09 March 2019

A Parade of Poirots


by Stephen Ross

I read today that Albert Finney died (7 Feb 2019; yes, I wrote this a month ago). Finney was a brilliant actor. I won't list his credits (it's a long list); suffice to say that the first movie I ever saw him in was the 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express. This was also my introduction to Agatha Christie (and movies directed by Sydney Lumet, which could be another whole article itself).

Anyway, I was a child, it was a winter's night, and my parents decided on a night out: Dinner in the city, and then a few blocks walk in the rain to one of the many cinemas that used to line Queen Street; the main street in Auckland City, NZ (think Regent Street, or Broadway).

Finney played Hercule Poirot; Agatha Christie's master Belgian detective (a character who appeared in 33 of her novels, 50 short stories, and one play). Poirot is her most famous character, and Murder on the Orient Express (1934) is probably her most famous book.

Albert Finney
I was hooked. The movie, Poirot & Christie, were my gateway drug into mystery fiction, i.e., proper adult crime mysteries, and away from the watered-down child readers I had been privy to up until that point. You know what I mean: Jimmy and Johnny, and their dog, go in search of a missing pocket watch, or plate of muffins. No, nice and juicy murders were now on my immediate horizon. And I hoovered up all the mysteries on my parent's bookshelf: Christie, Earle Stanley Gardner, Ngaio Marsh, and many others.

Two years later (1976), Death on the Nile came to the movie theaters. Poirot was back on the screen, and I took a train into the city to go catch a Saturday matinee. Poirot, this time, was played by Peter Ustinov, who couldn't have been more different in his portrayal of the character to that of Albert Finney than a buffalo impersonating a bicycle.

Actors interpret their role and bring their own uniqueness to it, which is fine, and it's the way it should be. But, as much as I like Peter Ustinov's movies, I always feel he was mostly interpreting himself.

Peter Ustinov
Fast forward to the 1990s, and a third Poirot entered my frame; the small frame, this time. Every Tuesday night at 8:30, David Suchet appeared on the TV in the role of Hercule Poirot. By sheer weight of volume (the Poirot TV series ran from 1989 until 2013, and adapted almost all of the short stories and novels), Suchet became the definitive Poirot in my mind, and those of many others. It helped, also, that he's a superb actor (and meticulous in his method).

Actors interpret, and they can research.

Many have argued that, of all the actors who've taken on the role, Suchet's interpretation of Poirot is the closest to what's on the page in the books: the appearance, the mannerisms, the attention to detail.  So, having read a large chunk of the books for myself, he always felt right when watching him.

Part of the Poirot TV series included a feature-length adaption of Murder on the Orient Express (2010). I thought it was excellent; as good as the 1974 adaption. I think the murder scene was better staged, too. It had more bite. It felt vicious (and rightly so).

David Suchet
I've not seen the 2017 movie adaption of Murder on the Orient Express staring (and directed by) Sir Kenneth Branagh. I was put off by the mustache. Poirot is fussy, persnickety, refined, monumentally anal. His mustache should reflect that. Branagh's choice of mustache makes him look ridiculous; a Colonel Blimp, or a pantomime villain. Seriously, the only thing an actor could do with that mustache is twirl the ends of it and cackle.

Kenneth Branagh (he's just tied someone to the railroad track)
Actor interpretation. Yeah. Whatever.

I hear that Branagh is next going to tackle Death on the Nile (which is probably Christie's second most famous book). I'll pass. David Suchet did a version of that in 2004, and it worked fine for me.

Finney, Ustinov, Suchet, and Branagh are not the only actors to have portrayed Hercule Poirot on film, TV, or in audio adaptations. Wikipedia lists 24 other actors (everyone from Tony Randall, to Charles Laughton, to Orson Welles), the latest being John Malkovich, who appears in the 2018 three-part adaption (Amazon Prime) of the ABC Murders (one of my favorite Christie books). Malkovich sports not just a mustache, but a full, gray circle beard. AND a bald head. I've not seen the miniseries, but the trailer is intriguing, and Malkovich's take on a Belgium accent is interesting. I will definitely make a point to watch this one.

John Malkovich
I can report that the Wikipedia list is missing a name: Hugh Fraser. Yes, the actor played Poirot's sidekick Arthur Hastings in the long running TV series, but he has also recorded audio book versions of many of the Poirot novels, in which he has voiced both himself, well, Hastings... and Poirot. And since I've wandered down a trail of trivia, I can also report that Fraser has lately become a writer of mystery novels. I hear he's good.

