Thursday, December 5, 2013

Poirot is dead

Hercule Poirot has been played by thirteen different actors in plays and on film including Charles Laughton, Albert Finney, and Peter Ustinov, but the actor who has most effectively inhabited the character is David Suchet who has been playing the role for twenty-five years. Suchet has now completed filming the final stories in the final season of Agatha Christie's "Poirot".

It has been years since I read any of the books (college?) but I have thoroughly enjoyed watching the series. In fact I began re-watching the first season on Netflix this week. "A Time-Lapse Detective: 25 Years of Agatha Christie’s 'Poirot'" by Mollie McArdle is an appreciation of the television series and particularly of Suchet's Poirot. Apart from some rather silly stuff about sexuality and politics in the middle section of the essay, it is interesting and informative and I think will be enjoyed by those who like Christie either in book or filmed form.

McArdle:
.... There is something about violent crime, when treated in a very specific way — that is, named and punished — that provides audiences in any medium a profound comfort. Though ostensibly about a brutal rupture in the social order, mysteries and crime novels end with a solution (murder is exposed) and a resolution (murder is punished).... Law and order (and thus justice), despite pernicious threats, ultimately prevail.

Poirot, because of his status as a private detective, and because he is always right, has remarkable control over the outcome of an investigation. Occasionally, if he feels their cause is just, or if he has a particular fondness for them, he will let guilty parties go. .... The television series has done a better job of complicating this privately held discretionary power than Christie did. In Suchet’s version of Murder on the Orient Express, his detective is far more disturbed by the truth of the killing than his counterpart in the novel:
“No! No, you behave like this and we become just … savages in the street! The juries and executioners, they elect themselves! No, it is medieval! The rule of law, it must be held high and if it falls you pick it up and hold it even higher! For all of society, all civilized people will have nothing to shelter them if it is destroyed! “
It’s a thrilling speech from Poirot, given during his traditional last-act summation: Suchet’s slack face quivers in the cold air of the stalled, and unheated, train compartment; his words are puffs of ghostly white. It’s also more than a little hypocritical, given Poirot’s lenience in other cases. ....
Of course Poirot is lenient in this case, too.

McArdle explains why Suchet is so good in the role and so much better than the others who have attempted it:
Chiefly, these actors’ worst crimes are that they are not Suchet: a man who has so totally embodied this role that it becomes painful to watch anyone else attempt it.
“There is only one Poirot, and there’s only one way of doing it.”
—Philip Jackson (Inspector Japp in the series)
“He was as real to me as he had been to her,” Suchet writes in his memoir, Poirot and Me, released in the UK this November 7, “a great detective, a remarkable man, if, perhaps, just now and then, a little irritating. He had inhabited my life every bit as much as he must have done hers as she wrote 33 novels, more than 50 short stories, and a play about him.” ....

....He read all the books and copied down every piece of information Christie included about the detective, a master document he used throughout his tenure as Poirot. (It instructs him to take three, or occasionally five, lumps of sugar with his tea or coffee and to not sit down on a park bench without draping a handkerchief over it first.) He also retired the hair and mustache nets his predecessors wore to sleep as sight gags. His performance is a master class in immersive, detail-oriented acting.

“The care and precision that he brings to it is exactly right for the character he’s trying to do,” Jackson says in Super Sleuths, “it’s actually the approach Poirot himself would use.” ....

.... In the mid-1990s, Suchet was filming an episode of Poirot in Hastings, a town on England’s southern coast. He left the set for a quick breather — they were on location on some small road — in his full costume (pince-nez and swan-topped cane included).

“I was very, very tired at the end of the day. I just needed to get away,” he told the Irish Times recently, “I leaned on my cane and went, ‘Phew.’” He gestured to show his exhaustion.

“Then there was a little old lady with her shopping trolley, and she looked at me. I looked at her, and she looked at me again. She says, ‘Well, hello, Mr. Poirot.’”

“What do I do?” he asks himself, “What do I do?” He cannot speak in his own voice to her, looking like this. “I just can’t do it.”

He does what comes natural. He says “Hello, Madame” in Poirot’s voice. [more]

A Time-Lapse Detective: 25 Years of Agatha Christie’s "Poirot"