The world’s best and most successful mystery writer: Agatha Christie. Her largest selling book, And Then There Were None, 2 million copies.
Her works have been translated into stage plays, television series and feature films, tantalizing millions of fans.
Her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published in 1920, so let’s raise a glass to Dame Agatha Christie for 100 years of enjoyment. Cheers!
Christie stories and novels have been adapted into many film, with the first such translation, The Passing of Mr. Quin, is a 1928 film based on a short story. Two billion books sold. That’s very impressive, at least I think it is.
I admit, I have not seen every film based on Christie material, but I am familiar with enough to give you a top ten list.
It’s interesting, Agatha Christie has gone through waves of popularity. She died in 1976, two years after the famously received film, Murder on the Orient Express, a fine story and one of her best film adaptions. In 2020, we will see a remake of Death on the Nile, a new adaptation by Kenneth Branaugh, the director of the remake of 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express.
So let’s get to the films. Counting the 2020 remake of Death on the Nile, 41 films that I can trace. This of course is different from the television series on Miss Marples, Hercule Poirot and other adaptions or teleplays based on the characters, and adaptions of other Christie books and short stories.
Top Ten Agatha Christie Files (from least to best)
Murder Ahoy! (1964) Of the four Margaret Rutherford films, this ranks lower on the list, but not by much. These early 1960s films were cranked out by the British branch of MGM. This was not a strict adaption of a book or short story, but incorporated elements of a story They Do It With Mirrors. The Rutherford films were money makers and inexpensive to crank out.
Miss Marple investigates the murder of a fellow board member of a trust for an old battleship, which is used to straighten-out young men gone astray. This murder leads to additional murders, before Miss Marple is able to discover the truth. Lionel Jefferies co-stars.
The Mirror Crack’d (1980) A big scale production, directed by former James Bond director Guy Hamilton, and starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, Kim Novak, Tony Curtis, Edward Fox, Geraldine Chaplin and Angela Lansbury as Miss Marple. Produced by John Braddock, who produced the other Christie films of the era, along with such big scale films as Romeo and Juliet and a Passage to India. The Mirror Crack’d is a big budget production bankrolled by EMI Films, which at the time was flush with cash and eager to invest in films. The story, a bit of tongue in cheek affair, is of a troubled film production where one of the combative actresses dies suddenly. Thankfully, Miss Marple (Lansbury) lives nearby and helps solve the mystery. This film has humorous moments but seems to promise much more than it delivers.
Murder Most Foul (1964) Another of the Margaret Rutherford films, based on Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, and instead of Poirot, the story is rewritten with Miss Marple as the detective. She is serving on a jury and is the lone hold-out in the murder of Mrs. McGinty.
Since Miss Marple does not believe the obvious suspect is guilty, she sets out to find the real murder, and finds herself a member of stage production. Written with some laughs to spice up the drama. Co-stars Ron Moody.
Murder On the Orient Express (2017) Starring and directed by Kenneth Branaugh, the film is stylish and a fine introduction for those not familiar with Christie’s film adaptions. So, the big question is, who does it compare to the original film? It is good, but far from great. Certainly, Branaugh and the other producers assembled a very talented cast and spend a lot of money on a lavish production, you see the money on the screen. For me, it is a pale imitation of the original film, which was a hugely popular film, stylish and marvelously directed by Sidney Lumet. Did this film need to be remade? No, but producers are looking to recycle hits and the Christie estate was obviously fine with turning the cash register.
Murder She Said (1961) Based on the novel, 4.50 from Paddington, Miss Marple believes she sees a woman strangled on a passing train. She informs the police, they investigate, but find nothing, so she goes undercover as domestic help at an estate in the area where she suspects the body was tossed from the train. As with all of the Rutherford films, a certain amount of understate comedy is introduced to make the story less stuffy and play to Rutherford’s strengths.
George Paddock was the director of the series, with Rutherford’s husband, Stringer Davis as her erstwhile accomplice, and Charles Tingwell as Inspector Craddock. This is my favorite of the four Rutherford films.
Death on the Nile (1978) Another huge budget affair, this time directed by John Guillermin (The Towering Inferno) and adapted by Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth, Frenzy), starring David Niven, Maggie Smith, Lois Chiles, Angela Lansbury, Mia Farrow, Bette Davis and Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot.
