Hercule Poirot is one of those literary heroes, like James Bond or Sherlock Holmes, whose image burns brightly in the popular imagination. From his debut in Agatha Christie’s 1920 novel, “The Mysterious Affair at Styles,” to his final appearance in “Curtain,” published in 1975, the Belgian detective carved a simple, distinctive figure: a “quaint, dandified little man,” as Christie wrote, “barely more than 5 feet 4 inches”, with a head “exactly the shape of an egg”, a “pink nose” and, in what is probably the most famous case of facial hair in the history of English literature, a huge, “upwardly curled moustache” – which Christie later boasted was no less than the finest in England.
Christie has written more than 80 novels and short stories about Poirot, and nearly all of them have been adapted for film and television. Many actors have stepped into the role over the years, each trying to put their own spin on it, much like a stage actor would get another chance at King Lear. Tony Randall played it in Frank Tashlin’s 1965 mystery comedy “The Alphabet Murders,” exaggerating Poirot’s exotic pomposity with farcical fervor. Alfred Molina, on the other hand, brought in a more subtle, more muted touch in a 2001 made-for-TV version of “Murder on the Orient Express,” softening the character’s sometimes cartoonish extravagance. Hugh Laurie once even sported the iconic ‘stache’ for a cameo in ‘Spice World’, helping Baby Spice (Emma Bunton) get away with murder.
But of Poirot’s dozen shootings over the past century or so, only a handful have actually made it through, leaving a permanent mark on the character. These are the interpretations that most people think of when they think of Hercule Poirot, and in their own way, each of these versions seems definitive to some degree. As Kenneth Branagh’s “Death on the Nile” hits theaters, we take a look back at its most famous and acclaimed versions.
Being young, tall, and (unforgivably) clean-shaven, dashing lead actor Austin Trevor was a noticeable – some might say blatant – departure from the source material. He starred in three adaptations of Poirot’s adventures between 1931 and 1934, of which only the last, ‘Lord Edgware Dies’, survives today (available on YouTube). Trevor’s portrayal was nice in its own right, but differed enough from Christie’s description that Picturegoer Weekly magazine ran an editorial on it, under the headline “Bad Casting.” The most blatant change is that of the world-famous Belgian: this Poirot has inexplicably been made a Parisian.
“Lord Edgware Dies,” based on a novel by Christie known in the United States as “Thirteen at Dinner,” is about a wealthy American actress and socialite (Jane Carr) who orders Poirot to divorce her stubborn husband, Lord Edgware (CV France). Edgware soon agrees, only to be found dead; Poirot, intrigued, investigates the murder. Detective movies were popular in the early 1930s, and Trevors Poirot feels indebted to other charming, jovial sleuths of the era, most notably William Powell in films like ‘The Thin Man’ and ‘The Kennel Murder Case’. All in all, it’s an adequate albeit unfaithful rendering, but it’s a relief that Christie’s creation was later realized with more fidelity.
Among other virtues, Albert Finney’s portrayal in Sidney Lumet’s “Murder on the Orient Express” (available to stream on Paramount+) is a great feat of makeup and prosthetics: a full facial expression that includes wrinkles, cheeks and false nose, designed to the trim, 38-year-old Finney looks like the part of the world-weary Poirot in plump middle age. Lumet’s adaptation of one of Christie’s most celebrated books is a New Hollywood love letter to the Golden Age, with Finney leading an ensemble that includes celebrities such as Ingrid Bergman and Lauren Bacall. A track-bound chamber drama built around long, chatty interrogation scenes, it’s an acting show of the classic variant. (By the way, this is Poirot’s only performance to be nominated for an Oscar.)
Finney’s Poirot is curt and cold, his clipped accent gruff and grinning. While he embodies many of the traits that characterize Christie’s original – cunning, willful, picky about his appearance – he is more serious and fierce, examining the evidence starkly, with great intensity, like a predator carefully circling its prey. The film’s climax is explosive, with Finney rattling his conclusions about the case in a feverish pitch.
English actor Peter Ustinov appeared as Poirot half a dozen times, starting with the beautiful “Death on the Nile” in 1978 (streaming on the Criterion Channel). This Poirot is playful, boyish, even a little whimsical; Ustinov imbues him with a light, teasing air and finds latent amusement in even the most diabolical matters. Fans who prefer Ustinov in the role usually respond to his immense warmth: he has a grandfatherly demeanor that makes him instantly likable, which also cleverly belies his brilliance and shrewdness. You kind of expect Finney’s to get to the bottom of Poirot, but with Ustinov, the sudden penetrating conclusions feel more like a surprise.
Ustinov took on the role so naturally that he continued to play Poirot on the screen for another 10 years. “Death on the Nile” was followed in 1982 by “Evil Under the Sun,” starring James Mason and based on the novel of the same name, and then several television movies, including “Dead Man’s Folly” and “Murder in Three Acts.” Oddly enough, the TV movies put an end to the historical setting of the previous feature films, transplanting Ustinov’s Poirot from the 1930s into the present—a poor fit that sees Poirot visit such incongruous locations as the set of a prime-time talk show.
“Are you Poirot?” asks a stunned woman in the opening minutes of the pilot episode of ‘Agatha Christie’s Poirot’, the ITV series about the detective. “You’re not a bit like I thought you would be.” David Suchet, the star, shrugs: C’est moi. Ironically, for most viewers, Suchet is not alone Like it Poirot, he is synonymous with him. The actor played him on television for nearly 25 years, appearing in 70 episodes and eventually covering Christie’s entire Poirot corpus, ending with “Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case” in 2013. Each episode is like a standalone movie, telling a complete story. and often running to the length of the feature.
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Suchet’s rendition was extremely faithful to Christie’s account. He is primitive, charming and extremely picky; he is vain but considerate, sharp but reverent, faultless about manners and etiquette, but when it comes time to pass a sentence, ruthless through and through. However, as time went on, Suchet deepened and expanded, giving Poirot new layers of psychological complexity. The show’s later seasons turned darker, and Suchet, building on his decades-long relationship with the character, seized upon the seriousness of that history with captivating — and deeply moving — effect.
I find his take on Poirot, with its palpable depth of feeling, the most compelling and richly realized of all.
Christie himself mocked Albert Finney’s mustache as too insignificant for the great Poirot. She probably wouldn’t have the same objection to Kenneth Branagh’s great, sprawling crescent. This ostentatious facial hair seems appropriate for a few movies — 2017’s “Murder on the Orient Express” and the newly released “Death on the Nile” — which are extremely lavish in every facet, from wardrobe to makeup and production design. Branagh directed these films with an eye for scale, and his flamboyant take on the character pairs well with the picture-perfect, computer graphics-enhanced vistas he’s set against.
Branagh’s take on Poirot is certainly more theatrical than many others. He plays the detective as a wink and prankster, with a slightly silly aspect – in one of the first scenes of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ he steps into the dung – while at the same time giving him a bit of action bravado, allowing him to engage in fistfights, gunfights, and even the occasional chase. He’s not quite true to the character as written, which some Christie fans found off-putting. But it’s obvious that Branagh loves this character, and he’s tried his own way to make Poirot his own.