Hercule Poirot has been portrayed by Englishmen, Irishmen, Americans, a Russian, a Puerto Rican, and two men from Japan (and even his sidekick). I'm not aware that he has ever, in fact, been played by an actor from Belgium. Funny that.

So, who is your favorite Poirot?



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13 comments:

janice law said...

I'm current watching the ABC Murders. Nicely acted but in an effort to be realistic and relevant ( treatment of migrants and refugees is a big subtext) it has lost the brio and confidence that made Poirot so appealing.

O'Neil De Noux said...

I saw the Albert Finney version on the big screen (I am that old) and knew who FInney was but did not read the credits before I watched the movie and had no idea it was Finney portraying Poirot. He was that good.

The Ustinov movies were more amusing. David Suchet is the best for me. I thought the Branagh portrayal was a slightly darker version of the Ustinov Poirot. Tried to watch Malkovich but found the nearly down-and-out Poirot a terrible version.

Good article, Stephen

Robert Lopresti said...

I watched the first and most recent Orients (Finney's was better), but I don't think I have seen any of the other Poirots. He is not one of my favorite charactes (I prefer Marple, oddly enough.) Mostly I am writing to say, if you enjoy Dvid Suchet you should watch him as the villain in GOING POSTAL, based on Terry Pratchett's fantasy novel about a con man trying to save the post office.

Leigh Lundin said...

Where did Rob come up with that? How intriguing. I've got to check that out.

Leigh Lundin said...

I got so caught up in Rob's comment, I forgot to post my own.

…gateway drug… (chuckling) Colonel Blimp…

I could not tolerate Peter Ustinov in the Poirot rôle where his lips struggled with the name 'poy-rot'. I kept thinking we were going to see a dénouement discovering Ustinov had eaten Poirot, swallowing him whole like Jonah's whale.

In the photo of Kenneth Branagh and the train, I can't help but think the mustache would work well mounted on the engine.

My favorite? Suchet followed by Finney. British television outdid itself during that period featuring Joan Hickson as Miss Marple, Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes, and of course David Suchet as Hercule Poirot.

Leigh Lundin said...

Another facet of the brilliance of the television series was the Poirot art deco opening sequence, perfectly portraying Christie's era. I studied it repeatedly, fascinated how the cubist wedges resolved into a steamship, aircraft, and of course the train. While the music wasn't as contemporary as the aforementioned Hickson and Brett series, it still served the opening well. But the visuals… I think I'll watch again.

Stephen Ross said...

Janice, a lot of the recent adaptions of Christie (e.g., And Then There Were None, Witness for the Prosecution) have taken on a darker tone. A reflection of our times, me thinks.

Thanks, O'Neil (and re my above on that down and out).

Thanks, Rob. Going Postal is now on my list.

Leigh, Ustinov definitely ate something. :) Don't get me wrong, I like his movies.

Leigh, every time I see that opening, I get the idea it's a visual representation of Poirot himself (his face, at the very beginning of the sequence). AND I love art deco.

Fran Rizer said...

Thoroughly enjoyed this interesting blog, Stephen. Poirot was one of my absolute favorite reads when I was young.

Stephen Ross said...

Thanks, Fran!

Anne Curry said...

One good thing is that most of us read Christie stories. On other parts of the web huge debates raged about who is the better Sherlock, Cumberbatch, Miller, or Downey, and almost no mention is made of old actors. I think I read earlier that some of the young actors hadn't read any of the stories. As for my favorite, I vote for Suchet. I bet he's studied the stories.

Stephen Ross said...

Anne, yes, David Suchet stated (in a TV interview I saw) that he read/re-read all the Poirot books and short stories before be began filming season one.

Eve Fisher said...

I thought the Branagh version of Poirot sucked so badly that there is no way I'm going to watch any of his sequels. (NOTE to Branagh: the only woman Poirot ever mooned over was the Countess Vera Rossakoff, and she was by no means an innocent, slim, British young thing.)

I loved both Finney and Suchet in the role. (BTW - another great Suchet role is as Melmotte in the BBC series "The Way We Live Now", as he fleeces everybody in sight.) I also enjoy Ustinov in the part, even though he's not Christie's Poirot, but that's mostly because I love Peter Ustinov and have ever since I saw him in "We're No Angels".

And I too prefer Miss Marple - specifically, Joan Hickson, whom Christie herself chose to play the part. I despised the Geraldine McEwan remakes simply because they weren't Christie - Miss Marple having an affair with a married man? I don't think so. I'm a purist.

Stephen Ross said...

Thanks, Eve. "The Way We Live Now" is in my list. :) As to Miss Marple... Margaret Rutherford was always my favorite!