In a way, old school murder mysteries play out like interactive movies. The first act establishes a ghastly and seemingly unsolvable murder. The audience is then invited to take note of the myriad clues spread across the second act, while hopefully avoiding the many misdirections and false suspects that the writer throws at them. By the time we get to the climax, our brilliant detective, a fantasy fulfillment conduit for the audience, places all of the suspects in a room and proceeds to explain, via the use of extensive flashbacks, how they solved the crime, and more importantly, who the murderer is. This formula is such a trope at this point, that it’s been parodied and referenced to death. My favorite is a skit from That Mitchell and Webb Look, which posits that whenever the murderer is caught, they begin speaking in an “evil voice” and suddenly become sexier.
When it comes to throwing even the most experienced and detail-oriented viewer for a loop, subverting the audience’s expectations and still delivering an unexpected twist regardless of how much we think we have figured it all out, you can’t go wrong with adapting Agatha Christie. Yet a terrific mystery is only half the equation: We still need an interesting, relatable, cool-headed, and doggedly observant sleuth who will not only entertain us with their antics, but become the perfect guide to lead the audience through the labyrinthine plot.
In that sense, Christie always had two major aces up her sleeve: The wholesome yet sharp-eyed old lady Miss Marple, who the Stateside audience might recognize as the “inspiration” (i.e. rip-off) for Angela Lansbury’s character in Murder, She Wrote, and Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective whose borderline OCD obsession with solving every case that comes his way has turned him into a bit of celebrity within the story’s universe. Wherever Poirot goes, murder seems to follow him. It doesn’t matter if he’s taking the Orient Express or a cruise down the Nile, someone’s bound to end up dead. If I were friends with the guy and going on a vacation with him, perhaps booking separate means of transportation for our destination would be in order.
Even though Poirot is Christie’s flagship character, he hasn’t been portrayed on film and television nearly as much as some of the other iconic detectives of popular culture. There are currently not one, but two popular series about Sherlock Holmes, as well as a recent duo of successful mega budget film adaptations. Kenneth Branagh must want to tip the scales toward Poirot with his new big budget prestige production of Murder on the Orient Express. Branagh not only directed the film, but chose to portray Poirot in it, as well. But how does he rank among the handful of actors who previously played the super detective who’s proud of his Belgian heritage? Here are the Top 5 Poirot performances:
Randall, who’s best known for playing the high strung neat freak Felix Unger on the sit-com version of The Odd Couple, was the perfect choice to skewer the most glaring imperfections found in the Poirot character for the 1965 Agatha Christie parody, The Alphabet Murders. This English production, chock full of that exceptionally dry British wit from the period, sought to exploit and ridicule some of the glaring personality faults found in the character. Poirot is always self-confidant to the point of coming across as pompous and abrasive. Of course these traits are used as charming eccentricities in straight adaptations. But The Alphabet Murders, loosely adapted from Christie’s iconic Poirot novel, The ABC Murders, posits the question: What if those qualities turned Poirot into an insufferable asshole who couldn’t see a clue if it smacked him in the face? The film was produced at the height of the popularity of Peter Sellers’ bumbling Inspector Clouseau, yet Randall takes the more elegant David Niven-esque route, as he constructs a stiff upper lip, entirely too self-serious take on the character, boosting the comical juxtaposition of his ineptitude. It might be far from an “authentic” portrayal, but it deserves recognition for its originality.
If you want your Poirot to come across as a combination of a cuddly, warm-hearted grandpa and a socially awkward teenager, then Peter Ustinov is your guy. Even in roles where he’s supposed to play a shady character, it’s almost impossible not to acknowledge Ustinov’s inherently lovable essence. Just check out his career defining performance in Kubrick’s Spartacus for proof. Ustinov played Poirot in three features and three TV movies. His take on the character is of an utmost professional who detests distractions that get in the way of solving the case. He’s amiable when it comes to extracting information from suspects, but seems to be uncomfortable with being inevitably stuck in the deep personal dramas surrounding the suspects’ lives. If you only have time for one Ustinov Poirot film, check out the lavish 1978 adaptation of Death on the Nile.
Since we’re in the age of superhero movies, it’s not surprising for a modern take on Poirot to follow in the footsteps of other new iterations of legendary sleuths whose awesome case-solving powers border on the supernatural. Much like the standard inner conflict of the modern superhero, Branagh’s Poirot treats his genius in solving the toughest murder cases as both a gift and a curse. His calling is to solve the unsolvable and bring justice for the bereaved, yet all the while he’s also pining for a quiet and calm family life that he has missed out on his whole life. Branagh injects a clear sense of melancholy into the character, one that’s almost angry at the fact that his extraordinary gift has cost him a normal and peaceful existence. His Poirot also has a unique ability to compartmentalize his emotions: He’s jolly and energetic in his personal life, but as soon as the murder takes place and the case begins, he pulls an impenetrable psychological wall between him and his suspects. Even at his most emotionally charged, he always keeps his composure and professionalism.
A legendary actor in his own right, Finney still holds the distinction of being the only Poirot performance that’s nominated for an Oscar. In director Sidney Lumet’s graceful yet surprisingly gritty star-studded 1974 adaptation of Murder on The Orient Express, Finney’s take on Poirot is that of an eccentric oddball who’s predictably excellent at solving crimes, but is a bit weird and ill at ease when it comes to interacting with people on a social level. He’s also brash, somewhat impulsive, and doesn’t suffer fools lightly. Tony Randall might come closest to creating a comedy character out of Poirot, but it’s Finney’s exaggerated mannerisms that truly resemble Peter Sellers’ Clousau on a sheer performance level. Since Lumet is a director who loves digging deep into each character, him and Finney must have come to the conclusion that any person whose life revolves around so much murder must eventually turn into a bit of a weirdo. Traditionalist Poirot fans are not very fond of this performance, but for those who are not familiar with the character, it comes across as fascinating and refreshing.
For many Poirot aficionados, David Suchet’s calm, elegant, laser-focused, and intensely meditational version of the detective, portrayed over 25 years and 13 seasons on BBC in the aptly titled show Poirot, is the one and only true Poirot. It’s hard to blame the fans, since Suchet has dominated the character with an always-dependable level of excellence during a quarter of a century, a clear substantive advantage over the other actors. But this isn’t merely a quantity over quality situation, since Suchet’s confident and cool-headed Poirot, with a dash of sardonic humor, is widely accepted by Agatha Christie fans as the most loyal adaptation of the character to date. Since the BBC show was able to substantially extend the amount of screen time we spend with the character, as opposed to a single film, or a handful of films attributed to the other actors on the list, Suchet gets to dig deeper into Poirot, deftly studying some of the eccentricities of the character, such as his underlying OCD.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He works as a reader for some of the leading screenplay coverage companies in Hollywood, and is also a film critic for The Playlist, DVD Talk and Beyazperde. He has a BA in Film Theory and an MFA in Screenwriting. For this list, he would like to thank Guher Erbil—his mom and an Agatha Christie expert —for her help with researching this list.