“DUMB WITNESS” (1996) Review

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“DUMB WITNESS” (1996) Review

There is a belief among fans of the “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” series that the episodes and television movies that aired between 1989 and 2001 – ones that featured Arthur Hastings, Chief Inspector Japp and Miss Lemon – were more faithful adaptations of Agatha Christie’s novels that the more recent ones that have aired since 2003. I do not know if I agree with this opinion, especially after viewing the 1996 television movie, “DUMB WITNESS”

Screenwriter Douglas Watkinson’s script more or less remained faithful to the 1937 novel’s main narrative. Surrounded by grasping young relatives is a wealthy elderly woman named Emily Arundell. One night, she is injured after suffering a fall on the staircase of her home. Many believe that she had tripped over a ball by pet fox terrier, Bob. Emily later dies of what many believed to be natural causes before Poirot could meet her. And her estate was unexpectedly left to her companion, Miss Lawson. “DUMB WITNESS” remained faithful to that aspect of Christie’s novel. I suspect that many fans of the “POIROT” would be surprised at the number of changes Watkinson and director Edward Bennett made to the story.

I wish I could go into detail about the number of changes Bennett made to Christie’s story, but I suspect that would require an essay. I do know that in the novel, Hercule Poirot never met the victim, Emily Arundell. Instead, she had written a letter to him, claiming that someone was trying to kill her. By the time Poirot arrived at her home, she had been dead for some time, due to a delay in the delivery of her letter. The novel was also set in Berkshire. One of Emily’s nieces, Therese Arundell, was engaged to a Dr. Donaldson. Hastings ended up with Bob, Emily’s pet terrier. And the murderer committed suicide before being exposed by Poirot. Bennett changed the story’s setting to England’s Lake District, due to rewriting the Charles Arundell character into a motor boat racer and speed demon. Therese did not have a fiance in this movie. Instead, the beau of Emily’s companion, Wilhelmina Lawson, is a medical man named Dr. Greinger. Charles Arundell’s new profession led to Poirot and Hastings’ visit to the Arundell home in order to witness the racer attempt a new speed record. Because of this visit, Poirot met Emily Arundell before she was murdered. And the killer never got the opportunity to commit suicide in order to avoid prison.

I have never read Christie’s 1937 novel. But if it turned out to be better than this television adaptation of it, I look forward to reading it. As one would guess, I enjoyed “DUMB WITNESS” very much. It proved to be an enjoyable story that recaptured the provincial charm of the Lake District. The story provided certain elements of rural English life and society in the 1930s that contributed nicely to the story’s main narrative. “DUMB WITNESS” provided peaks into early 20th century’s penchant for speed due to the rise of motorized vehicles and the Charles Arundell character. It also provided glimpses into British spiritualism, due to the Tripp sisters, Emily’s elderly neighbors with an obssession with spiritualism and the occult.

A good number of Christie novels and adaptations have revealed British xenophobia against foreigners – especially in the bigoted attitudes of British characters toward Poirot. But the xenophobic attitude in “DUMB WITNESS” seemed to have grown worse in the characters’ attitude toward Emily’s nephew-in-law, the Greek-born doctor, Dr. Jacob Tanios. He is married to Emily’s other niece, Bella Arundell Tanios. Emily seemed to be the only character who actually liked Dr. Tanios. Poirot seemed to be put off by his brusque manner. One can say the same about Hastings, who also automatically labeled Tanios as Emily’s killer. I had this odd feeling that Hastings’ lack of tolerance toward Tanios not only originated from the latter’s brusque personality, but also the fact that he came from Eastern Europe, which is regarded as the continent’s backwater. The interesting aspect about the xenophobic attitude depicted in “DUMB WITNESS” was that it struck me as very disturbing, yet at the same time, not too heavy-handed. Kudos to both the screenwriter and the director.

“DUMB WITNESS” featured some solid performances by the cast. But there were a few performances that I found rather exceptional. David Suchet was impeccable, as usual, in his portrayal of Belgian detective. Hugh Fraser gave one of his better performances as Captain Arthur Hastings, revealing the character’s mild xenophobia with great subtlety. Ann Morrish did an excellent job in conveying the strong-willed presence of the elderly Emily Arundell. Julia St. John gave a memorable performance as Emily’s mild-mannered niece, Bella, who seemed to be in terror of her foreign-born husband. And I was also impressed by Paul Herzberg’s portrayal of Jacob Tanios. He did an excellent job of revealing how his character’s brusque manner hid a personality intimidated by the hostility he was forced to face in a foreign country. I am not going to pretend that I am a person that likes having pets. I do not. But I could not help but fall in love with Snubby, the fox terrier, who portrayed Bob, one of the cutest dogs I have ever seen on television or in a movie.

Overall, I would say that “DUMB WITNESS” was an entertaining adaptation of Christie’s novel. Thanks to director Edward Bennett and screenwriter Douglas Watkinson and a cast led by David Suchet, it was a solid and classy affair that also provided a surprisingly deeper look into British xenophobia.

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