Once you get past the initial head-scratching, the pairing of Agatha Christie, the genteel grand dame of British mystery novelists, and Neil LaBute, the misanthropic auteur behind such bleak exercises in ritual cruelty as “In the Company of Men” and “Your Friends and Neighbors,” makes more sense than it would seem at first glance. We’ll even go so far as to say there is something intriguingly intuitive — promising, even — about this week’s news that LaBute has signed on to direct “Gosford Park” screenwriter Julian Fellowes’ adaptation of one of Christie’s most beloved novels, Crooked House.
For one thing, they share a dim view of humanity’s capacity to do the right thing. Though Christie is not known for her nihilist streak, some of her most famous quips reveal the kind of deep-seeded cynicism that’s become a hallmark of LaBute’s work on stage and screen. Here’s a sampling of some Christie quotes that could have just as easily been uttered by LaBute, a lapsed Mormon and man of little faith in the existence of goodness in the world: ”If one sticks too rigidly to one’s principles, one would hardly see anybody.” Or: “Where large sums of money are involved, it’s advisable to trust nobody.” Finally, and most revealingly: “I specialize in murders of quiet domestic interest.” In that light, it would seem that there is no more perfect material for LaBute, who also specializes in quiet, domestic crimes. However his victims suffer at the hands of emotional terrorists no less coldblooded than Christie’s murderous culprits.
Crooked House‘s narrative unfolds around the murder of a powerful Greek patriarch, who is poisoned by his eye medication. When his bereaved daughter refuses to marry her fiance until the murder is solved, her intended, the novel’s protagonist and first-person narrator, takes it upon himself to crack the case. The ensuing whodunit casts suspicion on various family members, each of whom stands to gain, financially or otherwise, from the paterfamilias’ death. However, in typical Christie fashion, the perpetrator is far from the top of the list of suspects, and is motivated by much more mundane and casually cruel motives. In other words, it’s a nihilistic amorality tale that seems tailor made for LaBute’s dark-hearted sensibility. Lately he’s been slumming in the genre trenches, churning out programmatic crime flicks like the hate-crime thriller “Lakeview Terrace,” and last year’s literally titled “Death at a Funeral.” So Crooked House could be a return to the promise he showed early on with his adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s mystery-romance, Possession.
It’s been a good long while since a major filmmaker has tapped the Christie canon. In 1980, frequent James Bond director, Guy Hamilton — best known for directing such classic 007 iterations as “Goldfinger,” “Live and Let Die,” and “Diamonds Are Forever” — made the inspired move of casting Angela Lansbury as Christie sleuth, Miss Jane Marple in “The Mirror Crack’d.” Before that, the great Sidney Lumet created the classic adaptation of “Murder on the Orient Express” starring Albert Finney and Lauren Bacall. Finally, Billy Wilder presided over what many consider to be the definitive big-screen Christie experience — ”Witness for the Prosecution,” in which Tyrone Power played a man on trial for murdering a rich heiress and shocked to discover his wife (Marlene Dietrich) has agreed to be the titular witness for the other side. That film was nominated for a slew of Oscars and lost out, in many cases, to “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”
In other words, we’re long overdue for a cinematic Christie revival. And LaBute may be just the filmmaker to bring her to the masses in the new millennium. We’d love nothing more than for Christie to join Ian Fleming in launching a Brit-flavored international film franchise. Anyone with us on this? What are some titles from Christie’s back catalogue you’re most itching to see on the big screen? And who are the filmmakers best suited to the job?