Saturday, 7 November 2009

David Suchet and Poirot


ITV 3 repeated a documentary from 2005 the other day, which took us ‘behind the scenes’ with a year of Poirot stories for the small screen. I found it interesting, and a reminder of what a fine actor David Suchet is, and of how completely he has made the role of the Belgiam supersleuth his own.

There were clips from four episodes. One (The Mystery of the Blue Train) was based on a mediocre book, but the other three stories – Cards on the Table, After the Funeral, and Taken at the Flood, all boast high calibre plotting. But as one of the galaxy of talent in the various casts said, you can’t spot the murderer by figuring out who is the most famous star in the show, ‘because everyone is famous’!

Whenever I’ve seen Suchet interviewed, he comes across as a charming and modest man (the same seems to be true of his brother John, who was an affable news reader for many years.). It’s clear that he is a perfectionist, and that his attention to detail has helped to bring out the human side of Poirot. I think that, in original concept, he was something of a cipher, a great reasoning machine, with a personality that was largely composed of a collection of eccentric mannerisms. But out of Agatha Christie’s raw material, Suchet has fashioned a very appealing character. Among classic tv interpretations of detectives from novels, he is right up there with John Thaw’s Morse and Joan Hickson’s Jane Marple.

To my mind, Suchet is a better Poirot than Peter Ustinov, and far better than Albert Finney. One Poirot I haven’t seen is Tony Randall, who played the part in The Alphabet Murders, based on The ABC Murders. This is apparently a case of a very fine book and a rotten film adaptation, but I’ve always wanted to see it, to check whether the universally scornful reviews are justified, and just what the screenwriter did to mess up such a good story. But the film is unavailable on DVD and I’ve never seen it on telly. Maybe that speaks volumes?

20 comments:

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Tony Randall as Poirot? What? No way!

If Suchet is a perfectionist, he's definitely the ideal person to play Poirot. I've enjoyed watching him so far.

Elizabeth
Mystery Writing is Murder

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - Thanks so much for sharing this documentary! Suchet is far and away my favorite Poirot for so many reasons. It seems that he's worked very hard to really understand Poirot's character and share it with the audience, and that hard work's quite evident.

Max Allan Collins said...

I like Ustinov's take on Poirot, particularly in DEATH ON THE NILE and EVIL UNDER THE SUN -- both of those films were superior to the Suchet adaptations, and not just because of bigger budgets.

But Suchet is the definitive Poirot nonetheless, and I hope he's able to do all of the novels (some of the short stories may go by the wayside). I do hope Hugh Fraser will be back for CURTAIN.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for these comments - I'm glad you share my enthusiasm for Suchet.
Max, thanks for dropping by, it's great to hear from you. I hope our paths cross at some future conventon.

Anonymous said...

Here are some clues to what sort of film this is...Margaret Rutherford makes a guest appearance as Miss Marple; the screenplay was scripted by the writers of the Rutherford Miss Marples trilogy; Robert Morley plays Captain Hastings; Anita Ekberg co-stars (can't remember who as but I don't think it was Miss Lemon!); and the director is Frank Tashlin, a Hal Roach gag-writer who grew up to be a good Hollywood comedy specialist - sought after by stars like Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Hope, and the Three Stooges (not to mention Daffy Duck). On the cover of the video I used to have, Tony Randall resembled nothing so much as Inspector Japp being played by David Niven.
So not one for the purists, but an amiable 90 minutes or so. Not worth pursuing, but worth catching if it turns up on tv.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Anonymous. I shall keep an eye out for it, just to satsify my curiosity!

Philip said...

I am most firmly in the Suchet camp. I have at times inveighed against gruesome changes made to crime novels in adaptation, but that is not to say changes are not sometimes necessary or otherwise beneficial. One of the touches I think inspired in the Suchet series is the powerful sense of humour. Poirot of the novels is close to an automaton, and Christie herself didn't like him, I suspect for that reason. On screen, that would wear thin very, very quickly, but instead we are given a Poirot susceptible to the charms of females and small animals -- one dog, at least -- and capable of making us chuckle with one of those withering looks or a memorable line:

Poirot (as Hastings walks toward parrot): Please do not fraternize with that creature. I am still training him.

Hastings: It's only a parrot.

Poirot: I was talking to the parrot.

Ustinov did reasonably well, if you can accept a crumpled, vaguely buffoonish Poirot, when he had Shaffer as screenwriter and considerable support in the cast. Mind you, his last Poirot outing, Murder in Three Acts, is so risibly bad it really is worth watching for the chuckles. Tony Curtis plays Charles Cartwright, our recently retired actor, who it seems bowed out with a long run in a Noel Coward play -- I think it was Private Lives. The idea of Tony Curtis in Noel Coward so entertained me by itself that I just gave up and enjoyed the rest as a comedy. Even Ustinov wasn't really pretending it was much else.

