Times Staff Writer

While it's being a mystery, "Dead Man's Folly" is sure-footed and fun. When it comes time to unravel the mystery, however, CBS' latest Agatha Christie film, airing at 9 tonight on Channels 2 and 8, stumbles badly.

Peter Ustinov returns as Christie's droll detective, Hercule Poirot, who is invited by an American mystery writer (Jean Stapleton) to attend her fictional "murder hunt" at an English estate where she thinks a real murder may be in the works. She's right, of course--doubly so, in fact. Maybe triply.

As usual, Ustinov has a ball with Poirot, his eyes darting back and forth mischievously as he processes information for possible clues. You can almost see his little gray cells at work.

His suspects here are properly enigmatic and full of contradictory information, and they're played by a top-drawer cast that includes Tim Pigott-Smith and Susan Wooldridge from "The Jewel in the Crown," Christopher Guard from "My Cousin Rachel" and Tony Award-winner Constance Cummings ("Wings").

But the crescendo of suspicion ends in a whimper, not a bang. With all of the potentially guilty parties gathered about him, Poirot reveals who was responsible for the killings and then launches into an explanation of the methodology and motivation that is overly long and convoluted.

Even one of the characters sees fit to observe when he's done that the presentation was "a bit long-winded."

Filmed on location in England, the movie was directed by Clive Donner, written by Rod Browning and produced by Neil Hartley.

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