture, stirring gently.

Preheat broiler.

Arrange lobster shells, cut sides up, in a shallow baking pan and spoon lobster with some of sauce into shells. Broil lobsters 6 inches from heat until golden brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Serve remaining sauce on the side.

When salting water for cooking, use 1 tablespoon salt for every 4 quarts water.

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“A Family Scandal in the ‘NORTH AND SOUTH’ Trilogy”

“A FAMILY SCANDAL IN THE ‘NORTH AND SOUTH’ TRILOGY”

I love John Jakes’ “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy. Honestly, I do. I love it so much that I have copies of the novels published between 1982 and 1987 that make up the trilogy. I love it so much that I have also copies of the television adaptations (1985-1986; 1994) of the novels, produced by Wolper Productions. Unfortunately, the trilogy has a few narrative problems. And I feel that one of its biggest problems centered around a particular painting. 

I am referring to a certain painting that hung inside an expensive New Orleans. This particular painting depicted a beautiful young woman, who also happened to be one of the prostitutes that worked there. This particular prostitute was favored by the bordello’s owner. More importantly, she left the bordello and her profession in order to marry one of her customers. Despite her European ancestry, this woman was the granddaughter of an African-born slave. She also happened to be the mother of one of the “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy’s main characters – Madeline Fabray. And she eventually became the mother-in-law of three other main characters.

Before I continued, I want to say a few words about the painting of Madeline Fabray’s mother that was created for the first two miniseries, 1985’s “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” and 1986’s “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”. I did not find it impressive. Look at that dress worn by the painting’s subject. It looks cheap and tacky. Not even a high-priced prostitute like Madeline’s mother would wear such a dress. Even worse, the dress and hairstyle worn by the subject failed to reflect the right decade. Madeline Fabray had been born in the mid-1820s. This meant that her mother must have been a prostitute between the late 1810s and early 1820s. The hairstyle and dress worn by Madeline’s mother seemed to reflect that the painting had been created between in the mid-1840s and early 1850s – at least two to three decades after Mrs. Fabray’s death. Wolper Productions really made a mistake in allowing this painting to serve as an image of the late Mrs. Fabray. But the story that surrounded both the character and the painting struck me as a lot more problematic. And the trouble began in John Jakes’ 1982 novel, “North and South”.

In 1846, two years after her marriage to South Carolina rice planter Justin LaMotte, Madeline Fabray LaMotte had traveled back to her hometown of New Orleans to care for her dying father. Before he finally passed away, Nicholas Fabray informed his daughter that both she and her mother were of mixed blood. One of Madeline’s ancestresses was an African-born slave, which meant the late Mrs. Fabray was one-fourth black and Madeline, one-eighth. Shocked by this revelation, Madeline kept this secret to herself for years, until she finally confessed it to her lover and husband’s neighbor Orry Main – one of the novel’s two main characters – after she left her brutish husband in the late winter of 1861. Despite his initial shock, Orry took the news rather well and eventually married Madeline, following Justin’s death during the early months of the Civil War.

Unbeknownst to Madeline and Orry, an Army officer named Elkhannah Bent had already learned about her mother’s background . . . former profession. Bent first met Orry during their years at West Point. Orry, along with his best friend, Pennsylvania-born George Hazard, became Bent’s enemies. When they nearly caused his expulsion from West Point, he vowed to get his revenge. He nearly got Orry killed at the Battle of Churubusco, during the Mexican-American War. Neither the Hazards nor the Mains had heard about Bent for years, until they learned he was the immediate commanding officer of Charles Main, Orry’s younger cousin, in Texas during the late 1850s. Either in 1858 or 1859, Bent visited Charles’ quarters for a talk and spotted a photograph taken at a picnic held at the Main family’s estate, Mont Royal. Among the subjects in the photograph were Madeline and Justin LaMotte. Bent seemed taken by Madeline’s looks. In January 1861, Bent was recalled back to the War Department in Washington D.C. During his journey from Texas to the East Coast, Ben visited an expensive bordello in New Orleans – the same one where Mrs. Fabray had worked some decades ago. There, he spotted the infamous painting inside the office of Madam Conti, the bordello’s owner. Bent learned from Madam Conti that the painting’s subject was not only of mixed blood, but also a former prostitute who had married well. Noticing the physical similarities between Madeline LaMotte and the painting’s subject, Bent ascertained that the two women were related. For reasons that still amaze me, he decided that this bit of knowledge could serve as a weapon against Orry Main.