Finney I thought a worthy effort, but not quite on the mark, Randall a clownish non-starter. I'm curious about Alfred Molina's turn in Orient Express, but what I'd really like to see is Ian Holm in Murder by the Book.

Max Allan Collins said...

Tashlin is a much admired filmmaker, and in some quarters considered great. I would say uneven but very interesting, and important in that he brought Warners Bros cartoon comedy into live action (SON OF PALEFACE, for instance, and some of the better Jerry Lewis vehicles, like DISORDERLY ORDERLY and the PI spoof IT$ ONLY MONEY).

The Poirot film only works as a Tashlin film, and not one of his better ones. Falls in the "curiosity" category, as certainly a rare venture into dark comedy for the director. It was clearly intended to be the first of a series, and Randall was in his brief phase of being an American Alec Guinness (after his multi-portrayals two years before in 7 FACES OF DR. LAO).

Juxtabook said...

I haven't seen many adaptions of Christie for the simple reason that I haven't had a TV for most of my adult life. I do love her books though, for all their faults, and I am re-reading her work in chronological order (see recent blog post!). I enjoyed your write-up and I will have to try and see one on dvd sometime.

Bernadette in Australia said...

I like Ustinov's DEATH ON THE NILE better than the Suchet version too but overall I agree Suchet's Poirot is more close the mark. I've been listening to his narrations of several Christie stories in audio book format and they are absolutely marvellous.

Nicole_Hadaway said...

Suchet is the definitive Poirot, just as Jeremy Brett made Holmes his own, and Miss Jane Marple to me will always be Joan Hickson. Others have come close, but not quite like those actors.

I do wish they could re-do Evil Under the Sun, one of my favorite movies, with the cast of the film version but with Suchet as Poirot instead of Ustinov. That would be superb. I love Maggie Smith and Diana Rigg in their respective roles.

Martin Edwards said...

Philip - the 'parrot sketch' is a great example!

Martin Edwards said...

Max, I do like the concept of Randall as an American Alec Guinness! I must investigate Tashlin.

Martin Edwards said...

Juxtabook - get well soon. I will be putting up several posts about the amazing Christie notebooks before long.

Martin Edwards said...

Bernadette - I have listened to a couple of the audio versions, and I agree.

Martin Edwards said...

Nicole, welcome to this blog. I see you've escaped from the legal profession. For me Diana Rigg can do no wrong, even though her interpretation of Mrs Bradley raised a few eyebrows a while back.

vegetableduck said...

I think Murder on the Orient Express (1974) is a great film, with some really outstanding supporting performances (Ingrid Bergman, Wendy Hiller, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Rachel Roberts--the way they flesh out the ciphers from the book is amazing!), but have come to the conclusion Finney was wrong for the part of Poirot, despite his Oscar nomination. He's an imposing, gruff and rather charmless croaking "frog," really quite far removed from how I envision book Poirot.

Suchet may be a tad fussy and feminine (it's a little hard to see his Poirot in his earlier pre- consulting detective incarnation in Belgium), but I think he is the best Poirot we have had or ever will have, probably.

I'll stick up for Christie's characterization of Poirot. Critics tend to be dismissive of it, yet somehow Poirot has stuck in the public mind, along with Sherlock Holmes, as the prime example of the Great Detective. And this was before Suchet came along! Poirot and Miss Marple too clearly caught people's imaginations decades ago and have held them since. I think people are responding to the characterizations as well as the brilliant deductions.

Martin Edwards said...

Curt, I entirely agree about Orient Express the movie
As for Poirot, I think Christie's characterisation is simple and basic, but has the great merit of being extremely memorable. Suchet's achievement is to have developed the character while remaining, in my opinion, true to the template.

seana said...

Excellent discussion, everyone. It is so interesting to think of Suchet coming to all of this rather late in the game, when lesser actors--or even really good actors--might have thought there was nothing new to say about the character. And voila! A whole new interpretation.

I must also add a plug for the unsung Hugh Fraser as Captain Hastings in this series. Being a sidekick is always a thankless task, but Fraser does it with penache.

Martin Edwards said...

Excellent point, Seana. I always think of Hastings as the stupidest of Watsons, but Fraser does a great job of giving him appeal. I was interested to learn recently that he is the son of Ronnie Fraser, an actor I used to enjoy a lot in my youth, who usually played bumbling drunks, but was rather menacing in the 70s version of Melissa.