Aboard a ship on the Nile for tourists, a newly married couple are confronted with a jilted lover. Murder follows, but thankfully Poirot is onboard. Lavishly produced on location, with many twists and turns, and more murders. Interesting and well-done, but lacks the impact of Murder On the Orient Express. It seems a bit “by the numbers” which means it should have been better given the talent and resources poured into the production.
Ten Little Indians (1965) In the 1960s, Agatha Christie works were lower-budget affairs. Although they might have been packed with stars, they were character actors and B list stars.
I always like this film, but Christie did not. It was made in black & white and did not contain lush production values. Hugh O’Brian and Shirley Eaton are the main stars, although Fabian, Stanley Holloway, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Daliah Lavi and Dennis Price also star. This is based on Christie’s most successful book and the producers take liberties with the story to jazz it up for the mid-1960s. Instead of a deserted island, it takes place at an Alpine resort, secluded on a mountain. Ten people are arranged to come together by a mysterious host, who has a reason to kill off each one. Naturally, there is no escape and each of the survivors does not trust each other, as the victims pile up. George Paddock, who directed the Margaret Rutherford film, is back to help this one. I find the film kind of hokey at times, but it is an effective thriller. What made it hip in 1965 makes it very dated today, but if you can overlook that, it is a very entertaining film.
Murder On the Orient Express (1974) Perhaps the standard by which all adaptions are held. This is a marvelous film, although a bit long, it tells a compelling story, stylishly directed by Sidney Lumet. In the 1970s, it was commonplace for these big productions to have a big international cast. Albert Finney (as Poirot), Lauren Bacall, Vanessa Redgrave, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Jacqueline Bisset, Martin Balsam, Sean Connery, Michael York, Ingrid Bergman and Richard Widmark. An incredible cast, all deliver fine acting performances, and expert direction by Lumet. The production design and photography give you an old world air, and regal production values. The story aligns itself with the Lindberg kidnapping and is a who dunnit involving everyone on the train, all who had a reason to kill the rich American. This could have easily been the best of the Christie adaptions, but there are two that are even better.
Evil Under the Sun (1982) Peter Ustinov returns as Hercule Poirot, as does director Guy Hamilton, and this is much better film. I love this film, it has a bit of humor, many twists and turns and some old-fashioned hate between characters. Ustinov played Poirot four or five times.
Starring Maggie Smith, Dianna Rigg, Sylvia Miles, James Mason, Roddy McDowell, Jane Birkin and Colin Blakely. The story takes place at the Adriatic hotel resort of Daphne Castle, who seems to have a connection with some of her guest, especially former showgirl Arlena, who is now married to retired military officer Kenneth Marshall. Arlena shows up murdered, and although that is not a good thing, she was disliked by practically everyone. Ustinov is my favorite Poirot, he is stuffy and finicky, but not overbearing like Albert Finney played him. There is a bit of whimsical element to Poirot’s manner. Maggie Smith and Dianna Rigg are delightful as the sparing former showgirls, out to top each other in their put-downs. The mystery of course is quite well down, down to the very last scene.
Witness For the Prosecution (1957) Based, not on a novel, but the stage play of the same name. Directed by Billy Wilder (Some Like it Hot, The Apartment), and adapted by Wilder with Larry Marcus and Harry Kurnitz. Barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts takes on a client, Leonard Voles, accused of killing a wealthy woman he was romancing and names him in her will. Problem is, he is already married to a German woman, who it is discovered was still married to a German husband at they time they walked down the aisle. She is the alibi for Voles, but does not come through for him. Things are looking bad for Voles when a mysterious woman appears willing to provide evidence that his wife lied about Voles killing the older woman. It appears Voles will be saved and go free, or will he?
Charles Laughton stars as Sir Wilfrid, Elsa Lancaster as his his nurse, Tyrone Power as Voles and Marlena Dietrich as Voles’ wife. It is who dunnit to the very end. Wilder provides one of his best directorial efforts. The film never stalls for a moment, it constantly keeps you wondering what is going to happen next. Laughton gives an Oscar worthy performance.
Still the best Christie story ever to appear on the screen.