“APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” (1988) Review

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“APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” (1988) Review

Agatha Christie’s 1938 novel, “Appointment With Death” has proven to be a problem over the past 70 years or so. If I must be honest, it is not a great novel. Considering the topic of emotional abuse, it had the potential to be great. But I feel that Christie never achieved what could have been a memorable and haunting tale.

The novel also produced adaptations in the form of a 1945 stage play, a 2008 television movie and a 1988 theatrical release. Of the three adaptations, the 1988 film, “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” came the closest in being faithful to novel. Is it the best adaptation? Unfortunately, I have never seen the stage play and have no idea what changes to Christie’s plot had been made. I have seen the 2008 television movie. And honestly? I consider it a colorful travesty. Do I harbor the same opinion of the 1988 film? Well . . . no. It is not a bad film. But I believe it is a far cry from some of the best of the Christie adaptations.

Directed by Michael Winner, “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” centered on Belgian-born detective Hercule Poirot’s investigation into the death of a wealthy middle-aged woman named Mrs. Boynton. Actually, the story began several months earlier, in New Jersey, where the recently widowed Mrs. Boynton learned that her late husband left a second will would enable her stepchildren and daughter to enjoy a financially stable life, independent of her. Jealous of the idea of no longer holding any power over her family, Mrs. Boynton blackmailed the family attorney, Jefferson Cope, into destroying the second will, leaving her in charge of the family finances. The family embarks on a grand tour of Europe and the Holy Land during the spring of 1937. During the sea voyage between Italy and the Middle East, fellow passenger Hercule Poirot overhears two of Mrs. Boynton’s stepchildren, Raymond and Carol, discussing the possibility of their stepmother’s death. More importantly, Mrs. Boynton is surprised by the appearance of Cope, fearful he might inform her children about her husband’s second will.

Following the characters’ arrival in Petra, Poirot and some of the other characters become aware of Mrs. Boynton’s domineering abuse of her stepchildren and daughter. One of the vacationers, a Dr. Sarah King, falls in love with one of Mrs. Boynton’s stepsons – Raymond. But she becomes frustrated by his inability to break free of his stepmother’s grip. Sarah’s frustrations reflect those of Nadine Boynton, who is near the breaking point over her husband’s inability to break free from his stepmother. Also, the old lady’s stepchildren are becoming increasingly worried over Mrs. Boynton’s poisonous influence over the latter’s only child and their half-sister, Ginerva. Things come to a boil during a one day expedition to an archeology dig outside Petra. A few hours after Mrs. Boynton encourages her family to go for a walk, she is discovered dead. It does not take Poirot very long to figure out that the old lady had been murdered. And he is recruited by the region’s British Army representative, Colonel Carbury, to investigate her death.

As I had earlier stated, “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” is not a bad film. But it is certainly no masterpiece. Let me be frank. It is quite obvious that the look and tone of this production is more akin to television movie feature from “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” than a theatrical movie. It is a bit cheap in compare to star Peter Ustinov’s previous two Poirot movies and the 1974 one that starred Albert Finney. Some of cast members seemed to be going through the motions in their performances. This especially seemed to be the case for Carrie Fisher, Nicholas Guest, John Gielgud and sadly, Peter Ustinov. And when the star of the film seemed almost too relaxed or uninterested in his performance or the film, there is potential for disaster. What makes this sad is that Ustinov gave a funny and energetic performance for his next role as Detective Fix in the 1989 miniseries, “AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS”. Adding to the film’s second-hand look was Pino Donaggio’s very disappointing score. Honestly, it was probably the worst movie score for any Agatha Christie’s production I have ever heard. It seemed to be 1980s pop music at its cheesiest. And allowing a cheesy 80s pop tune to serve as the main score for a movie set in the late 1930s was one of the worst mistakes that Michael Winner and the other film’s producers made.