In the 1984 novel, “Love and War”, Bent returned to New Orleans about a year-and-a-half later, during the second year of the Civil War, and stole the painting, jeopardizing his Army career. Realizing that he no longer had a military career, Bent deserted from the Union Army and journeyed toward Richmond, Virginia – the capital of the Confederacy. Nearly two years later, he managed to find and acquaint himself with one of Orry’s younger sisters, Ashton Main Huntoon. Bent had chosen well. Orry’s vain and unpleasant sister had estranged herself from the Main family, following her attempt to arrange the murder of her brother-in-law, Billy Hazard, for rejecting her years earlier for younger sister Brett. Once Bent had revealed the infamous painting, along with Madeline’s family history, to Ashton; the latter revealed everything to guests at a private reception that included Confederate Senator Judah Benjamin of Louisiana and Christopher Memminger, a South Carolinian resident who was serving as a Secretary of the Treasury for the Confederate States. Orry’s superior, General John H. Winder had “requested” that he send Madeline away from Richmond. Orry sent Madeline to the Hazards’ home in Lehigh Station, Pennsylvania and resigned his position at the War Department before assuming a field command toward the end of the Overland Campaign in June 1864.

The adaptations of the 1982 and 1984 novels – 1985’s “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” and 1986’s “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” – took a different spin on the tale. One, Madeline did not learn the truth about her mother from her father until 1854, ten years following her marriage to Justin LaMotte. She told Orry about her secret some three months later, leading him to insist that she leave Justin and accompany him to the North. However, events involving Madeline and a secret abortion for a pregnant and still single Ashton Main led to the end of Orry’s plans. Madeline more or less became a prisoner of her husband for nearly six-and-a-half years. Justin LaMotte died during the summer of 1861 and a few months later, Madeline and Orry became husband and wife.

As for Elkhannah Bent, his discovery of the painting also unfolded differently. In the television version, Bent (who was an amalgamation of the literary Bent and a character named Lamar Powell), was visiting New Orleans in 1856 or 1857, when he met Ashton’s new husband, James Huntoon. He was in New Orleans to give a pro-secession speech. The pair, along with two other men, proceeded to Madam Conti’s bordello. When James removed his wallet from his jacket, a photograph of his and Ashton’s wedding reception fell from his wallet. The photograph contained the bridal pair, the Main family and a few guests that included Justin and Madeline La Motte. Apparently, this was not Bent’s first visit to the bordello. While waiting for one of the madam’s prostitutes to finish with a customer, Bent and Madam Conti had refreshments in her private office that contained the painting of Mrs. Fabray. While the madam told Bent about the painting’s subject, he quickly surmised that Mrs. Fabray and the Mains’ neighbor were blood related. Some four years later – between the end of “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” and “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” – Bent managed to acquire the painting. Only neither miniseries revealed how he did it. I can only make the assumption that he had purchased it from Madam Conti. In Episode 2, Bent revealed the painting to Ashton, who had become his lover. Instead of revealing Madeline’s secret to Richmond society, Ashton used her knowledge of the painting and Mrs. Fabray’s past to blackmail Madeline into leaving Orry and Mont Royal for good. Two years later, days after the war ended, Madeline and Orry reconciled in Charleston.

Superficially, there seemed to be nothing wrong with the narrative regarding Madeline’s mother and the painting in both Jakes’ novels and the television miniseries. Superficially. However, both the novels and the miniseries revealed a major blooper. Why on earth did Elkhannah Bent went out of his way to get his hands on that painting? Why? In both the 1982 novel and the 1985 miniseries, Madeline was revealed to Bent as the wife of a neighboring planter. Neither Charles Main in the novel or James Huntoon in the miniseries knew about Madeline’s romantic connection to Orry. Which meant that Bent was not aware of this relationship, as well. In both the novels and the miniseries, Bent did not find out about Madeline and Orry’s relationship until after he got his hands on the painting. so, Why would Bent risk his professional career in “Love and War” to steal the painting featuring Madeline’s mother, if he was unaware of Orry’s emotional connection to her daughter? Or pay good money to purchase the painting (which is my theory, by the way) in the television adaptations?

