Pour one out, mes amis, for this is the last time in the series we get to see Our Belgian in his desert whites with his spyglass cane! Longtime readers will know I have a soft spot for “Hercule on Vacation” episodes, and this… well, keep reading. It certainly is an episode.
Lord Boynton (
WADSWORTH TIM CURRY!) is running an archaeological dig in Syria looking for the head of John the Bapti—- oh, you know what, let’s get this out of the way right now and discuss the elephant in the room, and newcomers beware: to get into this, there’s gonna be spoilers for the book and the episode, because the two are so divergent that if I put spoiler tags around all the bits we need to talk about then it would literally be an entire article encased in a gigantic spoiler tag. Fair warning.
This episode is an “adaptation” of the novel in the very loosest sense of the word. It retains some of the characters, reconfigures others, adds still others, and while it retains the inciting event of the book (Lady Boynton gets killed), the motivations, details, and just about everything else are complete inventions of writer Guy Andrews.
I mean, this thing is bonkers.
It’s not quite as insane as, say “Murder in Mesopotamia”, but it’s… it’s close, and less competently executed.
And let’s be clear: Appointment With Death is a fine book! It’s approachable, clever, and has some very good character work. There’s nothing really wrong with it that would cause anyone adapting it to say, “Oh, this’ll never work on film, we have to put these pieces back in a different order.” It’s pretty much classic Christie, although it doesn’t reach “sacred text” status the way Roger Ackroyd, Orient Express, or Death on the Nile does.
I’ll admit I had a very, very different reaction rewatching the adaptation in 2020 than I did when I first saw it years ago, especially now as I consider its place in the series as a whole and the evolution of Suchet’s portrayal of the famous detective.
Let’s talk about the biggest thing that didn’t work for me, and that’s the repeated flashbacks to Lady Boynton and “assistant” Nanny Taylor committing brutal acts of child abuse. It’s really just a couple of scenes, but they’re shown repeatedly throughout the episode, and though the violence is implied rather than seen, I can only take so much of children screaming as they’re beaten or held underwater. The audio alone is brutal, and the scenes are, frankly, disturbing and bordering on gratuitous given the repetition.
And they succeed almost a little too well in their purpose, which is to make us sympathize with the adopted (oh, they’re all adopted now) children of Lady B – by the end of the first act I was in full-on “thank you for your service, murderer” mode and pretty much rooting for the killer.
Which normally I’d be fine with, but here, it’s jarring because… Oof, I’m not going to explain myself very well here, so bear with me.
See, to me there are, very broadly speaking, two kinds of Poirot episodes: the first is the kind where the victim is innocent and tragic and their death serves to drive the need to see justice done, and those are generally emotionally rewarding, and we root for Our Belgian to bring moral balance to the scales. I’m looking for characters, not necessarily plot.
The other kind is where the victim is just Evil with a capital “E”, and good riddance, smell ya later, don’t let the door hit you on the way out, and from that point on it’s all about the game itself of cracking the clues, solving the puzzle, and watching Our Belgian sift through the lies and connecting a string of seemingly unrelated dots. Drama be damned, give me a great plot.
Can some episodes be a mix with great drama AND plot? Of course, and it’s no coincidence that most of the best ones are – but “AwD” initially leans so far into the latter expectation that it’s severe whiplash when it turns around and tries to hit us with allegory, religion, moral certitude, and the like.
“Appointment With Death” tries to have its cake and eat it too; it wants us to sympathize with the killer, but it’s so incredibly melodramatic from top to bottom, convinced of its own emotional heft that it vaults over “drama” and clears the bar for “oh my God, this is camp, isn’t it?”.
And that’s when I realized: the episode fails completely as an adaptation (and honestly as Serious Christie) but it succeeds mightily as an overheated potboiler with a bunch of scenery-chewing guest stars in service to a ludicrous plot; hey, it worked for Sid Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (although that one had a much lighter tone and a killer gimmick). I refuse to believe this episode is wholly an exercise in incompetence by a well-seasoned cast and crew of a long-running series.
I mean, my God, they have to be in on the joke, right?
How else do you get scenes like Mark Gatiss (in a dry run for his Mycroft Holmes take in Steven Moffat’s Sherlock series) slithering his way around sneers one minute, then *checks notes* burying a skull in the sand so his dad would stop running around Syria and.. uh… pay more attention to him? Or something?
How else do you get a subplot about (I am not making this up) a nun neck deep in the white slaving business?
How else do you get a wax ball full of goat’s blood melting in the sun as a critical element of the murder? How do you even MAKE a “wax ball full of goat’s blood” without someone wondering, “Hey, that… that seems weird, man. What’s that for?”
How else do you get Elizabeth McGovern(!) being introduced as British(!!) adventuress(!!!) and travel writer(!!!!) Dame Westholme – no longer an MP or American (!!!!!) by riding up in full Arab nomad costume, dismounting from a horse and dramatically unwrapping her head to reveal her face in full makeup to Lawrence of Arabia music (!!!!!!!wijhfsougfsifuh!!!!!!)?
