A Surfeit of Poirots, Part Two

Hercule Poirot in Film from Liam Ashe

Last month we took a look at many of the famed actors who have portrayed Hercule Poirot on our television favorites. These ranged from the obscure (Martin Gabel) to the legendary (David Suchet). Today, the little Belgian detective makes the jump to the big screen. Many readers, even those not familiar with Christie’s other works, may recognize  these four thespians who made Poirot larger than life.

Poirot in Film

While he lacks the signature mustache, Irish actor Austin Trevor can celebrate being the first Poirot on screen. The character had yet to crystallize in the reading public’s mind, so this little oversight can be forgiven. Trevor portrayed the detective in three films: Alibi (1931) based on The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Black Coffee (1934), and Lord Edgware Dies (1934). His take falls strictly middle-of-the-pack, and Trevor himself suggested he only got the role due to a convincing French accent.

The new trilogy of Poirot adaptations by famed director and actor Kenneth Branagh has split the Christie fanbase. Some are excited to see these classic mysteries updated for modern audiences. Others decry Branagh’s take on the detective as, in what one fan termed, “Poirot as an action hero.” In each, the casting is A-list and the productions are perfect, even if liberties are taken with the original stories. Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile stay mostly faithful to the source. A Haunting in Venice, however, is an entirely new tale only loosely based on Christie’s atmospheric Hallowe’en Party.

The sextet of Christies starring London-born Actor Peter Ustinov are a mixed bag. Death on the Nile (1978) is often considered one of the most faithful adaptations. You also get the unmitigated joy of watching Angela Lansbury, Bette Davis, Jean Birkin, Maggie Smith, Mia Farrow, and a dozen others simply chew through the scenes. Evil Under the Sun (1982) nearly recaptures the first’s magic, although the solution is a bit strained and relies on too many coincidences and close calls. Three films — Thirteen at Dinner (1985), Dead Man’s Folly (1986), and Murder in Three Acts (1986) — were made exclusively for television, and while enjoyable, the smaller budgets are evident. Ustinov returned as Poirot to theaters one last time in Appointment with Death (1988). The frayed edges were beginning to show, and this final turn has more in common with its television predecessors than it does with the sparkling Nile.

One Poirot film adaptation soars above the rest. It certainly helps that and it premiered during the height of Christie’s popularity in the early 1970s. Murder on the Orient Express (1974) featured a superlative cast including Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Sir John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, and more. None, however, can outshine the legendary Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot. Much like Suchet personifies the shrewd Belgian on television, Finney gives the character a singular life in the cinema. The adaptation is true to the original story, and the result is a flawless, timeless mystery that bears rewatching — even when you know the ending.

Honorable Mentions

Have room for two more?

Murder By the Book doesn’t play into the official Christie canon, but Poirot appears none the less. British actor Ian Holm (who you may recognize from The Fifth Element, Time Bandits, and dozens of other roles) steps off the page in this unique made-for-TV picture. In Book, Poirot discovers Christie’s plans for his final encore in Curtain. Upset by the proposed resolution, he plots to steal the manuscript before it reaches the reading public.

Last, James Coco plays Milo Perrier, a Poirot pastiche, in Neil Simon’s firmly tongue-in-cheek Murder by Death (1976). Alongside Dick and Dora Charleston, Jessica Marbles, and other detective fiction legends, Perrier must solve an over-the-top murder in a locked, deathtrap-filled mansion. The ending makes no sense, as one should expect, but the joy remains in the journey.

So, what are your favorite Poirot portrayals? Who’s the perfect Poirot, and who did the detective dirty?

Love a good murder? Be sure to take a stab at Thou Shalt Not Kilt, a traditional Southern whodunnit with Scottish flavor. For my latest news and updates, follow me on Instagram and TikTok. If you love crime fiction, sign up for Fatal Fiction, my monthly mystery newsletter. You’ll get a free download of Masters of Murder, my concise guide to the authors of mystery’s Golden Age.

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