by Stephen Ross
First Published: Sleuthsayers, March 09, 2019 READ
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.