I wish I could say that matters got better in the third act of Jakes’ trilogy. But it did not. Another mystery regarding the painting manifested. In both the third novel, 1987’s “Heaven and Hell” and the third miniseries, 1994’s “HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III”, the locals who lived in the same neighborhood as the Mains seemed aware of Madeline’s African ancestry and the profession of her mother. My question is . . . how? How did locals like her first husband’s cousin, Gettys La Motte discover her family secret in the first place? Who had spilled the beans?

In “Love and War”, Jakes had made a point of both Judah Benjamin and Christopher Memminger attending the reception where Ashton had revealed Madeline’s secret. However, Benjamin moved to Great Britain after the war and Memminger ended up in North Carolina, following his resignation as Secretary of the Treasurer in July 1864. Ashton, her husband James, and her lover Lamar Powell were forced to flee Richmond for the New Mexico Territory after Orry exposed their plot to assassinate the Confederacy’s president, Jefferson Davis. Lamar Powell killed James Huntoon before being killed by an Apache warrior upon their arrival in the Southwest. Ashton arrived in Santa Fe a few days later, stranded and without any funds. It took her at least four years to return to South Carolina. So none of the above could have revealed Madeline’s secret to the Mains’ neighbors. More importantly, Jakes never bothered to reveal how the news reached the South Caroline low country.

“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” told a slightly different tale. A year after Bent had exposed Madeline’s secret to Ashton, she used the knowledge to blackmail her sister-in-law into leaving Mont Royal for good. However, neither Ashton or Bent ever told another soul. The only other people who knew about Madeline’s mother were her former maid, Maum Sally, who was killed by Justin LaMotte back in 1856, during the debacle regarding Ashton’s unwanted pregnancy; Orry; and his mother, Clarissa Main. And none of these people told a soul. Not even Ashton or Bent, which I find surprising. Like Jakes, the screenwriters for the second and third miniseries never made the effort to set up, let alone reveal how the Mains’ neighbors learned about Madeline’s secret.

It is a pity that the storyline regarding Madeline and her mother was marred by sloppy writing. It had the potential to be one of the most interesting arcs in the entire saga, especially since it focused upon attitudes regarding miscegenation in the United States . . . attitudes that lasted for another century following the saga’s setting and still linger to this day. Oh well. There is nothing I can do about it. I suppose I can only regard it as a blooper and move on.

List of Historical Fiction Series

Below is a list of popular historical novels that are a part of a series:

LIST OF HISTORICAL FICTION SERIES

1. The Forsyte Saga (1906-1921) by John Galsworthy – Nobel Prize winning author John Galsworthy wrote and published a series of three novels and two interludes about members of an upper middle-class English family between the 1870s and 1920s.

2. Poldark Saga (1945-2002) by Winston Graham – Set between 1783 and 1820 is a series of twelve novels about a former British Army officer and Revolutionary War veteran, his struggles to make a new life and renew his fortunes following his return to Cornwall after the war.

3. The Asian Saga (1962-1993) by James Clavell – This series of six novels centered on Europeans – especially the Struans-Dunross family – in Asia and the impact of both Eastern and Western civilization between the the early 17th century and late 20th century.

4. The Raj Quartet (1966-1975) by Paul Scott – Paul Scott wrote this four novel series about a group of Europeans during the last five years of the British Raj in India.

5. Flashman Papers (1969-2005) by George MacDonald Fraser – Journalist George MacDonald Fraser wrote a series of novels about the exploits of a cowardly British Army officer during the Victorian Age, between 1839 and 1894. The Harry Flashman character was originally a minor character in Thomas Hughes’ 1857 novel, “Tom Brown’s School Days”.

6. Beulah Land Trilogy (1973-1981) by Lonnie Coleman – This three-volume series told the saga of a Savannah belle named Sarah Pennington Kendrick and her years as mistress of a Georgia cotton plantation called Beulah Land, between the early Antebellum Era and the late Gilded Age.

7. The Kent Family Chronicles (1974-1979) by John Jakes – Also known as “the Bicentennial Series”, author John Jakes wrote a series of eight novels to commemorate the United States’ 200th Bicentennial that centered on the experiences of the Kent family from 1770 to 1890.

8. American Civil War Trilogy (1974; 1996-2000) by Michael and Jeff Shaara – Michael Shaara wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “The Killer Angels” in 1974, which was about the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War. A few years after his death, his son Jeff wrote both a prequel (set during the first two years of the war) and a sequel (set during the war’s last year); creating a trilogy of the three novels.

