Act of Murder, An [1948]

The grande dame of teacake murder mysteries, Agatha Christie, has kept generations of readers--and viewers--in her thrall, and this magnificent boxed set is a must for any Christie fan, rabid or casual. The collection includes eight films made for British TV in the '80s, most starring the first lady of the American theater, Helen Hayes, as Miss Marple, and the inimitable Peter Ustinov as Poirot. It would be hard to imagine more acting talent packed into compact TV mysteries. The three Hayes tales (also available as a separate set) are Murder Is Easy costarring Bill Bixby, a still-radiant Olivia de Havilland, and a young Jonathan Pryce; A Caribbean Mystery, with Barnard Hughes and Swoosie Kurtz; and the grande-dame-duet Murder with Mirrors, with Hayes playing opposite her onetime real-life nemesis, Bette Davis. Mirrors alone is worth the price of the set, as Hayes is in fine form, completely un-vain and sweetly droll. As she heads toward a country manor to visit her "dear friend" Carrie Louise, played by Bette Davis. Davis, in one of her last film performances, plays a woman who may--or may not--be being slowly poisoned to death, but regardless is frail and slightly incoherent. Davis looks quite frail herself, and her line delivery seems a bit uncertain--perhaps extremely effective Method acting, or perhaps she was indeed as frail as she looks; either way, film fans won't want to miss this. In the three Ustinov films (also available as a separate set), Thirteen for Dinner features Ustinov's Poirot trying to solve the murder of one Lord Edgeware, investigating, among others, the lovely mystery woman played by a witchy Faye Dunaway. (And in a fun bit of foreshadowing, David Suchet, who would go on to play a formidable, more metrosexual Poirot himself, appears here in the role of Poirot's sidekick Japp.) Dead Man's Folly finds Poirot and an old friend, a mystery writer played by Jean Stapleton, at a "murder hunt" party at which the dead body really does turn up dead. Murder in Three Acts finds Poirot far afield in sunny Acapulco, at a glorious villa belonging to a suave actor played by Tony Curtis. A random death-by-martini at a posh party opens the door to the possibility of murder--handy that Poirot is there to help the local constables. The supporting cast features top '80s TV actors like Emma Samms as the actor's arm candy, and Diana Muldaur (the wicked Rosalind Shays on L.A. Law). The production values are also topnotch--with gorgeous location shots in Mexico adding romance but also unnerving isolation to the proceedings. The two non-Marple and -Poirot films (and thus not included on those individual DVD sets) are Sparkling Cyanide, starring Anthony Andrews and Harry Morgan as officers investigating serial poisonings, and The Man in the Brown Suit, a zippy yarn of international intrigue, with Stephanie Zimbalist as a tourist in Cairo caught in a nightmare of stolen diamonds and death. Supporting roles by Rue McClanahan, Tony Randall, and Edward Woodward add texture to the mysterious proceedings. Never has murder most foul been so deliciously entertaining. --A.T. Hurley

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