But all is not lost. At least Winner can claim he directed the better version of Christie’s 1938 novel. The television movie adaptation made twenty (20) years later seemed like a total disaster in compare to this film. And the 1988 movie had more virtues. Although the movie’s production visuals seemed a bit of a comedown from the Christie movies between 1974 and 1982, production designer John Blezard’s work in “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” still struck me as pretty solid. I was especially impressed by his work, along with Alan Cassie and Shlomo Tsafrir’s set designs and David Gurfinkel’s photography during the archeological dig sequence. John Bloomfield’s costume designs also struck me as pretty solid, but not exactly mind-blowing. Despite Michael Winner’s pedestrian direction and the less-than-spectacular production, I have to admit that Winner, Anthony Shaffer and Peter Buckman did a very admirable job of adapting Christie’s novel. I am not saying this because it is more faithful than the 1945 stage play and the 2008 television movie. The three screenwriters made some changes to the plot – including the deletion of one or two characters – but those changes did not harm the story overall.

Most of the cast certainly injected a good deal of energy, despite Ustinov, Fisher, Guest and Gielgud’s lethargic performances. I was especially impressed by Jenny Seagrove as the stalwart Dr. Sarah King, David Soul’s sly performance as the Boyntons’ slippery, yet charming attorney Jefferson Cope, and John Terlesky’s earnest performance as Raymond Boynton. As far as I am concerned, both Lauren Bacall and Hayley Mills gave the funniest performances in the film. Bacall’s hilarious portrayal of the rude and pushy American-born Lady Westholme almost reminded me of her performance as the verbose Mrs. Hubbard from 1974’s “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”. However, her Lady Westholme struck me as funnier. And Hayley Mills was equally funny as Lady Westholme’s impromptu traveling companion, the obsequious Miss Quinton. But the engine that really drove “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” turned out to be Piper Laurie’s performance as murder victim, Mrs. Emily Boynton. There were moments with Laurie’s performance became somewhat hammy. But she did a great job in portraying a manipulative and emotionally sadistic woman with a talent for keeping her stepchildren in line. I found her performance very commanding.

Overall, I would not consider “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” to be one of the best movie adaptations of a Christie novel. Heck, I can think of several television movie adaptations that I would view as better. But I believe it is the better of the two adaptations of the 1938 novel. I wish I could say that director Michael Winner and Peter Ustinov’s performance as Hercule Poirot contributed a good deal to this movie’s production. But it was not that difficult for me to see that Winner is at heart, a mediocre director. And Ustinov’s performance seemed at worst, lethargic. And yet, the rest of the cast (aside from two others) and a solid script prevented “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” from sinking into a mire of crap. At least for me.

 

 

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Carrie Fisher (1956-2016) R.I.P.

“THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER” (1953) Review

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“THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER” (1953) Review

Tyrone Power’s career took a strange turn during the post-World War II years. Although he still managed to maintain his position as one of Twentieth Century Fox’s top stars during the remainder of the 1940s, something happened as the 1950s dawned. Powers still found himself in Grade A movies during that particular decade. But he also seemed to appear in a growing number of standard costume melodramas.

Twentieth Century Fox lent Powers to Universal Pictures to star in the 1953 drama called “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER”. Directed by Rudolph Maté, “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER” told the story of a New York-born gambler named Mark Fallon, who moves to New Orleans with ambitions to create his own gambling casino. During the riverboat journey down the Mississippi River, Mark becomes the friend and protégé of an older gambler named Kansas John Polly. The pair also run afoul of a crooked gambler and two Creole siblings named Angelique and Laurent Dureau. During a poker game, Mark exposes the crooked gambler. Also Laurent Dureau loses all of his money and his sister’s priceless necklace during the game. Upon his arrival in New Orleans, Mark becomes acquainted with the Dureaus’ father, Edmond Dureau. The latter admires Mark and realizes that the younger man is in love with Angelique. Unfortunately, she refuses to acknowledge Mark and sets matrimonial sights upon a friend of her brother’s, banker George Elwood. Mark and Kansas John meet and help Ann Conant, the daughter of an unlucky gambler who had committed suicide. She helps the two friends build their casino, yet at the same time, falls in love with Mark. And both she and Mark become uncomfortably aware that Laurent Dureau has fallen in love with her.

