It’s been a two and a half decade marathon but David Suchet has finally achieved his goal. With the airing of Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case on ITV this week, Suchet has performed in all seventy Hercule Poirot novels and short stories as television adaptions. It’s an incredible accomplishment starting back in 1989 with The Adventure of Clapham Cook. The show and his performances have survived two different production companies and twenty five years of sufficient ratings to warrant bankrolling that next episode. Other actors have played James Bond and Doctors Who in the last quarter century but there has only been one man to play the part of Hercule Poirot.
I had a feeling of giddy excitement leading up to watching this final send off. For TFW readers with long memories, you might remember that I rekindled my love for Poirot four years ago when I lived in Sydney and had a lot of downtime to myself. Even then, there was the anticipation of Suchet getting to the home stretch of Agatha Christie’s body of work and having only a few episodes left to film. This week, that moment finally arrived.
Once the episode began, a lot of that enthusiasm and excitement ebbed away. It only takes a cursory glance at the screenshots I’ve included in this blog to see that Curtain is not a particularly cheery send off for our beloved Belgian detective. Curtain sees the reuniting of Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings (still played by Hugh Fraser) at Styles, the manor where the two first met in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Poirot, now wheelchair bound and suffering crippling arthritis, is determined to solve one final murder before he passes. He talks to Hastings of five seemingly unconnected murders, all of which have the presence of X, a man or woman that Poirot believes is the true instigator of the crime. Poirot now believes X to be a resident at Styles and charges Hastings with being his eyes and ears and to ‘look through keyholes’ so they can prevent any further deaths and bring him to justice.
Curtain is a relentlessly dour and gloomy episode where the specter of death hangs heavily over the proceedings. Visually, it is jarring to see the once proud and mighty Poirot, looking gaunt, wheezing and perpetually near death. His loyal friend Hastings is also alone, having recently lost his wife in Argentina to illness and struggling to reconnect with his daughter Judith. Judith spends most of the film being courted by the horrible, sleazy Allerton, a married man who is estranged from his wife. She also argues constantly with Hastings, advocating euthanasia at the choice of the next of kin and blasting the selfishness of the elderly for standing in the way of the young. All in front of Poirot. What a classy lady.
All this takes place in a setting, Styles Manor, which seems to be aging as rapidly as Poirot. The building is run down, covered in cob webs and falling to pieces. Yes, Curtain is a gloomy, nihilistic work and there is a nary a splash of vibrancy or colour to be seen on the screen. You know this is a dark and bleak tale when Hastings seriously considers murdering someone.
The stand off between Poirot and X, his ‘perfect’ murderer, is not a traditional investigation like the other cases in the past. There are no trail of clues. No red herrings. No suspects. Poirot explains that X murders indiscriminately, for the love of killing, and has no conventional motive tying them to the murder victims. Therefore you just watch the events unfold in Curtain, as the body count rises, without any real idea as to what is happening. Eventually Poirot himself is claimed and the traditional denouement comes in the form of a letter, four months after his passing.
The way in which Poirot apprehends his perfect murderer is faithful to what happens in the novel. There is some artistic license taken in the television adaptation where Poirot’s faith in Catholicism is amplified, as his mind weighs heavily on what the right thing to do is and whether he can find redemption before he passes. I think this was a great inclusion in the episode as it gives us a very touching parting scene where Poirot ends up seeking forgiveness not from a pastor but from his lifelong friend Hastings.
“I have always tried to do my best you know. You do believe that Hastings…”
“Do you think God will forgive me?”
“Of course he will. You’re a good man. The best a fellow could know.”
“My heart bleeds for you. My poor, lonely Hastings…”
It was about then that I got some dust in my eye.
I doubt I will ever watch Curtain again. It’s a sad, teary and sombre farewell between two friends in the twilight of their life. This is an episode where the murder mystery well and truly takes a backseat to the relationship between Poirot and Hastings. It is consistent as ever, right to the very end. Even when he is terminally ill, Poirot is a perfectionist, obsessed with order and examining puzzles with his famous ‘little grey cells’. Hastings is impulsive. Acts on instinct. Quick to make rash decisions. And the two of them remain best of friends to the very end.
I’m glad I watched it but once was enough. In future, when I feel like revisiting Hercule Poirot, it will be those jaunty earlier adventures. With a young, strapping Captain Hastings. With the hapless gumshoe Chief Inspector Japp. The vivacious and meticulous Miss Lemon. Those are my favourite memories of Poirot and those are the times I most look forward to revisiting.