Original theatrical release poster

The Alphabet Murders is a loose adaptation of the novel The A.B.C. Murders by Agatha Christie. It was produced by Lawrence P. Bachmann for MGM UK studios. Bachmann had earlier produced a series of Miss Marple adaptations featuring Margaret Rutherford in the title role and the The Alphabet Murders continued in the same vein with comic humour playing a significant role. As a nod to its heritage, the film featured a cameo appearance by Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple and Stringer Davis as Mr Stringer. Former Poirot actor Austin Trevor also stars as a butler.

The part of Poirot was played by Tony Randall. It had originally been intended for Zero Mostel but the film was delayed because Agatha Christie had objected to the initial script which featured too much sexual innuendo.[1] The film varies significantly from the novel and emphasises comedy, the specialty of director Frank Tashlin. The screenplay was written by David Pursall and Jack Seddon.

Synopsis

Albert Aachen is found murdered by a poison dart. There is an A.B.C. guide by the body. Then a woman named Betty Barnard becomes the next victim. Hercule Poirot tries to follow the apparently alphabetical trail and forestall the next killing.

A beautiful woman with the initials A.B.C. seems to be linked with the crimes but then she jumps off a crane into the River Thames. The police are satisfied that the crime has been solved, but not Poirot.

Comparison with Original Story

(may contain spoilers - click on expand to read)

Except for the theme of a sequence of murder victims with names in alphabetical order, accompanied by the placement of an A.B.C. guide at the crime scene, this adaptation is radically different from the original book. Some of the characters have the same names as in the original but their backstories are significantly different as well. Even Hastings is not Poirot's regular partner but a secret service agent assigned to see Poirot safely out of the country.

The murders do not take place in towns in alphabetical order. All the events take place in London. Poirot is not drawn in the case by a series of warning letters. Here he is accosted at a turkish bath by an apparently psychotic blonde woman who says she must kill. She then escapes leaving behind a handbag with the initials A.B.C and a bowling score card. A.A. has already been killed--he is an "aquaclown", a stunt diver. The bowling card leads Poirot to B.B. (Betty Barnard) who in this case is a bowling alley instructress. Both Betty and Don Fortune, her boyfriend, seem to know of the woman A.B.C. but they don't give Poirot many details.

Betty is killed shortly thereafter. By questioning Don Fortune, Poirot learns that A.B.C. is a woman he had tried to chat up, and that she is a patient of a psychiatrist Duncan Doncaster who had also wanted treat Betty Barnard. Doncaster is a nod to the town of Doncaster which in this adaptation, Poirot never goes to. He is the D.D.

Poirot next meets Doncaster who tells him that A.B.C. is a schizophrenic case he has treated and that she has some obsession with the letters of the alphabet in sequence. By sneaking a look at Doncaster's patient index, Poirot learns that A.B.C. is Amanda Beatrice Cross, social secretary of shipping tycoon Sir Carmichael Clarke. Poirot is worried that Sir Carmichael, C.C. will be next.

Sir Carmichael doesn't believe Poirot's warnings and sends him packing but Poirot hides in the house and discovers Lady Diane Clarke (not at all an invalid, unlike the Lady Charlotte in the original novel) having an affair with Doncaster (he seems to have an affair with Betty Barnard and A.B.C. as well). Sir Carmichael also stumble on the lovers. There is a lot he does not know. Lady Diane tells him, for example, that his step brother Franklin Clarke is gambling away the family fortune at a night club.

Sir Carmichael goes to the nightclub and predictably, he is shot by a poison dart and killed.

All this while, a running gag has been the many efforts of Hastings (with the help of the police) to get Poirot to the airport and have him flown out of the country but Poiort somehow always escapes. Now Hastings decides the fastest way to get Poirot out is to help him solve the case, since Poirot refuses to let it go. Poirot reasons that someone must be harbouring A.B.C. or working in cahoots with her and they deduce it must be Doncaster. Hastings makes an anonymous call to Doncaster, warning that Poirot is closing in on A.B.C. As predicted, this smokes Doncaster out. He goes to look for Amanda to warn her. Poirot follows him onto a ship. Through a porthole and he sees Doncaster with Amanda in a cabin. But before Poirot can do anything else, he is knocked out.

Poirot awakes to find himself in the cabin surrounded by Japp and the police. Doncaster is lying dead next to him. He has been killed by a poison dart and Japp is certain Amanda killed him. Poirot's attacker was Don Fortune. He had also followed Doncaster because he dislike him for his relationship with Betty.

The police discover Amanda in the dockyards. She tries to escape but is cornered and climbs up a crane. Poirot urges her to come down, assuring her that he knows she didn't do the killings and that he would help her. But she jumps into the water and disappears.

The police are satisfied that the case is solved but Poirot still has doubts. Talk of a red herring gives him and idea and he goes to Sir Carmichael's house. The butler tells him Lady Diane and Franklin had just departed on a train to Scotland with the coffin to embark on a ship. Sir Carmichael is to be buried at sea. Thereafter, Franklin and Lady Diane would go to South America for a respite.

Poirot follows them on the train and corners Franklin in the luggage van. The body of Lady Diane is also there. She has just been poisoned by him. He accuses Franklin of being the mastermind behind the crimes. He stands to inherit a large fortune after all. Suddenly, out of a coffin, with a dart gun in hand, pops Amanda!

Poirot reconstructs the crime for the two. Amanda had spent a stint in Switzerland supposedly on health grounds. There, she could have learnt stunt diving from A.A. She and Franklin then plotted the alphabetical killings to hide the motive for the killing of C.C. After D.D., Amanda pretended to commit suicide by jumping off the crane but she survived because she had learnt to do stunt diving from A.A. Now, Franklin with Amanda disquised as Lady Diane plan to escape by ship to South America. Lady Diane would be hidden in the coffin and buried at sea.

Amanda, with a sneer, agrees that Poirot is right and prepares to kill him. But apparently Poirot has brought his "insurance". He gives a whistle and the van suddenly fills with policemen hidden in all sorts of unusual places.

What are the themes carried over from the original novel?

  • Victims in alphabetical sequence with an A.B.C. guide next to them.
  • The series of apparently random murders is designed to hide the intended one.
  • The killings are made to appear to be done by a deranged person with an obsession but are really part of a cold blooded and calculated plan.
  • Following the only killing with a plausible motive is the key to the solution.

Cast

References

  1. Mark Aldridge, Agatha Christie on Screen, Chapter 6.
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