David Suchet’s portrayal of the Agatha Christie character Hercule Poirot has so firmly been established in our minds that it now seems impossible to imagine another actor in the role. Yet back in 1989, just before he made his debut as the great Belgian detective, Suchet must have known that he was stepping into some very well-worn shoes: he was, of course, by no means the first actor to play Poirot.
When the ITV series first began, the character had already been appearing on the big screen since 1931. Austin Trevor played him originally in the film Alibi, a role he reprised twice, first with Black Coffee that same year and then again with Lord Edgware Dies in 1934. Decades later, Tony Randall assumed the part in The Alphabet Murders (1965), which was more of a straight-up satire of the Christie novels rather than a genuine adaptation.
But perhaps much better remembered are Poirot’s later incarnations, especially Albert Finney’s performance in Murder on the Orient Express (1974), for which he received an Oscar nomination, and a series of Poirot films released shortly after starring Peter Ustinov. The final of these, Thirteen at Dinner (1985), is especially notable, for it featured a young David Suchet in the role of Inspector Japp—a performance he later described as possibly the worst of his career.
Included on this Blu-Ray release are three of the films mentioned above: Murder on the Orient Express and two of the Peter Ustinov films, Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun. Titled rather ambiguously as merely POIROT, this collection has presumably been complied to capitalise on the ITV series, which came to an end last year. But if the collection is to be judged fairly, then equivocal marketing shouldn’t spoil one’s appreciation of these perfectly decent films.
The premise of Murder on the Orient Express should be fairly obvious to even those unfamiliar with the ITV series, the Christie novel or even Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train, which deals with much the same themes. Aboard the Orient Express train, Poirot is tasked with investigating the murder of an American business tycoon, Mr. Ratchett (Richard Widmark), a case in which almost every passenger could be a suspect.
The story is told brilliantly in the ITV series, due to the great moral dilemmas that arise as Poirot slowly comes closer to solving this mystery. Yet here Poirot doesn’t seem especially tormented at all; the tone of the film is instead quite comical, and many of the jokes feel unmistakably 1970s. Star power is really the film’s biggest asset: suspects are played by Ingrid Bergman, Michael York, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins and Jacqueline Bisset—five tremendous talents, who here seem disappointingly underused.
Albert Finney, on the other hand, receives plenty of screen time to demonstrate his take on his character. If David Suchet’s Poirot is eccentric and introverted, Finney’s portrayal is generally loud, brazenly dismissive and sometimes downright rude. If Suchet has taken his cues from either of these actors it is more likely to be Peter Ustinov; his Poirot is generally more likeable than Finney’s and chooses to solve his mysteries with an air of unconcerned nonchalance.
This is perhaps best exemplified in Death on the Nile when he advises one suspect not to let evil into her heart. “If love can’t live there,” she replies, “evil will do just as well.” And then solemnly Poiriot quips, in a way Finney’s character never could have, “How sad, mademoiselle.”
The Ustinov films in this collection are almost equally enjoyable, though Death on the Nile benefits considerably from a fine performance from Mia Farrow, whose character I quote above. The atmosphere of both films trumps Murder on the Orient Express, largely for the reason that so much of the Ustinov films have been filmed on location: they’re simply much more aesthetically interesting.
Of course, Finney is inimitably brilliant in almost any film he stars, and the same was more or less true of Ustinov; but by contrast, Suchet’s Poirot still remains the definitive portrayal. Only he it seems is able to truly bring out the subtle eccentrics of the detective’s character. Nevertheless, this collection shouldn’t be overlooked for this reason alone: it will no doubt appeal to fans of the ITV series, who will surely find these films intriguing, if not thoroughly enjoyable.
POIROT: The Films are available to own on DVD now