A century after his first appearance, and with a new film out next month, which incarnation of the Belgian detective has been the finest? Benjamin Ivry exercises his little grey cells to assess the candidates.
It is a classic puzzler worthy of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction… why some actors who have excelled in the role of Agatha Christie’s Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot have been relatively forgotten, while others are strenuously overhyped.
The inevitable onrush of publicity surrounding Death on the Nile, Kenneth Branagh’s film due out next month, suggests that Christie’s character is a commodity that is hawked for a time, and then treated as yesterday’s fashion.
So, the once omnipresent images of Peter Ustinov in the same role, and even the marathon reign for 25 years of David Suchet as Poirot on ITV may fade from memory, just as other fine performances have done.
By forgetting last year’s models and admiring only the shiny new version of Poirot, we may be missing some worthy precedents that even outshine what is available now.
Performers who achieved the most lifelike Poirots captured a range of complex and contradictory traits as suggested by Christie, despite her reputation for not writing psychologically dense characters.
Exterior appearances count, of course: the Belgian detective’s upward pointing waxed moustache is a quintessential image, expressing his old-fashioned, and indeed foreign, narcissism. But Poirot’s preening vanity, that made Christie describe him as “insufferable” as early as 1930, was part of a conscious act, as he noted in Three Act Tragedy (1934).
“I boast! An Englishman he says often, ‘A fellow who thinks as much of himself as that cannot be worth much’… And so, you see, I put people off their guard.”
Another part of his unlikely allure was how his modest physical appearance belied his expertise. Short and odd-looking, he spoke mangled English, as do all Christie’s non-English characters, like a predecessor of Google Translate.
Poirot claimed in Three Act Tragedy that his intermittently poor English was a conscious choice: “It is true that I can speak the exact, the idiomatic English. But, my friend, to speak the broken English is an enormous asset. It leads people to despise you. They say – a foreigner – he can’t even speak English properly.”
So getting people to underestimate him was a significant part of Poirot’s art of detection.
Even so, to underestimate great actors who have played the role in the past deprives us of valuable context and tradition. Mark Aldridge’s new book, Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World, published to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Hercule Poirot’s first appearance in a book, is a welcome antidote to this historical amnesia.
Aldridge patiently evaluates all the adaptations, right up to Branagh’s Death on the Nile, but omits parodies, such as Andrew Sachs’ brief and rather bizarre cameo appearance in Peter Sellers’ Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978), in which he plays a lunatic who merely thinks he is Poirot.
For more straightforward Poirots, from Charles Laughton in a pioneering stage version to Orson Welles on radio, Aldridge is a friendly guide, willing to put the boot in when versions fail to meet his standards.
Yet heavily focused on the most recent incarnations, he diplomatically avoids the fundamental question: which actors gave the overall greatest performances as Poirot? For a closer look, we might refer to a trio of nonpareil performances from television, radio, and film.
There was startling electricity between the protagonists in Murder by the Book (1986), a TV movie in which Poirot, performed majestically by Ian Holm, is murdered by Christie, played by Peggy Ashcroft.
These two mighty Shakespearian actors duel entertainingly through the showdown. In Poirot’s make-up, Holm is disarmingly bizarre and tragicomic. Holm fulfils Christie’s description of a diminutive Poirot. Tall actors really cannot compete, which suggests that an ideal role may be waiting for Toby Jones of Detectorists.
At a 1960s London press event, one journalist suggested to Dame Agatha that the dwarfish comedian Robertson Hare should play Poirot. Hare often appeared in stage farces, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography explains, as a “prissy little man, constantly in a state of unease and agitation”.
Christie reportedly agreed that Hare would be suitable, but no job offer ensued.
How comical should Poirot be? Clearly there are limits, as shown by the jarring jollity of two Japanese mini-series of Murder on the Orient Express (2015) and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (2018), made for Fuji TV.
Poirot, renamed Takeru Suguro, is played by Mansai Nomura, a performer of kyogen, the Japanese classical comic theatre performed between sombre Noh dramas. Aldridge describes Nomura’s performance as “eccentric, with heavy leanings towards quite broad comedy in his physicality and mannerisms.”
Some Western Poirots, notably David Suchet, can resemble frozen-faced kabuki tragedians after donning Poirot’s make-up. And when Poirot speaks of death-related matters, a serious actor is required to capture the drama.
So John Moffat, noted for his roles at the Old Vic, and the National Theatre, is perhaps the most underrated Poirot, despite having headlined in 25 BBC radio adaptations.
Moffat expressed Poirot’s self-admiration in virtuoso flights of verbal music, but was unusually modest as a performer, interacting with fellow actors with quiet grace and a refreshing lack of egoism. Moffat’s subtlety is especially noteworthy, compared to other actors who bulldoze their way through the role.
The third supreme performance is Albert Finney’s in the movie Murder on the Orient Express (1974), an object lesson in playing Poirot as an intense eccentric genius, slightly Kafkaesque, and with a dollop of Richard III.
So animated was Finney that in a scene where the camera lurks over his shoulder to film an extended close-up of Ingrid Bergman, Finney manages to emote powerfully, although only his ear and a tiny section of his head are visible.
Like Ian Holm, Finney interacts so vivaciously with his acting partners, as indeed does John Moffat, that Poirot is brought unforgettably to life.
By comparison, other actors as Poirot have offered solo turns, in which they were decidedly the stars and it was up to the rest of the cast to react to them.
David Suchet, who filmed all the Poirot stories in 70 episodes starting in 1989, showed stamina based on a talent for playing villains, from a menacing Soviet spy in John Schlesinger’s The Falcon and the Snowman (1985) to the media magnate Robert Maxwell in a 2007 BBC Two production.
As Poirot, Suchet increasingly underlined intensity and intellectual brilliance while under-emphasising charm and comedy.
Other actors, like Peter Ustinov, have lazily coasted by on personal charisma as Poirot, giving a slightly sleepy impression.
The latest Poirot, Kenneth Branagh, has one immediate advantage over his predecessors. He boldly wears a false moustache so vast that it resembles the horns of a water buffalo. While at first distracting and phony-looking, Branagh’s facial hair does in fact respond to the wishes of Dame Agatha, who protested that Finney’s moustache in Orient Express was too small.
Likewise, some critics have carped about the disappointingly tiny moustache of Suchet’s Poirot, while in the BBC’s ABC Murders (2018), John Malkovich’s Poirot sported a moustache that was scarcely noteworthy at all.
Nothing about Branagh’s self-presentation as Poirot, as the actor or director, is subtle. Clearly he sees himself as a sort of superhero, racing along the icy roof of a railway carriage in Orient Express, apparently just to show that the character can.
Branagh’s Poirot films are further marked by his drawing attention to himself as director by weird camera angles. Compare Sidney Lumet’s ability to stay out of the way of his actors in Orient Express.
And the latter film’s crisp dialogue by Paul Dehn, who also wrote the screenplays for Goldfinger and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, is unlike later soggy, anachronistic Poirot scripts.
Then there is the sometimes disappointing casting in Branagh’s films, where unlike the dazzling Hollywood star power of Lumet’s movie, noteworthy names are presented alongside a few actors better suited to TV reality shows.
Lumet cast the distinguished Michael York as Count Rudolf Andrenyi, but Branagh bafflingly chose the ill-at-ease dancer and non-actor Sergei Polunin, an inadequate screen presence.
Even so, in this centenary year, so much life remains in Christie’s Hercule Poirot that occasional mishandled film adaptations can never dim the attraction of the odd little foreigner’s little grey cells.
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World, by Mark Aldridge, is published by Harper Collins.