Poirot (Classic): S02E08 “The Adventure of the Cheap Flat”

In which the chief mystery is why Mr. and Mrs. Robinson were able to rent a nice, high-end flat no questions asked while others have been repeatedly turned away. Who are… the Lucky Renters?!?

1936 London housing crises aside, the backdrop is that the FBI has sent Agent Burt (William Hootkins) to apprehend Carla Romero (Jenifer Landor), a New York songstress (or, in the words of Japp, “chan-too-zy”) who managed to steal plans for a submarine while double-crossing the Mafia, and intends to sell them to the Italians. (The plans, not the Mafia.) Working together, our heroes manage to confront and trap the spy.

In brief, because time just sort of slipped away from me this week, and there’s really no need for spoilers given the plot:

The Good:

  • The episode plays up the American vs. English methods of law enforcement; it opens with Poirot, Hastings, and Japp watching G-Men in a darkened theater, and Poirot is clearly uncomfortable with the tommy guns and rampant violence shown by the FBI in the film. Japp seems enthralled, and tells Our Belgian that it’s just the world they live in now. And yet! As the overbearing Agent Burt prepares to go in guns-a-blazing to capture the erstwhile spy Carla, Japp throws down a big “Not in my town, homes” and takes his gun away. During a sequence where Poirot borrows Hastings’ gun to set a trap for an assassin, he surreptitiously removes the bullets so as to prevent a shootout in the episode’s climax. It’s a nice thematic thread that runs through the episode.
  • In fact, it’s almost Poirot Noir this week, as several sequences replace our familiar background music with private eye-style smoky jazz reminiscent more of an episode of Mike Hammer. There’s a lot of noir beats here, with Our Belgian doing the sorts of things you’d expect from a hard boiled detective – cold calling nightclubs, wearing out shoe leather, and confronting a greasy nightclub owner, trenchcoated villains and femme fatales. There’s a fantastically weird flashback sequence that shows Carla’s original crime in New York, in which the city, dialogue and colors are stylized a la Sin City and matte paintings are used as backdrops. It’s a much different flavor than the usual episode, that’s for sure, and it’s the most interesting thing about the episode.
  • Pauline Moran’s Miss Lemon finally gets a meaty turn in a scene where she goes undercover as a reporter to the aforementioned Greasy Nightclub Owner’s club to interview Carla. She plays it to the hilt, and like so many of Moran’s extended scenes it just leaves me wanting more screen time for her.
  • Agent Burt repeatedly states throughout the episode that there’s no such thing as The Mafia, the Cosa Nostra, or the Family, which is A) both historically true in that the FBI denied their existence for quite some time, and B) funny as he’s proven wrong.
  • I thought Carla’s motivation for double-crossing the Mafia – they wouldn’t let a woman rise in the ranks – was pretty modern for 1936, and was way better than the usual spiel you’d expect, which would have been “they killed my [insert male relative or spouse here]”.

The Bad:

  • The rest of the plot seems a bit warmed-over; the mystery of the Lucky Renters feels like a discarded version of the Third Floor Flat (complete with a prominent dustbin door as a plot device), the espionage angle itself isn’t particularly coherent or interesting, and overall there’s just a few too many moving parts involved in tying in the renter story and the spy stuff. The episode’s better than I thought it was upon the initial viewing, but it’s in spite of the story, which isn’t terribly good.
  • Turns out the Lucky Renters shared the same last name as Carla and her accomplice, who rented them the apartment in hopes that the Mafia assassin on their trail would kill the Lucky Renters instead of them. It’s… stupid, really, and a hell of a coincidence, but we’re long past rolling our eyes at coincidence in this series.

Huh. I thought I’d have more bad stuff to say about it given how disappointed I was after first watching it, but upon reflection the good stuff stylistically and thematically I think carries it over the line into being an interesting episode, if not a great one. I haven’t read the story it’s based on, but I have to believe the episode is probably better.

Now, That’s Just Good Sidekickin’!: Our Man Hastings, of course, theorizing as to the Lucky Renters’ real motivations, of course jumps straight to “white slaving”. I find it hilarious that this is almost always Hastings’ first choice as to what the bad guys are up to.

Hey! It’s That Guy! And That Gal!: FBI Agent Burt is played by none other than William Hootkins! Hootkins played both Major Eaton in Raiders of the Lost Ark (“Top. Men.”) and Lt. Eckhardt in Tim Burton’s Batman movie (“Think about your future, Jack!”). And as if that wasn’t enough, Mrs. Lucky Renter is played by Samantha Bond, whom you might recall as Moneypenny from the Brosnan-era Bond films!

Japp, Of The Yard!:  I think it’s worth pointing out the great work Philip Jackson has been doing in making Japp both consistent in his worldview, steadfast in his friendship and admiration for Poirot, and generally making the Chief Inspector a welcome sight each episode with real character instead of just “the plod who’s dumber than our hero”. He has another great turn here as he’s put-upon by the blustering Agent Burt, and his final act of refusing to allow gunplay at the climax shows us that the movie violence he seems to love at the beginning of the episode is only an escape for him, not something to which he aspires in the real world.

Next Week, on Poirot It’s been a hot minute since we had a kidnapping episode — we’re not counting L’Affaire d’ Davenheim — so the penultimate episode of the season brings us “The Kidnapped Prime Minister”!