9. The Australians Series (1979-1990) by William Stuart Long – Set between the late 18th century and the late 19th (or early 20th) century, this literary series followed the experiences of the Broome family in Australia and other parts of the British Empire.

10. North and South Trilogy (1982-1987) by John Jakes – John Jakes wrote this literary trilogy about the experiences of two families – the Hazards of Pennsylvania and the Mains of South Carolina – between 1842 and 1876.

11. The Savannah Quartet (1983-1989) by Eugenia Price – The four novels that make up this series is centered around a Northerner named Mark Browning who moves to the birthplace of his Savannah-born mother and his relationships with his family, friends and neighbors between 1812 and 1864.

12. Wild Swan Trilogy (1984-1989) by Celeste De Blasis – Set between 1813 and 1894, this literary trilogy focused on a young English immigrant named Alexandria Thaine, her two husbands and her descendants in England and Maryland.

13. Outlander Series (1992-Present) by Diana Gabaldon – This current literary series focuses upon a World War II nurse named Claire Randall, who embarks upon a series of adventures after she travels back in time and fall in love with an 18th century Highland warrior named Jamie Fraser.

“FIVE LITTLE PIGS” (2003) Review

“FIVE LITTLE PIGS” (2003) Review

“FIVE LITTLE PIGS”. That is the name of this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1942 novel. Who would have thought that a story with a title straight from a nursery rhyme would lead me to view it as one of the best screen adaptations of a Christie novel I have ever seen?

I just gave the game away in the last paragraph, did I? I gave my opinion of “FIVE LITTLE PIGS” right off the bat. My recent viewing of “FIVE LITTLE PIGS” made me realize two things – a) it is a well-written and melancholic story with tragic overtones; and b) it is one of the finest Christie adaptations I have ever seen. Hmmm . . . I think I may have repeated myself. Well, I cannot help it. I feel that strongly about this movie.

The story began with Hercule Poirot receiving a visitor – a wealthy young woman from Canada named Lucy Lemarchant, who admitted to being the only child of a famous artist named Amyas Crale. According to her, Crale had been murdered fifteen years ago and Lucy’s mother, Caroline, ended up being arrested, convicted and executed for the murder. Years later, Lucy read a letter from Caroline in which the latter claimed her innocence. Despite his doubts, Poirot agreed to investigate Crale’s death. He ended up interviewing five other people who had been at the Crales’ house party fourteen years earlier – five people whom Poirot dubbed “the Five Little Pigs”:

*Phillip Blake – a stockbroker and old childhood friend of Amyas Crale
*Meredith Blake – a reclusive former amateur herbalist and Philip’s brother
*Elsa Greer (Lady Dittisham) – a spoiled society lady who had once been Crale’s mistress and subject
*Angela Warren – a disfigured archaeologist and Caroline Crale’s younger sister
*Cecilia Williams – Lucy and Angela’s devoted governess

“FIVE LITTLE PIGS” turned out to be one of those rare Agatha Christie stories in which most of the drama occurred in distant past. What started as a cold case involving the murder of a philandering, yet talented artist, ended as a tale of sad regrets and family tragedy. This was emphasized in the movie’s finale with one last flashback featuring Crayle and Caroline enjoying happier times with their daughter before murder and tragedy struck. That last scene made me realize that the murderer – in an act of emotion – had not only killed the artist, but destroyed a family.

Another one of the movie’s major assets turned out to be its cast. David Suchet gave his usual competent portrayal of Belgian-born sleuth, Hercule Poirot. But I must admit that one of his finest moments – not only in the movie, but during the entire series – came when he exposed the murderer. Suchet did an excellent job of revealing Poirot’s emotional outrage toward the murderer, without any histrionics whatsoever.

There were certain cast members that I believe stood out. Toby Stephens gave a surprisingly poignant performance as Philip Blake, Aymas Crale’s boyhood friend, who harbored a secret passion for the painter. Julie Cox portrayed Aymas’ young mistress, Elsa Bell (the future Lady Dittisham) with an interesting mixture of arrogance and innocence. And Aidan Gillen’s portrayal of Aymas Crale as a self-involved, occasionally immature and passionate man seemed spot-on for a character that was supposed to be a talented artist. But my favorite performance came from Rachael Stirling, who portrayed Aymas’ long suffering wife, Caroline. The interesting thing about her performance – at least to me – was that she seemed to be at the center of the story. In the end, it was Stirling – along with Suchet – who carried the film. And she managed to do this with a very subtle performance.

