Why Only One Poirot?

Revisiting the various incarnations of one of the fiction world’s greatest detectives.

When the first trailer for the much-anticipated 2017 big-screen remake of Murder on the Orient Express was released earlier this month, many who saw it were indeed wowed. Director/star Kenneth Branagh’s take looks to offer top production values in terms of costuming and set design, a stellar cast (Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, and Daisy Ridley are among the players), and a definite dark tone which unmistakably bears the signature of source novel’s author, Agatha Christie.

Yet the trailer was not without its critics. While some cited the questionable appearance of Imagine Dragons’ “Believer” as the trailer’s song choice, other longtime Christie devotees criticized Branagh’s own portrayal of the author’s legendary Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. What was incredibly interesting is that it wasn’t necessarily Branagh’s appearance or choice of accent that was ripe for criticism, but rather the fact that anyone other than the celebrated actor David Suchet should dare to take on the role of Poirot.

Branagh’s take on the character (the first since Suchet retired from the role after having played Poirot since the mid-‘80s) has been met with the harshest of reactions, with a significant number of fans flat out refusing to give anyone but Suchet a chance at the iconic role. As I thought more and more about it, I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. In terms of acting and directing, Branagh is undoubtedly considered to be one of Britain’s best, yet Christie fans seem dead set on writing off his performance before seeing it, fiercely clinging to the image in their minds of Suchet as Poirot. Personally, I find this to be one of the few instances in the long range of iconic British characters which fans react in such a way towards. Lord knows a number of James Bonds have come and gone over the years, with the public allowing each actor to craft their own version of the famous fictional spy and, re-generation factor aside, each of the Doctor Whos have been embraced by fans, or at least acknowledged for bringing something unique to the role.

This editorial will hopefully dispel the ridiculous notion that there should only be one defining Poirot, and recognize that much like a number of other fictional characters with highly devoted fan bases, the character himself is worthy of multiple interpretations. For me, the only way to do this is to go back and revisit the number of different actors (the most notable ones anyhow, excluding Hugh Laurie’s brief, yet bewildering version in Spice World) who have taken on the legendary role and tried to both make the part their own while staying true to Christie’s vision of a detective who would go on to become one of literature’s most famous sleuths.

Poirot first made his way onto movie screens in the early ‘30s with adaptations of Alibi, Black Coffee, and Lord Edgware Dies starring Austin Trevor as the detective. While the films themselves aren’t the easiest to find, the actor’s portrayal was kindly received, especially considering he was following Charles Laughton, who had originated the role on stage. If Trevor’s Poirot earned its praise, Tony Randall’s deserved every bit of ridicule it received. More than a few audiences felt the actor went too over the top when the tall, lanky Randall played the “short, little man” in 1965’s The Alphabet Murders. While Randall is a fantastic actor, he was embarrassingly miscast in the role while his take on the character was totally cartoonish in relation to the way the author had created him.

It’s Albert Finney who is largely most revered for his big screen turn with Poirot in Sidney Lumet’s 1974 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express. Watching the actor hone in on the humor and seriousness of the character while diving into the overall darkness of the mystery is the reason for that film’s status as a classic. The evidence speaks for itself; Finney remains the only person to receive an Oscar nomination for playing Poirot, while Christie herself famously declared that the actor’s performance perfectly matched her vision of the character. With slicked black hair, wax mustache, and thick accent, Finney truly MORPHED into Poirot for one of the greatest screen transformations of all time. In certain respects Branagh may have more to live up to with regards to Finney’s performance than with Suchet’s in terms of sheer dedication, commitment, and the ability to carry the character through an entire feature film.

Thanks to the popularity of Suchet’s incarnation, Poirot has always had a home on television. The actor’s Poirot is certainly the “quietest” in terms of personality and presence, making his take perfect for such an intimate medium. Yet the actor hasn’t been the only one to ever play the detective on the small screen. Ian Holm took on the role for a bizarre 1987 TV movie called Murder by the Book in which the fictional detective shows up on the doorstep of Agatha Christie (Peggy Ashcroft) when she decides it’s time to finally kill off her famous character. Although he was game, Holm seemed too focused on Poirot’s general traits (Belgian nationality, etc.) and the highly gimmicky nature of the project, while never finding the nature of the character himself. Alfred Molina’s go fared no better with the 2001 television version of Murder on the Orient Express. The usually dependable actor seemed lost on how to play the detective, mainly because the story just didn’t fit the film’s 21st century trappings. Molina’s attempts to make Poirot more of a modern cop resulted in the loss of what made the character so appealing.

The most “controversial” of all Poirots, however, Peter Ustinov, is ironically the only actor who has played him in BOTH TV and film. The reason for the divisiveness of Ustinov’s Poirot lies in the fact that he remains the one actor brave enough to abandon a number of the character’s traits. With 1978’s Death on the Nile, 1982’s Evil Under the Sun, and 1988’s Appointment with Death, Ustinov fully took advantage of an actor’s freedom of interpretation. His Poirot exists in his own realm, retaining (and in some ways amping up) the humor while also injecting a restrained whimsy that made him the most noticeable person in the room, rather than a keen, silent observer. When Christie’s daughter mentioned to a producer that that wasn’t the Poirot her mother had created, Ustinov defiantly stated, “It is now.” What’s most notable about Ustinov’s Poirot though, was that he able to keep the consistency and tone of his performance in check when the character was updated to modern times in the ‘80s telefilm versions of Thirteen at Dinner, Murder in Three Acts, and Dead Man’s Folly. While the quality of each production Ustinov was asked to do varied GREATLY, his admirable re-working of Poirot stayed the same.

So why is Suchet the only suitable actor to play Poirot in the public’s eyes? It can only be a question of sentiment and familiarity. For legions of fans growing up, Suchet was the SOLE Poirot they knew due to the fact that he was the only one who showed up on television each week. This somewhat begs the question though: Was Suchet’s Poirot only suitable on a TV level? Personally, the actor’s take, though iconic in its own right, falls down the ranks for me just past Ustinov’s due to his inability to capture the subtle humor Christie gave her detective. That’s not to say that Suchet isn’t a great actor who doesn’t have a sense of comedy. In fact his work as a gay mobster in 2003’s The In-Laws and as a hapless detective inspector opposite Ustinov’s Poirot in Thirteen at Dinner are both perfect comedic turns. But such an opinion isn’t one which registers as valid to a fan who looks at Suchet and instantly sees the character which he became most famous for.

No one questions Branagh’s ability as a director and how he handles not only established stories such as Thor and Cinderella and thrillers such as Dead Again. Nor does anyone question his acting abilities, with heaps of praise for his award-winning turns for a slew of characters from Hamlet to Laurence Olivier serving as proof of his range. With Murder on the Orient Express Branagh may face his toughest acting challenge to date in the form of indestructible nostalgia. It’s a tricky position for Branagh to be in; if he wins the approval from the general public, he’ll be lambasted by fans of Suchet’s Poirot who may refuse to accept him. If the film is a dud, Branagh will likewise face the wrath of those same fans who could take him to task for tarnishing a character many felt should have been left alone following Suchet’s retirement.

Both scenarios are strong possibilities which will only be answered come November when Murder on the Orient Express is released. In the meantime, there’s nothing to do but wait and perhaps theorize about how disapproving everyone will get when Judi Dench decides to play Miss Marple.

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