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East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

The Hercule Poirot Centenary Blogathon: Peter Ustinov

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It is the centenary of the birth of Hercule Poirot, the popular detective created in 1920 by Agatha Christie. For the occasion, the Liberi di Scrivere blog has organized a blogathon, and following this link you can find the list of participants.

In our house, the debate has never been about who is the best James Bond ever (I have always preferred Roger Moore to Sean Connery, who was my mother’s favorite), nor about who the ultimate Sherlock Holmes is (both me and my brother we remain faithful to Jeremy Brett). It is about Poirot that there is a split – my brother, along with the vast majority of Orthodoxy, recognizes David Suchet as the perfect Poirot, while I remain faithful to Peter Ustinov.

During his long career, Ustinov (1921-2004) played the role of Poirot six times

  • Death on the Nile (1978)
  • Evil Under the Sun (1982)
  • Thirteen at Dinner (1985)
  • Dead Man’s Folly (1986)
  • Murder in Three Acts (1986)
  • Appointment with Death (1988)

Initially, the English actor and director (and playwright, writer, diplomat …) became involved in the adaptation of Death on the Nile when Albert Finney refused to reprise the character he played in Murder on the Orient Express, which in 1974 won Ingrid Bergman both the Oscar and BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress.

In the 1970s, cinema was feeling the crisis caused by the TV competition – a film like Orient Express, or Nile, represents a response that only a major studio can field: adaptation of very popular novels, with a cast of colossal names.
Orient Express aligns, in addition to Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Perkins and Wendy Hiller.
Death on the Nile, four years later, features Ustinov alongside Maggie Smith, Angela Lansbury, Bette Davis, Mia Farrow, David Niven, George Kennedy and Jack Warden.
It is filmed on location in Egypt, subjecting cast and crews to prohibitive working conditions, and would lead Bette Davis to declare “in the old days they would have built the Nile for us in Paramount backlot, today we are all stuntmen”.

Four more years, and in ’82 it is the turn of Evil Under the Sun, and Ustinov is in the company of
Colin Blakely, Jane Birkin, Nicholas Clay, Maggie Smith, Roddy McDowall, Sylvia Miles, James Mason, Denis Quilley, Diana Rigg and Emily Hone.

In playing Poirot, Ustinov emphasizes his ridiculous aspect.
Christie, in outlining Poirot, remains faithful to the practice of giving one’s character a series of traits, eccentricities and flaws to make him distinctive (it happens with Holmes, with Peter Whimsey … even with Marlowe, and Chandler would hate this observation), and Ustinov appropriates them with evident amusement.
If his Poirot is certainly not a parody, the actor has no qualms in underlining the comic aspects. Ustinov’s Poirot is patently vain, spoiled (his insistence on two eggs of the same size, his weird demands on the subject of coctails), is unfriendly and does not particularly enjoy the company of his fellow men.
A certain distance from one’s neighbor is perhaps necessary in order to observe him.

However, Ustinov’s genius and lightness are not revealed in the comic aspect of his character – and this comedy serves on the one hand to amplify the effect of Poirot’s investigative abilities, and on the other to give him a soul, a humanity. evident in certain “thrown away” scenes.

Ustinov’s interpretation manages to humanize a character who, entirely focused on his own intellectual life.

Even more than the extraordinary costumes, exotic locations, stellar cast and music, what elevates Ustinov’s adaptations of Christie is the English actor’s ability to be both light and profound, ridiculous yet dignified, and deeply human.

Despite the soft-boiled eggs.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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