I also have to give kudos to cinematographer Christopher Gunning for his lush photography in the 1920s flashbacks. And costume designer Sheena Napier did a solid job of creating costumes for two eras – the mid 1920s and the late 1930s/early 1940s. But the movie’s real gems turned out to be Kevin Elyot’s adaptation of Christie’s sad and tragic tale and Paul Unwin’s direction. Thanks to the both of them, “FIVE LITTLE PIGS” ended up being one of the best cinematic adaptations of an Agatha Christie novel I have ever seen.

Lobster Thermidor

Below is an article about the dish known as Lobster Thermidor:

 

LOBSTER THERMIDOR

Has anyone ever heard of the dish known as Lobster Thermidor? What am I saying? Of course people have. I have, yet I have never seen or tasted the dish in my life.

Before I explain why I had asked that question, I might as well talk about the background and history of Lobster Thermidor. The recipe for Lobster Thermidor was created around 1880 by the famous French chef Auguste Escoffier at a French restaurant called Maison Maire.

The seafood dish consisted of a creamy mixture of cooked lobster meat, egg yolks, and brandy – usually cognac – that is stuffed into a lobster shell. Lobster Thermidor can also be served with an oven-browned cheese crust, usually Gruyère. Once all of this has been prepared, the dish is topped with a sauce made from mustard (usually powdered).

The Maison Maire restaurant, where Escoffier created the dish, was located near a theater called the Comédie-Française. In January 1891, a play written by Victorien Sardou called “Thermidor” opened at the Comédie-Française. It took its name from a summer month in the French Republican Calendar, during which the Thermidorian Reaction occurred, overthrowing Robespierre and ending the Reign of Terror. The owner of the Maison Maire, Monsieur Paillard, renamed Escoffer’s dish “Lobster Thermidor” after Sardou’s play became a hit. However, due to the expensive and extensive preparation involved in Lobster Thermidor, its appearance on restaurant menus have declined over the years and is now usually prepared for special occasions.

Below is a recipe for Lobster Thermidor from the Epicurious website:

Lobster Thermidor

Ingredients

2 (1 1/2-lb) live lobsters
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
1/4 lb mushrooms, trimmed and thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons medium-dry Sherry
1 cup heavy cream, scalded
2 large egg yolks

Preparation

Plunge lobsters headfirst into an 8-quart pot of boiling salted water*. Loosely cover pot and cook lobsters over moderately high heat 9 minutes from time they enter water, then transfer with tongs to sink to cool.

When lobsters are cool enough to handle, twist off claws and crack them, then remove meat. Halve lobsters lengthwise with kitchen shears, beginning from tail end, then remove tail meat, reserving shells. Cut all lobster meat into 1/4-inch pieces. Discard any remaining lobster innards, then rinse and dry shells.

Heat butter in a 2-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat until foam subsides, then cook mushrooms, stirring, until liquid that mushrooms give off is evaporated and they begin to brown, about 5 minutes. Add lobster meat, paprika, salt, and pepper and reduce heat to low. Cook, shaking pan gently, 1 minute. Add 1 tablespoon Sherry and 1/2 cup hot cream and simmer 5 minutes.

Whisk together yolks and remaining tablespoon Sherry in a small bowl. Slowly pour remaining 1/2 cup hot cream into yolks, whisking constantly, and transfer to a small heavy saucepan. Cook custard over very low heat, whisking constantly, until it is slightly thickened and registers 160°F on an instant-read thermometer. Add custard to lobster mixture, stirring gently.

Preheat broiler.

Arrange lobster shells, cut sides up, in a shallow baking pan and spoon lobster with some of sauce into shells. Broil lobsters 6 inches from heat until golden brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Serve remaining sauce on the side.

When salting water for cooking, use 1 tablespoon salt for every 4 quarts water.

“THREE ACT TRAGEDY” (2010) Review

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“THREE ACT TRAGEDY” (2010) Review

When I was in my early teens, I had shifted my attention from Nancy Drew mysteries to those novels written by Agatha Christie. And I have not stopped since. I confess that this shift in reading material was the result of seeing the 1978 movie, “DEATH ON THE NILE”, for the first time. Properly hooked on Christie’s works, I focused my attention on her 1934 novel, “Murder in Three Acts”, also known as “Three Act Tragedy”.

