Well, as adaptations and embellishments of short stories go, Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (Season V, Episode 5) is something of a triumph and full credit to Clive Exton for taking a thin story first published in 1923 and, with one minor blemish, making it entertaining for the full hour. Let’s start with the heart of Miss Lemon (Paula Moran). She moves through the novels and short stories as an essentially sexless creature, always responsible and efficient in her role. Yet here there’s a risk she may fly the nest and leave Hercule Poirot (David Suchet) for Mr Graves (Leonard Preston), an ex-Navy man working as a private secretary to an Italian count. For once, Poirot rises above selfishness and encourages Miss Lemon to find happiness if it’s on offer. He seems sanguine that this may trigger the departure of his valued secretary. Indeed, he even volunteers to meet the man and both he and Hastings find him acceptable for Miss Lemon. During the conversation, this Mr Graves even shyly admits to owning a small motor cruiser. It was offered to him at a giveaway price as he was leaving the navy. As a final gesture, he tells Hercule Poirot that his employer, Count Foscatini may be acting on behalf of the Italian government to recover some documents being used to blackmail someone politically important. Naturally, he doesn’t have the position to invite Hercule Poirot into the case, but it’s an indication Hercule Poirot’s little grey cells may be required in the future.
Hercule Poirot is also loyally following Captain Hastings (Hugh Fraser) as the latter considers the possibility of buying one of those wonderful Italian sports cars of the period. There’s some tooing and froing before Hastings decides to take the plunge, witnessing an argument in the showroom as he writes out his cheque. During all this Poirot remains convinced the only point of a car is that it has four wheels that will not fall off and get him where he needs to go with the least alarm.
At this point, we pick up the plot of the original short story as Poirot and Hastings are dining with Dr Hawker (Arthur Cox), a neighbour, when a telephone call is received from a patient. The maid relays the message that Count Foscatini (Sidney Kean) says he’s being murdered and would someone please come and help. When they arrive at the flat, they find the Count dead, meet a spooky Siamese cat, and call for the police (not because of the cat, you understand). Poirot sums up the position of the body next the phone and the dining table set for two. He talks to the building’s chef (David Verrey) who confirms sending two soups, Dover soles and a rice soufflé, almost all of which was eaten. When they return to the flat, Inspector Japp (Philip Jackson) has taken charge and, to their surprise, Mr Graves walks in. It seems he’s been exaggerating his status a little. Rather than a private secretary, he’s actually a man servant. Ah, the things men say during early courtship to talk the bird down from the tree. When the fingerprints on the two coffee cups and wine glasses are analysed, it appears that the Count was eating with Mario Asciano (Vincent Riotta), a known Italian criminal. This is presumably the blackmailer Mr Graves was talking about.
Hercule Poirot and Hastings therefore hotfoot round to the Italian Embassy. Sadly, the high-ranking officials refuse help but, as they are leaving, a member of staff tells them that a forerunner of the Mafia, a dangerous criminal organisation, is almost certainly involved. When Mario Asciano is tracked down, the burnt ashes of the blackmail papers are found but no money. He’s arrested for the murder. Except all is not well in the garden as Miss Lemon’s research shows there’s no such title as the Count of Foscatini and the post mortem shows the Count did not eat before dying. There’s a nice piece of stage business involving a mirror with Hastings trying to distinguish his left from right and then an interminable car chase as the real killer tries to make a run for it with the money. While it’s always wonderful to see so many period vehicles driven by stunt drivers in the recreation of a slow-motion chase, this was excessive.
So there we have it. In a way, the mystery element is rather superfluous. It’s rather obvious whodunnit although the motive is not without merit. Miss Lemon does end up with a new man in her life. With Graves no longer having an employer, someone has to look after the Siamese cat — if you remember, she was mourning the loss of her last cat in The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb, also adapted by Clive Exton. Hercule Poirot shows he’s a caring employer. Captain Hastings is left to worry about his new car and, for once, Inspector Japp can emerge from a Poirot mystery without having been made to look a complete fool. All in all, The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman is a superior episode with Leonard Preston particularly pleasing as the love interest.
For reviews of other Agatha Christie stories and novels, see:
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2004) — the first three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2005) — the second set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2006) — the third set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2007) — the final set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Case of the Missing Will (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Chocolate Box (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Clocks (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Three Act Tragedy (2011)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Underdog (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Yellow Iris (1993)