Little Grey Celluloid: Some Thoughts on Poirot in Film (and TV)

So, Brexit…

When Agatha Christie conceived of perhaps her most iconic creation, her choice of nationality for him carried with it a certain European esprit de corps. It was 1916, though the first novel wasn’t published until 1920, and Belgium was then occupied by the forces of imperial Germany.

Now, having recently stuck around to help out the French in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, Sir Kenneth Branagh is bringing Hercule Poirot back to the big screen with a big-budget take on arguably the most famous detective novel of all time: Murder on the Orient Express.

Of all detective novels, Murder on the Orient Express is perhaps lends itself best to a blockbuster, insofar as it allows for grand set-pieces – the opulent train and the rugged landscape through which it travels are by turns both romantic and sinister – and the containerized passengers are perfectly suited for some starry casting.

A prize part for any actor, Poirot himself is both bombastic and yet has a deep interiority; a fastidious dandy and a tireless truth-seeker. This is epitomised in Albert Finney’s sparkling performance in Sydney Lumet’s ’74 adaptation.

When a murder takes place aboard the snowbound luxury passenger service, luckily the world’s most preeminent detective (without a deerstalker to his name) is present to lend a hand and, more importantly, a first-class brain.

Finney was in his thirties, but made up to look older – between this and the play he was acting in on the West End at the time, they used to pick him up in ambulance each morning and start applying the makeup while he slept. Pale and dressed all in black, with hair so slick, it looks like it’s been laminated, and a moustache so neat and sharp, you could cut yourself on it, he looks almost vampiric.

He’s also unpredictable and brusque; eyes sparkling capriciously during interrogation of other passengers or else alight with a feverish joy upon the discovery of some “cloo-hoo” or other. More menacing than camp, he’s certainly not the genial, egg-headed version of the character that David Suchet brought to life so memorably in the ’90s ITV drama.

Finney’s incarnation is provided able support, or rather suspects, by the likes of Anthony Perkins – as a stressed, nervous young secretary (who, perhaps unsurprisingly, has mother issues) – and Ingrid Bergman (who won an Oscar as the deeply religious, broken-English-spouting Miss Ohlsson). Michael York is certainly eye-catching as a Hungarian Count, dressed in a magnificent camelhair coat, shooing away market vendors as though they were gnats.

It’s John Gielgud, though, whose, perhaps, Finney’s biggest competition; casually stealing scenes as sombre manservant Beddoes. It helps that Paul Dehn’s screenplay outfits him with some wonderfully dry one-liners: “Is it about sex?” “No, it’s about 10:30, Mr. Foscarelli.” Everyone has a motive for wanting the victim dead1 and some of them seem to take pleasure in trying to pull the wool over Poirot’s eyes; particularly the imperious Countess Andrenyi, as whom Wendy Hiller’s old age makeup makes her look less generally vampiric (as with her costar Finney) than specifically like Gary Oldman’s aged Count in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Instead, Poirot is, unbeknown to all, meticulously assembling the facts and using them to pick holes in their stories. The mesmerising 28-minute dénouement in which Finney reveals his ingenuity in exposing the scope of their lies, and the complexity of the murder plot, is simply a tour de force.

With its Art Deco finery and sweeping romantic score, the novel’s first cinematic outing could easily have been a romp – as later Christie adaptations had a habit of becoming – but Lumet’s virtuosic direction also brings out a sensation of creeping claustrophobia amid the luxury sleeping berths and even the glass-partitioned dining car.

After all, this was the director who made the subtly diminishing aspect ratio such a crucial atmospheric part of 12 Angry MenMurder on the Orient Express‘ opening sequence, set on a dark Long Island estate, and which recalls the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, is genuinely eerie, even with its spinning newspaper headlines. It’s also remote enough from the rest the plot, which opens five years later in Istanbul, as to truly add to the mystery.

Poirot has never been so tonally adept since. When Finney declined to reprise the role – reportedly due to the makeup issues – it fell to the somewhat cuddlier Peter Ustinov. More effusive, and yet strangely nimble,  a genial elder statesman given to portentous pronouncements on evil and the occasional bit of plot-convenient eavesdropping, Ustinov’s broader characterisation nevertheless worked well in more humdrum, knockabout affairs; such as, initially, 1978’s Death on the Nile, followed by ’82’s Evil Under the Sun. Even a Ninoa Rota score can’t elevate it above cosy, middle-class entertainment.

It’s hard to imagine Finney showing much patience in the presence of Angela Lansbury’s batty authoress Salome Otterbourne. Before taking on the career-defining role of mystery writer-cum-amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote, Lansbury, of course, played Christie’s other great detective, Miss Marple, in 1980’s The Mirror Crack’d; albeit a slightly toothless take on the character that – not playing to Lansbury’s strength in eccentricity à la Sweeney Todd – lost ground to Elizabeth Taylor as a troubled movie star.

Other of the Ustinov Poirots would follow the same model of a celebrity cast in an exotic location, as highlighted by the variations on the same poster, which invariably showed Ustinov’s concerned visage surrounded by floating heads (and occasionally torsos).

There’s a strange, extended link between Lumet’s Murder and John Guillermin’s Death. The former stars a tweedy, belligerent Sean Connery, sometime after he took a somewhat more eventful ride on the Orient Express in 1963’s From Russia With Love. The latter features Lois Chiles as heiress/murder victim Linnet Doyle, whose near death experience during a trip to Karnak recalls The Spy Who Loved Me from the year before; the plot of which was essentially repurposed in 1979’s Moonraker, in which Chiles played the Bond girl.

Poirot wouldn’t again play much of a role in British consciousness till Suchet began his tenure in Agatha Christie’s Poirot, which ran from 1989 till 2013 and would see all but one of Christie’s stories adapted. Small and perfectly manicured, Suchet brought not only such much-needed self-containment to the character, but a sense of subsumed fury to; a flash in the eyes that would become apparent whenever Poirot denounced a particularly heinous crime, usually to the culprit’s face.

No other Poirot has had a chance to go from Styles (in an adaptation of Christie’s first Poirot story A Mysterious Affair at Styles) and back again (in her last, Curtain, which brings the detective full circle). This was the Poirot my generation grew up with and the one that, Finney aside, is arguably the definitive.

That being said, if Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr. could make their mark as Holmes, set against the high-water-marks of Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett, maybe Branagh is in with a chance. At the very least it should make for some glossy, old-fashioned entertainment.

European meta-text entirely aside – has it ever been other? – his version at least affords the opportunity to redress a historic oversight: Christie went to her grave never seeing the detective’s moustache realised as she had imagined it. Given the one Branagh has chosen to festoon himself with, it looks like we’re in with a chance.

Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Death on the NileThe Mirror Crack’d, and Evil Under the Sun are all available on DVD and BluRay from Monday, October 23rd, 2017, as 4k restorations with extensive extras. Murder in the Orient Express (2017) arrives in cinemas across the UK on Friday, November 3rd.

  1. The victim is SPOILER

    an American businessman named Ratchett; played here by Richard Widmark and in, it seems, much more overtly gangsterish form by Johnny Depp in Branagh’s upcoming version.

Author: robertmwallis

Graduate of Royal Holloway and the London Film School. Founder of Of All The Film Sites; formerly Of All The Film Blogs. Formerly Film & TV Editor of The Metropolist and Official Sidekick at A Place to Hang Your Cape. Co-host of The Movie RobCast podcast (formerly Electric Shadows) and member of the Online Film Critics Society.

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