We all have our critical blindspots. Some people like films about flying men and people who dress up in bat outfits. I have one for Agatha Christie adaptations. They nearly always disappoint, because Christie novels have been designed with one instantiation in mind – reading them on a rainy afternoon in a holiday cottage in Cornwall. Anything apart from that is out of context.
After last year’s acceptably disappointing Murder on the Orient Express, comes this more low key adaptation of Christie’s favourite novel. Raymond Chandler famously dismissed the country house murders of Christie, by declaring that Hammett took murder out of the drawing room and put it back in the gutter where it belonged. With Poirot and Marple replaced by a more earthy (though still posh of course) Private Eye, 1949’s Crooked House could be interpreted as Christie’s attempt to counter this accusation. But the old habits die hard (unlike everyone in Christie land who dies with alacrity). It is the flip side of the Big Sleep which was itself an acerbic dismissal of the theme of grand house & aristocratic family with secrets. “It is a hothouse of suppressed passion”, Glenn Close says, perhaps making a nod to old man Sternwood amongst his orchids.
Given the nearness of death, most Christie books and adaptations lack any sense of menace. You don’t really care that any one dies, or fear for anyone. For a glimmer, Crooked House looks as though it may deliver on this as Glenn Close & Gillian Anderson bring a languid amorality – you believe they could actually kill.
But then it falls into traditional Christies territory, and mainly consists of PI Charles Hayword moving from one handsome room to another, questioning suspects. A bit of spy intrigue is half heartedly thrown in, and the film shifts the action of the book from 1947 to the 50s & burgeoning rock n roll and swinging London scene. But it limps along rather in familiar form. It does however have a dark denouement, which foreshadows some of the later psychological noir series we’ve all come to love. This is no sitting room scene with suspects waiting politely to be uncovered. Overall, it’s about what you’d expect from a Christie movie, which is about all you can expect.