It is in no way hyperbolic to suggest that a good box set is like the Ark of the Covenant of home entertainment. Whether it’s a filmmaker’s best work, a franchise, anthology or television series, DVD box sets provide plenty of incentive to stay inside, close the blinds, and reject the existence of society for a while.
Hercule Poirot is perhaps the most beloved of all fictional, mustachioed Belgian detectives. Like Arthur Conan Doyle before her, Agatha Christie grew weary of her most popular creation, describing Poirot as egotistical, as if that were a bad thing. In fact, Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes are intriguing because they’re difficult, they’re fun because they’re so awful. Poirot is no hero, he’s flippant and jovial in the face of murder most foul, and bad tempered and arrogant in polite company. He relishes the puzzle of a gruesome killing, and is ambivalent at best when it comes to the lives that are destroyed. Poirot is brilliant, there’s no denying that, but he’s also a bit of a prick. Happily, this trait wasn’t scrubbed out of the character in the film adaptations, indeed Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov positively revel in the delicious meanness and eccentricity of Poirot.
The Poirot Collection comes courtesy of StudioCanal and showcases three of Agatha Christie’s most beloved stories in shiny, blu-ray quality. Here’s some more words about the films.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974) – Sidney Lumet
Murder on the Orient Express is about a murder on the Orient Express. The film’s director is Sidney Lumet, who has had previous experience directing twelve angry people, and so was a perfect fit for this particular story. Albert Finney is Poirot, playing him as a sort of prickly pear with mild psychotic tendencies. He grumps his way through most of the film, occasionally stopping to offer wisdom, or refuse to help people on the grounds that they are ‘boring’. By the time Poirot has cracked the case, and rounded up the suspects for a grand reveal, Finney has transformed from slightly irritable to totally manic. His deconstruction of the crime seems to go on forever, and the performance becomes more and more intense. Indeed, the final twist is all well and good from a story standpoint, but it’s really Poirot’s feverish excitement in his big speech that holds the attention.
He’s a fantastic character, standing out from a star-studded cast that includes Ingrid Bergman, Vanessa Redgrave and Sean Connery as Colonel Mustard. Overall the film holds up pretty well, although things do take a long time to really get going, and there’s no real sense of danger for anyone save for the one who is marked for death. Murder on the Orient Express is not a thriller, it’s a comfortable puzzle, it makes murder feel safe. But it’s fun, it’s a throwback to an earlier time, both in terms of it’s content and it’s structure, and it’s brought to life by some great performances.
Death on the Nile (1978) – John Guillermin
Following in the tradition of Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile has a title that serves as an adequate description of it’s plot. The film is directed by John Guillermin, known for tackling Tarzan and King Kong, which is fitting when you consider Death on the Nile’s exotic location and subtle, gentile racism. Poirot has a new face, he is now Peter Ustinov (Prince John from Disney’s Robin Hood) an altogether more menacing character than Albert Finney, who at least had the grace to appear frumpy at all times.
Ustinov’s Poirot is a lot more sinister in his conduct, feigning humility and even stupidity, all the while eavesdropping and taking notes. The film takes a while to kill off it’s victim, but there’s never any doubt about just who the victim is going to be, indeed there are even a few scenes that tease the kill. The film’s idea of creating mystery is to make every single character in the story hate the victim or at least have motivation for wanting them dead. After a while, it gets pretty absurd. The whole thing is held together by Peter Ustinov, who is a complete joy to watch from beginning to end.
Evil Under the Sun (1982) – Guy Hamilton
The slightly more ambiguously titled Evil Under the Sun is, in many ways, a direct remake of Death on the Nile, but with a less exotic (and by extension; less interesting) setting. Watching Poirot solving this new jigsaw puzzle of a murder is still rewarding, but the conclusion is laughable at best, a cop-out at worst. You might as well just watch Death on the Nile twice. Still, the film is enjoyable for other reasons, and indeed these stories focus not so much on the who and the why as the how. It’s how the murderers almost get away with their crimes that’s important, who it turns out to be in the end is almost incidental.
The main reason to watch this is, again, Peter Ustinov. Still, the film is definitely the weakest of the three. Evil Under the Sun was made in 1982 and so of course the 80’s permeates every second of the film. It’s impossible to tell when the story is supposed to be set; is it the 1940’s? If it is, it’s a very 1980’s 1940’s. There’s something about the 80’s, perhaps it’s the hair or the prawn cocktails, that just won’t allow for an accurate period piece. Go ahead, set your film in the 1940’s, the 80’s always wins.