I have seen two adaptations of Christie’s 1934 novel. The first was television adaptation in the mid 1980s, titled “MURDER IN THREE ACTS”, which starred Christie veteran Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot. Although I enjoyed it, I had hoped to see an adaptation of the novel in its original 1930s setting. I had to wait many years before the ITV series, “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” granted my wish with an adaptation that not only retained the original setting, but also the original title, “THREE ACT TRAGEDY”.

The story begins on the coast of Cornwall, where Hercule Poirot attends a dinner party at the home of famed stage actor, Sir Charles Cartwright. The latter’s guests also include:

*Dr. Sir Bartholomew Strange – Sir Charles’ old childhood friend and a nerve specialist
*Lady Mary Lytton-Gore – a Cornish neighbor of Sir Charles, who is from an impoverished old family
*Hermione “Egg” Lytton-Gore – Lady Mary’s young daughter, with whom Sir Charles is in love
*Muriel Wills – a successful playwright also known as Anthony Astor
*Captain Freddie Dacres – a former Army officer and gentleman gambler
*Cynthia Dacres – Captain Dacres’ wife and a successful dressmaker
*Reverend Stephen Babbington – the local curate and Sir Charles’ Cornish neighbor
*Mrs. Babbington – Reverend Babbington’s wife near Sir Charles’s home in Cornwall.
*Oliver Manders – a young Cornish neighbor of Sir Charles’, who is interested in Egg
*Miss Milray – Sir Charles’ secretary

The guests gather in Sir Charles’ drawing-room for a round of pre-dinner cocktails. The party is marred when one of the guests, Reverend Babbington, collapses and dies after drinking his cocktail. An inquest rules his death as a result from natural causes. However, Sir Charles believes that Reverend Babbington may have been murdered, but Poirot is not convinced. About a month or so later, Poirot is vacationing in Monte Carlo, when he encounters Sir Charles. The latter reveals via a newspaper article that Dr. Strange had died from similar circumstances, while hosting a dinner party at his home in Yorkshire. Most of the guests who had attended Sir Charles’ party had also been there, with the exception of Mrs. Babbington and Miss Milray. Unlike Reverend Babbington, Sir Bartholomew’s death has been ruled as a homicide. Both Poirot and Sir Charles return to Britain to investigate the two deaths.

Although “Three Act Tragedy” was one of the first Christie novels I had read, it has never been a favorite of mine. I liked it, but I did not love it. Screenwriter Nick Dear made some changes to the story that I either found appropriate or did not bother me. Dear removed characters like society hound like Mr. Satterthwaite and stage actress Angela Sutcliffe (and one of Sir Charles’ former lovers). I did not miss them. One change really improved the story for me. One aspect of the novel that I found particularly frustrating was the minimized presence of Poirot. The lack of Poirot almost dragged the novel into a halt. Thankfully, Dear avoided this major flaw by allowing Poirot’s presence to be a lot more prominent. He achieved this change by making Poirot a friend of Sir Charles and removing the Mr. Satterthwaite. Dear also made one other major change in Christie’s story, but I will get to it later.

Visually, “THREE ACT TRAGEDY” is a gorgeous movie to watch. Peter Greenhalgh, who had passed away last year, provided the production with a colorful photography that I found particularly beautiful. My only complaint about Greenhalgh’s photography is that it struck me as a little fuzzy at times to indicate the story’s presence in the past. Another dazzling aspect of “THREE ACT TRAGEDY” were the production designs created by Jeff Tessler, who more orless served as the production designer for “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” between 2005 and the series’ end in 2013. Judging by the admirable way he managed to re-create not only the movie’s 1930s setting, but also various locations, only tells me that he had been doing something write. I certainly had no complaints about the costumes designed by Sheena Napier. Like Tessler, she worked for “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” for a long period of time . . . even longer than Tessler. Although I am no expert on early 20th century fashion, I thought Napier excellent job in creating costumes for the production’s setting and the different characters.

