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Murder, she wrote: The best Agatha Christie movies

Throughout her prolific career, Agatha Christie wrote 75 novels, 28 short story collections, 16 plays, seven radio broadcasts works, and three poems. All of that work was bound to be adapted into film and television, and in the last 90 years, nearly 50 theatrical movies and 100 television programs have been made based on her works. With all of that content to sift through, it can be hard to tell the good from the bad.

With another version of Death on the Nile set for release on February 11, there’s no better time to take a look at some of the best movies (and one mini-series) that have been adapted from Christie’s considerable canon. While some of these films may differ in style and scope, they all share a common trait of making the solving of a murder the most appealing thing to do with one’s free time.

And Then There Were None (1945)

The first significantly successful Agatha Christie adaptation, And Then There Were None was also the first of many interpretations of Christie’s most famous novel, Ten Little Indians. The story is simple: Ten strangers gather at an isolated mansion on an empty island and are killed off systematically for crimes they committed (and got away with) earlier in their lives. This version softens Christie’s nihilistic ending by making Miss Claythorne and Phillip Lombard (who is revealed to be an imposter related to the real Lombard) innocent and punishing the mastermind behind the murderous scheme. Yet this 1945 film is pleasurable due to its cast of Hollywood’s best character actors (Walter Huston, Judith Anderson, and Barry Fitzgerald are some of the victims) and the sophisticated direction of Rene Clair, who had immigrated to Hollywood at this time after escaping Vichy France. It’s dated, but And Then There Were None still largely holds up one of the most entertaining murder mysteries of the 1940s.

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

A woman stands in front of two men in Witness for the Prosecution.

One of the most memorable Christie pictures, Witness for the Prosecution could have originated the term “spoiler warning” due to its twist ending, which shocked theater audiences when it debuted on the West End stage and later on Broadway. The plot is a doozy: Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power, in his final completed film role) is accused of killing a wealthy widow for her money. A retired barrister (a typically droll Charles Laughton) agrees to take his case on. Marlene Dietrich pops up as Vole’s wife, who, of course, has secrets of her own. Dual identities, a shocking revelation, and an unexpected confession create a mystery that often strains credibility. The director, Billy Wilder, somehow makes this illogical plot make sense and it’s fun watching talented actors like Laughton, Dietrich, and Elsa Lanchester ham it up in and out of the courtroom. Christie herself considered it to be the best adaptation of one of her works (she also liked the ’74 version of Murder on the Orient Express) and the film was nominated for six Oscars including Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, Best Actor, and Best Picture.

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

Poirot presents his case to some suspects in Murder on the Orient Express

Probably the most famous Agatha Christie adaptation is Murder on the Orient Express, which was first brought to the screen in 1974 (and later remade by Kenneth Branagh in 2017). Directed by Sidney Lumet, who had just made the gritty crime drama Serpico, this film utilized the Grand Hotel formula and contained a who’s who of Hollywood in the early 1970s: Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Perkins, Jacqueline Bissett, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Wendy Hiller, Rachel Roberts, Michael York, Richard Widmark, Lauren Bacall, and Ingrid Bergman in her Oscar-winning role as a traumatized missionary. Leading the cast, and the investigation on the snowbound train, is Albert Finney, who infuses his Hercule Poirot with a strangeness that makes the Belgian detective seem like a curious alien examining the human race for the first time. This all-star package is topped by some great cinematography (everyone seems bathed in a warm glow that only Hollywood money can buy) and assured direction by Lumet, who arranges each actor and plot device like an expert chess master.

Murder By Death (1976)

The cast of Murder by Death looks shocked.

While not technically based on any of Agatha Christie’s works (the original screenplay is by Neil Simon), Murder By Death has enough of Christie’s signature elements to qualify. The movie is a spoof of the detective genre and lampoons not only Christie but also Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Earl Derr Biggers, among others. Central to the cast is Milo Perrier, a not-so-veiled riff on Hercule Poirot, who has to continually remind his sleuth peers that he’s “a Belgie, not a Frenchie” and is more consumed with food than solving a murder, and Jessica Marbles, a frumpy stand-in for Christie’s popular female detective, Miss Marple. The film is silly and a bit childish (the ending is straight out of Scooby-Doo), but it’s fun for mystery fans who love seeing the genre get lovingly mocked.

Death on the Nile (1978)

Poirot stands with various suspects in Death on the Nile.

It took four long years to capitalize on the success of Murder on the Orient Express, and the result is a film that’s inferior in almost every way. Finney had better things to do, so Peter Ustinov takes on the role of Poirot and opts to play the detective as straight and boring as possible. The film also has a cheap, musty look that makes it appear it’s been stored in mothballs. Yet the film is saved by its female cast, who each have a ball tearing into their roles with gusto. Mia Farrow, looking pale and wronged, has one of her best roles since Rosemary’s Baby. As a pampered wealthy woman and her overly severe nurse, Bette Davis and Maggie Smith snipe at each other with nasty delight. And as the permanently soused Salome Otterbourne, Angela Lansbury camps it up (she even wears a turban!) and somehow wrings some pathos out of her ridiculous character.

And Then There Were None (2015)

Guests seated at a dining table look at the camera in And Then There Were None.

Of the over two dozen adaptations of And Then There Were One, this 2015 BBC version is the best. A large reason why is that it’s the first English-language version to adhere to Christie’s original ending, which eliminates everyone and produces no recognizable hero. In fact, this version is perhaps even more brutal, as it expands on the character’s backstories, forcing the audience to identify with a child killer, a homicidal judge, and a conscienceless fortune hunter, all of whom are guilty of murder. The script by Sarah Phelps (who would later adapt other Christie works for television) effectively uses flashbacks and symbolism to convey each character’s crime and keeps the most knowledgeable Christie fan guessing even though they already know the outcome. It’s a mystery filled with a spellbinding sense of tension and despair, and is not to be missed.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

The cast of Murder on the Orient Express poses inside a train.

Kenneth Branagh’s new version of Murder on the Orient Express was a surprise success in 2017, grossing over $350 million worldwide. It’s not hard to see why as the film, like the 1974 version, populates its cast with notable stars such as Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Leslie Odom Jr., Josh Gad, Daisey Ridley, and Johnny Depp. As Poirot, Branagh is better than Ustinov but not as memorable as Finney. He’s engaging enough to lead the audience from one suspect to another before making his grand declaration at the end that he has solved the case. Pfeiffer is the most memorable of the stacked cast as Linda Arden, who is not as superficial as she first appears, and the production design and score are better than usual for this type of film. Overall, it’s a diverting movie with just enough suspense and glamour to satisfy most viewers.

Crooked House (2017)

A woman descends a staircase as two people wait below in Crooked House.

Overshadowed by the success of Murder on the Orient Express in 2017, Crooked House is just as good and packs more of a punch at the end than its more popular Christie film brethren. Like most modern Christie adaptations, this one also sports an impressive cast: Glenn Close, Gillian Anderson, Terence Stamp, Max Irons, and Christina Hendricks, to name just a few. Crooked House contains all of the elements of a classic Christie story told well: A stately manor in the English countryside, a variety of suspects in expensive clothing, family secrets that are gradually revealed, and a humdinger of an ending, which I wouldn’t dream of revealing. It’s not a masterpiece by any means, but like any good Christie mystery, it satisfies an immediate urge for murder and melodrama.

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