While reading the synopsis of this film, I noticed that it was identified as an adventure film. “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER” does feature some action sequences that include a fist fight aboard a riverboat, at least two duels and a murder attempt. But for some reason, I am hard pressed to consider it an adventure film. There seemed to be a lot more drama and action in this film. Especially melodrama. Production wise, “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER” struck me as an attractive looking film. Being a constant visitor of the Universal Studios theme park, it was easy to recognize some of the exterior scenes from the studio’s back lot. I doubt that “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER” had the budget to be shot on location in Louisiana. But I still would not describe it as cheap looking for a standard melodrama, thanks to Irving Glassberg’s sharp photography. Even Bill Thomas’ costume designs added to the film’s visual style. However, there was one costume worn by leading lady Piper Laurie that reflected the early 1950s, instead of the early 1850s.

I have no problems with the movie’s performances. Tyrone Powers gave a subtle, yet excellent performance as the good-hearted Mark Fallon, who had not only become enamored of New Orleans society, but also the leading lady. His chemistry with Piper Laurie struck me as pretty solid, but not particularly striking. I think Laurie’s portrayal of the aristocratic and hot-tempered Angelique seemed a bit too fiery . . . and possibly too young for the more sedate Powers. The actor seemed to have better chemistry with Julie Adams, who portrayed the sweet-tempered, yet practical and mature Ann Conant. I found myself wishing that her character was Powers’ leading lady. The lead actor certainly clicked with John McIntire, who portrayed Mark’s close friend, Kansas John Polly. The two men seemed to have created their own on-screen bromance with considerable ease. John Bear gave a very credible performance as Laurent Dureau, the careless, yet passionate young scion who happened to be the leading lady’s brother. Paul Cavanaugh was equally competent as Angelique and Laurent’s elegant father, Edmond Dureau. I would comment on the rest of the cast. But if I must be honest, I found them unmemorable . . . including Ron Randell, who portrayed Angelique’s corrupt husband, George Elwood.

While reading about the film, I also learned that “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER” was a big hit during early 1953. Leslie I. Carey, even managed to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Sound Recording for his work on the movie. But you know what? Despite the decent production designs, visual styles and solid performances from the cast, I have a pretty low opinion of “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER”. In fact, I am astounded that this movie was a box office hit. Perhaps that sounded arrogant. Who am I to judge the artistic tastes of others? I certainly do not like for others to judge my tastes or attempt to infringe their tastes upon me. But I have to say that I did not like “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER”.

What was it about the movie that I disliked? Seton I. Miller’s screenplay. I found it very ineffective. In other words, I thought it sucked. Exactly what was this movie about? Mark Fallon’s struggles to build his New Orleans casino? His adventures as a riverboat gambler? His romance (it that is what you want to call it) with Angelique Dureau. Apparently, it is all of the above. But Miller’s story struck me as extremely vague and very episodic. The only storyline that remained consistent from beginning to end was the love story between Mark Fallon and Angelique Dureau. And honestly, it did not strike me as a well constructed love story. The problem seemed to be the character of George Elwood. Instead of marrying him earlier in the story, Angelique did not marry him until the final half hour.

The love story was not the only problem I had with the plot for “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER”. One scene featured the leading characters witnessing a dance number by slaves or free blacks in an area known as Congo Square. I am aware that such performances did occurred in 19th century New Orleans. I found it more than disconcerting that the dancers featured in the movie were white performers in blackface as African-Americans. Mark Fallon’s struggle to build a casino did not come off as much of a struggle to me. In fact, Mark, Kansas John and Ann Conant managed to build the casino within the movie’s second half hour and lose it, thanks to George Elwood’s financial manipulations by the last half hour. Not only did the banker’s financial manipulations concluded the story line regarding the casino in an unsatisfying manner, but the same could be said about how Mark and Angelique’s love story ended. I could go into detail about what happened, but why bother? It would be a waste of time. All I can say is that I found the conclusion of Miller’s story vague, rushed and very unsatisfying.

In a nutshell, “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER” possessed both a decent visual style and production designs. It also featured solid performances from a cast led by Tyrone Power and Piper Laurie. But the first-class costume melodrama that Universal Pictures set out to create was undermined by a vague and unsatisfying story written by screenwriter Seton I. Miller. It seemed a pity that within the seven to eight years following the end of World War II, Tyrone Power’s career led him to this.