After the most depressing day of the year, what better way to cheer ourselves up that watch a few classic whodunnits? The collection of three Poirot films produced by John Brabourne are immensely entertaining, the perfect antidote to Blue Monday.
There is something about the 1930s of Agatha Christie that is comforting. Perhaps these films always seemed to be on the television over the winters when I was growing up, or possibly it’s the violent crime that is solved (with a twinkle in the eye) and the threat to a comfy world that is finally resolved. Maybe it is the sumptuous sets and first class personnel involved in front and behind the camera. It could be that the lines are so sharp. Whatever the reason, Poirot films make for a cosy night in.
This box set includes three classics on Blu Ray.
Murder on the Orient Express
The film is set on the famous luxury train and the murder of a wealthy American businessman occurs the night they are stuck behind a snowdrift. The great Albert Finney plays Poirot and he is utterly transformed. It took me a while to believe it really was Finney. He is a slightly more introspective, solitary character than Peter Ustinov’s Poirot in the final two films who can’t help but be charming as well as irritating. But still, the great detective’s strange habits and quirks are made the most of – particularly his hair and moustache net, mispronunciation, and pulling funny faces.
Hercule is not the only oddball on the train however, it is filled with them and they are all murder suspects and all played by stars. There is John Gielgud as the victim’s haughty butler Edward Masterman, Ingrid Bergman as a mousy secretary and missionary on her way home from Africa (in a role for which she won an Oscar), and a prickly Anthony Perkins is the victim’s secretary. Apparently, the producer hired Sean Connery first, whose name ensured that the rest of the cast signed up too.
The sets and costumes are sumptuously designed by the great Tony Walton of Mary Poppins fame, who received an Oscar nomination for this film. Altogether the film was nominated for six Oscars (winning only one). Sadly the director, Sidney Lumet, was not on the list. He later wrote that the film stylistically had to have a sense of gaiety, “it’s not a comedy but you’re smiling through that movie even at your most tense.” It certainly puts a smile on your face, as well as keeps you guessing.
Death on the Nile
Prior to David Suchet, Peter Ustinov must be the most recognisable Poirot. His tenure as Poirot might be briefer than Suchets, but it is still remembered fondly by some of us. Death on the Nile is the first of his six appearances as the great detective, in three feature films and three made-for-TV films. Death on the Nile is an excellent start to the series.
As well as the obligatory all-star cast, this film also has music by the great Nina Rota who was responsible for scoring The Godfather, Plein Soleil amongst other great films. This was just one of a host of superior staff working on the film. These include ace cinematographer Jack Cardiff, costume genius Anthony Powell and even Wayne Sleep choreographing an extremely funny dance.
Anthony Powell is nothing to do with the director, this one worked on the Indiana Jones films amongst his many successes. He produced the outfits for Evil Under The Sun too and his costumes are always perfect. One scene that comes to mind sees Poirot and two other gentlemen convene in the morning wearing their dressing gowns. Each a picture of ornate sophistication in silk.
Apart from the new Poirot, the biggest difference with the Murder on the Orient Express seems to be the sense of humour. If the first film was wryly amusing, this one is often laugh-out-loud funny. The all-star cast makes for some fantastic double acts. Best of all, and one surely that could have been developed in a film all on its own, is Bette Davis and Maggie Smith. Where could you find a better display of bitchy haughtiness and the ability to spit out one-liners?
Death on the Nile is also one of David Niven’s final performances, he is Poirot’s urbane helper Colonel Race. Jessica Lansbury provides another comic highlight as a sex-obsessed, highly verbose, writer Salome Otterbourne who always seems to be worse the wear for a bottle or two of gin. It is Lansbury who asks: “Am I addressing Hercules Porridge, the famous French Sleuth?” to which Poirot replies: “No, madam, you are addressing Hercule Poirot, the famous Belgian sleuth.” Nice!
Evil Under the Sun
One of the jokes in Poirot is the malapropisms that stupid Anglo-Saxons visit on his name. In Death he is Mr Porridge, here Hercules Parrot. It still made me laugh. Agatha Christie does include these sprinkled about her books, but finding them here must be something to do with Anthony Shaffer’s eye for the absurd. This is the man who wrote the Wicker Man after all.
Peter Ustinov who was great on the Nile, seems to really hit his stride in this film. Here he seems more flamboyant, camper, more French… sorry, more Belgian, than ever. The suspects are also fabulously outrageous, a few of whom are familiar faces. Maggie Smith is the proprietor of a hotel on a small Mediterranean island, where a series of well heeled guests congregate, only for one of them to be found dead.
Being wealthy means the guests are a splendid mix of snobbishness, insecurity, jealousy, bitchiness, not to mention razor sharp wit, at least in the case of Maggie Smith’s character. “You know how peculiar people can be about a spot of murder,” she says at one point.
Anthony Powell excels himself with the costumes once more. There is a parade of dazzling turbans, cravats, puffball sleeves, spotless white DJs and slinky dresses. It’s obvious why Spielberg would have chosen him to work on Indiana Jones.
The film proceeds as usual with false trails, lately revealed observations and a denouement in the drawing room. You might say that the plots are shaky, but that is slightly missing the point that these films are more about the characters, the dialogue, the sheer loveliness of the sets and locations. Altogether you feel there should be more murders in exotic locales.
The Poirot Collection is out on Blu Ray on Monday 20th January.