Poirot is probably the most instantly recognisable of Agatha Christie’s characters, particularly when it comes to the screen adaptations, because of his iconography (the moustache, the hat… even the waddle). But while even casual fans of Christie are used to seeing a handful of actors play the role (due to oft-repeated adaptations starring Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov and David Suchet), there are other actors who have also tackled the part – with varying degrees of success. Here’s a (non-definitive) selection of the more interesting takes on the role:
Oh, Austin Trevor. You don’t look like Poirot (No moustache! Too young!). You don’t particularly act like Poirot (must he really be quite so dull?), and yet, you were the first screen Poirot, so you will forever be important. To be fair to Trevor, he seemed to be pretty mystified by his casting as well. In a rather strange interview with a magazine of the time, he claims that he was probably cast because he’d once played a Frenchman in another picture. Yes – mon dieu! – in these films, proud Belgian Poirot is depicted as French! This followed a similar change in Alibi, the stage adaptation of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – so presumably it was that play’s script that had created the confusion. But still, a non-Belgian Poirot? That’s not Poirot.
Poirot in Germany
The first appearance of Poirot on television had been in a 1937 BBC production starring Francis L. Sullivan. This had been a screen enactment of a pre-existing play, which Christie was generally not averse to in the first few decades of television – but when (West) Germany’s turned to Christie in 1955 they not only plumped for Poirot, but also adapted his most famous case of all – Murder on the Orient Express. The 1955 series Die Galerie der großen Detektive was an anthology programme which, each week, dramatized a story featuring a famous detective. The series opened with an adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes story ‘The Dying Detective’, before working through other famous sleuths. It finished its run with a 50-minute adaptation of Christie’s mystery starring famous German actor Heini Göbel as a cigar-smoking Poirot. Unfortunately, no recording of the production is known to exist.
In 1973, Poirot returned to German television, this time played by Horst Bollmann in a production of the Christie play Black Coffee (pictured on the right, above). Bollmann provides the screen with probably the first completely satisfying portrayal of the character. He performs his greying (and short) Poirot as a spry and jaunty character, often played with a smirk and a great deal of charisma. This Poirot offers more energy than usual, something that can only benefit one of Christie’s duller plays. Meanwhile, the Poirot of the books would surely be pleased that, on screen, his companion Captain Hastings (played by Ernst Fritz Fürbringer) wears the moustache that he had implored him to grow.
This 1962 half-hour pilot for a series of Poirot adventures, which adapted the short story ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenhein’, is one of the more interesting productions of the period, and an intriguing dead-end. On the one hand, the scripting is reasonably accomplished and the production is shot on film – albeit at obviously small expense (poor Mr Davenheim doesn’t even get a line, even at the end!). It helps that it is one of the better Christie short stories, with a neat resolution – but its treatment of Poirot is bizarre. On the one hand, Martin Gabel is perfectly capable in the role for the most part (it is often said that this followed a pilot film starring José Ferrer as Poirot, but production documentation does not support this claim – it’s clear that Gabel replaced Ferrer before filming began), although he stumbles over his lines a couple of times – forgivable in a live production, but bizarre in something shot on film. But Poirot himself is not particularly likeable (taking on the case as a bet – as in the short story – seems crass when he is chatting to the distressed Mrs Davenheim), and the production team’s ‘twist’ on the character is ill-advised – as here, he is seen to travel in some sort of high-tech (almost magical) car, with a TV set, drinks cabinet, bed, and so on. This choice is more Batman than Poirot, although it would have been interesting to see how the series would have developed.
Poirot in Japan
There have been several Japanese adaptations of Agatha Christie stories – including an anime production featuring both Miss Marple and Poirot short stories, which is well worth seeking out. But probably the most lavish and interesting production is Fuji TV’s 2015 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, which offered its own twist on the story in a production that runs for nearly five hours. This version of the mystery stars 48 year-old Mansai Nomura as Poirot, who is travelling on the ‘Special Orient Express’, travelling between Shimonoseki and Tokyo in 1933.
Nomura’s performance as the detective moves between charmingly eccentric and entertaining to rather over-the-top in the less effective comedic moments – however, because he is clearly enjoying himself in the role, the audience finds itself being swept along by his energy. The first part of the two episode adaptation follows the structure and detail of the original story closely, but the second part then takes an unusual but effective turn as it spends more than two hours dramatising the background to the case – namely, the kidnapping and murder of a young child – before following the suspects as they make the decision to commit murder as a form of retribution. The flashback is still framed by Poirot going through the details of the mystery on the train, but it is now that we see the whole story from the murderers’ perspectives. It is surprising that this flashback section is not more atmospheric – the kidnapping occurs in the middle of the day in natural lighting, for example – but as the story is so complex it serves a good function. Nevertheless, one has to wonder whether the idea really justifies more than two hours of screen time – for Christie fans there is much to be interested in, but more casual viewers may feel that it perhaps over-eggs the pudding somewhat. However, what it does show is that like the same year’s BBC production of And Then There Were None, there are still new ways to bring Agatha Christie to the screen.