How else do you get a bug-eyed Tim Curry spending the first 5 minutes of the episode hanging from a harness in a dark chamber with a single light shining down on him, silently reading ancient glyphs? (Points for Curry’s “archeological outfit” consisting of welding goggles and ranchwear, like a steampunk cowboy.)
How else do you get people literally falling into bed with complete strangers at the drop of a hat, relationships springing up out of nowhere and being treated as lifetime achievements, and attitudes that turn on a dime because clearly we’re in Act II and we need Person X to hate Poirot now?
How else do you get all of this set against unrelentingly portentous music, Dutch angles, weird closeups, grand (and gorgeous) desert landscapes and vistas, religious imagery like weeping crucifixes, and melodramatic recitations of the fable of “Appointment in Samarra” (which ultimately has zero bearing on the plot, which is weird, because it would have been FAR more relevant had they kept the original plot)?
It takes itself so, so seriously that it upon rewatching it I found myself having a great time in spurts of 20 minutes or so on a B-movie lizard brain level, right up until it inevitably yanked me back once again to those child abuse flashbacks. It could have succeeded at being its own thing, divorced in everything but name from the original work had it A) quit hitting us over the head with the monstrosities perpetrated by Lady Boynton, and B) not overstuffed the screenplay with head-turning plot points and quantum characterization from scene to scene.
And the episode does a few things I actually quite liked unironically!
Poirot’s faith is more explicit here than in any episode to date, and I’m good with that; he’s aging into a more dependent relationship with God, and I think that rings true when I think of him as a person and someone who’s seen the worst humanity has to offer. He’s comforting, compassionate, and speaks to others with his trademark kindness that clearly has roots in his Catholic beliefs.
I also thought it was an interesting choice to have Lord Boynton be literally the only person who claimed to like Lady B, defending his “poppet” to the last; the ambiguity with which it treats their relationship (did he know about her past deeds or not? Was he just pretending to like her for the money?) makes sense for the (basically invented) character, who has an Ahab-like fixation on his archaeological quest. It would have been fascinating to get deeper into what loving a monster actually meant.
Is the actual method of murder a little too Rube Goldberg-y? Unquestionably. Is it also well-clued and clever? Yeah, it is, especially when they’re able to pass off something played as comic relief (Westholme slapping Lady B ostensibly because she had a bug on her, but really because she deserved a good slapping) only to turn it around and show that it was a key cog in the murderwheel.
Frankly, I’m also in a place right now where themes of parenting, making up for lost time, and the extremes one can be led to when trying to seek some sort of emotional closure with a parent or child resonate a lot more with me now that my kids are grown and in various states of life. So I won’t deny that’s colored my appraisal here, no matter how manipulative or lurid the execution.
And believe it or not, “Appointment With Death” very nearly pulls off the conclusion, thanks to the episode’s ace in the hole, John Hannah (you may remember him as comic relief in the Mummy film series, and he also did a season-long arc on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., among a ton of other roles).
Hannah’s great at flipping and mixing the comic and tragic, and his Dr. Gerard, here a co-conspirator in the death of Lady B (yup), turns out to have a much more personal connection to Jinny Boynton. Hannah and McGovern come thisclose to selling the whole damn thing at the end. It’s emotional, impactful, and a tragic ending…
…undercut almost immediately by an extended scene of White Slaver Polish Nun (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) driving her car into the middle of the desert and collapsing under circling vultures. (Ah, if only Hastings could have been here to see all his white slaver theories over the years vindicated.)
BONKERS, I TELLS YA.
Ultimately, I can’t and won’t argue with anyone who hates this episode. It’s weird, offputting, all over the place narratively, over the top in so many ways, is full of missed opportunities (you’re gonna have Paul Freeman show up in desert gear at an archaeological dig and NOT have at least a wink to his role as Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark?) and has only a passing relationship to the source material. If you were tuning into “Appointment With Death” hoping to see an adaptation of, uh, Appointment With Death, you would be rightly pissed.
But I can’t bring myself to hate it, because I think there’s enough stuff here that does work in fits and starts from a certain campy point of view (which, admittedly, is not something the show has ever led us to expect, so it’s entirely possible I’m just rationalizing liking trash TV when it’s got a bunch of actors I enjoy spending time with). It’s nowhere near top-notch Poirot, but it’s definitely top-tier “guilty pleasure” Poirot for me.
Like I said at the beginning… it certainly is an episode. And I’ll miss that spyglass cane.
In Two Weeks, on Poirot: Jiminy Christmas, folks, we’re already at Series 12! The opener sees us back on more familiar Christie ground, chock full o’ dinner parties, vicars, doctors, upper-crust liars, and more than a few murders. Watch as a poisoned cocktail turns a delightful social gathering into a… “Three Act Tragedy”!