The performances featured in “THREE ACT TRAGEDY” were first-rate. I did not find anything exceptional about David Suchet’s portrayal of Hercule Poirot, but I thought he gave his usual more-than-competent performance. Martin Shaw gave a very solid performance as the charming, yet intelligent Sir Charles Cartwright, who was the first to sense something wrong about the first murder. I was also impressed by how the actor conveyed his character’s insecurity over a romance with a much younger woman. Kimberly Nixon seemed like a ball of fire, thanks to her portrayal of the vibrant and charming Egg Lytton-Gore, who found herself torn between two men. I also enjoyed Art Malik’s portrayal of the extroverted Dr. Sir Bartholomew Strange. Although there were times when his performance struck me as a touch too jovial. Ronan Vibert gave a rather insidious, yet oddly charming performance as “gentleman” gambler Captain Freddie Dacres. The one performance that really impressed me came Kate Ashfield who gave a very interesting performance as playwright Anthony Astor aka Miss Muriel Wills. Ashfield did an excellent job in recapturing Miss Wills’ secretive, yet uber observant personality. The production also featured solid performances from Anastasia Hille, Tom Wisdom, Anna Carteret, Suzanne Bertish, and Tony Maudsley.

I do have a complaint about “THREE ACT TRAGEDY”. I really wish that Nick Dear had not changed the murderer’s main motive for the killings. I have heard rumors that there are two different versions of the story’s resolution. My literary version of “THREE ACT TRAGEDY” questioned the murderer’s sanity, making the murders a lot more interesting to me. Unfortunately, Nick Dear used the other resolution, one that struck me as a lot more mundane and not very interesting. Too bad.

Aside from changing the killer’s motive for the murders, I rather enjoyed “THREE ACT TRAGEDY”. I am thankful that screenwriter Nick Dear had made Hercule Poirot’s presence in the story more prominent than it was in the novel. After all, he is the story’s main investigator. But despite excellent acting and solid direction by Ashley Pearce, I would never regard it as one of my favorite productions from “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”. It was simply a pretty good adaptation of a solid Christie novel. There is nothing else for me to say.

“THE PUBLIC EYE” (1992) Review

“THE PUBLIC EYE” (1992) Review

Over twenty years ago, I came across a small period drama, while perusing my local video rental store. I never had any intention of watching this movie. In fact, I had never heard of it before . . . despite being a fan of the two leading stars.

I read somewhere that “THE PUBLIC EYE” was inspired by the career of New York Daily News photographer Arthur “Weegee” Fellig. In fact, some of the photographs featured in the film had been taken by Fellig, himself. But the movie is not a biopic. Instead, “THE PUBLIC EYE” told the story of one Leon “Bernzy” Bernstein, a freelance crime and street photographer for the New York City tabloids, whose work is known for its realistic depiction of the city and all of its citizens. Due to his realistic photography and willingness to resort to any means to snap graphic shots of crime scenes, he is known as “the Great Berzini”.

Sometime during 1942, America’s first year into World War II, Bernzy is summoned by a widowed Manhattan nightclub owner named Kay Levitz. One of local New York mobs is trying to muscle in on her business. Kay asks Bernzy to investigate an individual she considers troublesome. Generally unsuccessful with women, Bernzy agrees to help Kay, as he slowly begins to fall in love with her. Bernzy talks to a few of his contacts, including journalist Arthur Nabler, and tracks down Kay’s troublesome man. Only the latter had been murdered. Bernzy’s activities attract the attention of the New York police, the F.B.I. and two rival mob leaders. Through a connection to a local gangster named Sal, Bernzy discovers that Kay’s husband had got involved with a mob turf war over illegal gas rationing and the Federal government.

“THE PUBLIC EYE” did not make much of an impact on the U.S. movie box office, when it hit the theaters during the fall of 1992. In fact, I do not believe that the studio that released it – Universal Studios – made any effort to publicize it. Worse, the movie eventually garnered mixed reviews. However, I had no idea of all of this until I saw the movie, years later. My first reaction to this lack of attention by Universal and the mixed reviews was surprised. My second reaction was . . . disappointment. Well, I was not that disappointed with the movie’s mixed reviews. After all, I believe in the old adage “to each his own”. But even to this day, I feel slightly disappointed that Universal Studios did very little to publicize this movie. Why? I thought “THE PUBLIC EYE” was a lot better than many assumed it to be – including the studio suits.

Was there anything about “THE PUBLIC EYE” that I disliked? Or found hard to swallow? To be honest . . . no. Let me correct myself – very little. After all, the movie was perfect. A part of me wishes it could have been a little longer than its 99 minute running time. And if I must be honest again, the mystery surrounding the death of Kay Levitz’s tormentor did not last very long. Not much time had passed before the story had revealed the gas rationing scandal behind the tormentor’s murder . . . or the identity of the movie’s main antagonist. Personally, I saw no reason why screenwriter-director Howard Franklin tried to present this plot as some kind of mystery.

And yet . . . I really enjoyed “THE PUBLIC EYE”. In fact, it is a personal favorite of mine. There seemed to be so much that I found enjoyable in this movie. Although Franklin’s plot did not prove to be much of a mystery, I must admit that I enjoyed how the corruption tale provided a strong link to civilian life during America’s early period in World War II. The plot also seemed to provide a strong historical background of life during this time in New York City’s history. I enjoyed how Franklin’s screenplay made such strong connections between the city’s major criminals, the Federal government and the goods rationing that dominated the lives of American citizens during the war. But what I really enjoyed about this movie is its final action sequence that featured a gangland mass murder inside a local Italian restaurant photographed by the main protagonist. Franklin did a superb job in capturing this sequence on film that it still gives me goosebumps whenever I watch it.

Some film critic – I forgot his name – once complained that the “noir” atmosphere for “THE PUBLIC EYE” seemed superficial and not particularly engaging. Personally, I loved the movie’s atmosphere. Not because I believe that it permeated with a sense of a “noir” film. I loved it because I thought it permeated with a sense of what life was for the many citizens of New York City during those early years of the war. The movie portrayed how different social groups based on class and ethnic differences are forced to live together in one metropolis during a difficult time in American history. Bernzy’s own background as a Jewish immigrant from Russia and his profession were used against him on several occasions. This especially seemed to be the case with the elitist book publisher who seemed disturbed by the former’s name and the realistic images he took; and Danny, the Irish-born doorman and snob who not only worked at Kay’s nightclub, but also regarded Bernzy as beneath him. Even Kay’s own background as a showgirl led people to regard her as some gold digger who had achieved some social status via marriage to a nightclub owner. This explained how two such diverse people managed to click on an emotional level throughout most of the movie.

Visually, “THE PUBLIC EYE” seemed like a treat. Watching it made me feel as if I had landed right in the middle of Manhattan, circa 1942, thanks to art directors Bo Johnson and Dina Lipton, set decorator Jan K. Bergstrom, and costume designer Jane Robinson, who had created some very interesting costumes for Barbara Hershey. I was especially impressed by the work of production designer, Marcia Hinds, who I believe more than anyone, contributed to the movie’s early 1940s setting and atmosphere.

I had checked Howard Franklin’s filmography and discovered that he had only directed three movies so far. Considering the first-rate performances featured in this film, it seemed a miracle that Franklin’s lack of real experience did not hamper them. I do not know which role I would consider to be my favorite performed by Joe Pesci. But I do know that Leon “Bernzy” Bernstein is one of my top three favorite characters he has ever portrayed. I thought Pesci did a superb job in portraying a character who is not only driven by his ambition for his profession, but also racked with loneliness, due to how others tend to perceive him. Barbara Hershey gave a very subtle and skillfully ambiguous performance as the widowed nightclub owner, Kay Levitz. Hershey’s Kay came off as a warm and compassionate woman who understood Bernzy, due to her own struggles over how others perceive her and at the same time, a reluctantly pragmatic woman who is forced, at times, to sacrifice her self-esteem for the sake of survival.

The movie also benefited from a collection of first-rate performance from major supporting cast members. One of those performances came from Jared Harris, who did an excellent job in conveying the snobbish aspect of his character, the Irish-born Danny, who worked at Kay’s nightclub as a doorman. Stanley Tucci gave a terrific and subtle performance as a low-level mobster named Sal, who provides the final link to Bernzy’s investigation into the gas ration scandal. Jerry Adler, whom I recall from the CBS series, “THE GOOD WIFE”, gave an emotional and complex performance as one of Bernzy’s few friends, a journalist named Arthur Nabler. Both Dominic Chianese and Richard Foronjy were excellent as the two mob warring bosses, Spoleto and Frank Farinelli. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Richard Riehle, Bob Gunton, Tim Gamble, Patricia Healy and Del Close.

I realize that many critics do not have a high opinion of “THE PUBLIC EYE”. Why? Well, I never did bother to learn the reason behind their attitude. Perhaps I never really bothered is because I enjoyed the movie so much. In fact, I fell in love with it when I first saw it. And my feelings for “THE PUBLIC EYE” has not changed over the years, thanks to Howard Franklin’s direction and script, along with a first-rate cast led by Joe Pesci and Barbara Hershey.