There is the first, the last and forever mustache. According to the Associated Press and therefore the Chicago Tribune, it is spelled “moustache.” However, in Agatha Christie’s most famous and meticulous work, her stories featuring the now 103-year-old Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, the spelling favors “moustaches” and often the plural “moustaches”.
At least this isn’t a story all about beards. (For this, you can go to: agathachristie.com For a deliciously obsessive account titled “The Wonderful Moments of Poirot’s Moustache.”) The turning point, inches south of the detective’s cherished “little gray cells,” was introduced, and not ostentatiously, in Christie’s first novel, “The Mysterious Affair in Styles,” in 1920 . grabbing a moustache, but as something “tough and military”.
Then it blossomed like a Poirot mystery. By 1934 and the publication of “Murder on the Orient Express” (first serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in 1933 as “Murder in the Calais Carriage”) the Belgian was rich, famous and a real peacock. In this novel, one of his most popular novels, he is described as “a little man with a big moustache.” Kenneth Branagh directed and starred in the final version of the film. Third Poirot adaptation, “A Ghost in Venice” Branagh’s 2017 Poirot debut opened this week with a much softer moustache, now brown instead of silver fox – resembling an actual silver fox knock-off attached to his upper lip.
If it were just the dimensions, Branagh would win the “Finist Poirot of Them All” award. But this is a very competitive situation. We have experienced the Belgian example of inference throughout the century in many depictions in films, television, stage and radio. My favorite is based on undeniable subjective reasoning: a paradox! – so… well, you’ll have to read on.
But before that, FYI: There are many worthy Christie adaptations that have nothing to do with Poirot. If you haven’t seen “And Then There Were None” (1945), you must; Along with Christie’s cool charm, she also has the cool mechanics that her critics dislike. If you haven’t seen “Witness for trial” (1957), which is even better, and thanks to Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, and Tyrone Power, the people caught in the narrative trap turn out to be great actors playing people, even if they aren’t people. And if you haven’t seen “Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?” (2022), Hugh Laurie’s seductress three-part adaptation The Christie mystery is very light, even if things get worse towards the end. It’s on BritBox, and that’s actually reason enough to get BritBox.
Back to the Belgian. In order of emergence of adaptation and the realization that we’ve left a lot of Poirots undiscussed:
1. Charles Laughton, “Alibi” (London stage version, 1928): There is no filmed recording of Laughton’s Poirot; “Alibi,” an adaptation of Christie’s “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” was a success in London but failed in its 1932 revival on Broadway. Mustache review: faded, relatively tame—probably unlike Laughton’s performance, which Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times described as “a highly entertaining exercise in pin-up portraiture,” which is a nice way of saying his move is probably turned up to 11.
2. Austin Trevor, “Alibi” (1931): The first Poirot on the big screen, the now-lost “Alibi,” was one of three Christie adaptations in which the Irish actor played the Belgian detective. Only the third, “Lord Edgeware Dies” (1934), appears to have survived; A timecode stamped copy of this is floating around on YouTube. Based on this copy, mustache review: None. None!? None.
3. Orson Welles, “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”, Campbell Playhouse (Mercury Theatre, 1939): A year before Welles went to Hollywood to make “Citizen Kane,” he dined on the role of Poirot in this 50-minute radio version of Christie’s story. Mustache review: Yes, it was radio, but Welles, as Poirot, refers to his mustache as “the largest in Europe.”
4. Tony Randall, “The Alphabet Murders” (1965): It’s a tasteful curio, shot in black and white in London and directed by quirky social satirist Frank Tashlin (“Artists and Models,” “Girl Can’t Help It”). The hectic genius of this Poirot joker does all sorts of unconventional things: bowling, fending off Anita Ekberg, you name it. Christie hated what they did to her book “The ABC Murders”; the audience was indifferent. Mustache review: Not special but not bad. We’re getting there.
5. Albert Finney, “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974): I love this performance, and I love director Sidney Lumet’s film almost as much as I did when it came out. Knowledgeable Swank makes a spectacular braking turn right on the edge of the cartoon. Finney is very, very good: unexpected casting, lots of costume, facial and voice trickery, and somehow we believe it all. Moreover, that train! Mustache review: The first great Poirot mustache in the movie; It’s not a monster, but it’s a perfect match for Finney’s jet-black, heavily slicked hair.
6. Peter Ustinov, “Death on the Nile” (1978): Finney was busy, so Ustinov took over the role of Poirot in a more subtle way. He went on to play the detective five more times in film and television. Mustache review: Finney is on scale, but like Ustinov’s performance, it’s a bit more restrained. Then again, I too pushed back against the moves of some of the other actors in “Nil” and “Evil Under the Sun.”
7. David Suchet, “Agatha Christie’s Poirot” (1989-2013): Suchet’s career was happily consumed by the hugely popular ITV television adaptations of Christie’s Poirot mysteries, and for many aficionados this was the ideal Poirot, outwardly and inwardly; Suchet depicted every little detail of the character’s habits and cunning with remarkable ease. . Mustache review: Pleasant changes over the years. Sometimes the dots point directly towards noon; in other versions the mustache favors the more traditional 10:45 angle.
8. Alfred Molina, “Murder on the Orient Express” (2001): Premiering on CBS, this modern-day relocation of Christie’s warhorse stranded an excellent actor in a completely misjudged update. Mustache review: Ah.
9. Kenneth Branagh, “Murder on the Orient Express” (2017): Director and star Branagh stars in the first of three Poirot adaptations to date, with more digital effects than the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Still, the audience liked the movie enough and we are in theaters this week with “A Haunting in Venice”. Mustache review: Where to start? At which end of this crazy mustache? When it came to Branagh’s “Death on the Nile” (2022), it was a little less polished but still a scene-stealer, for better or worse.
10. John Malkovich, “The ABC Murders” (2018): This adaptation, shot for BBC One, gave the Chicago-educated Malkovich the Poirot infusion. Let’s just say… an interesting approach with a fluent dialect. Mustache review: An all-natural goatee that suits Malkovich’s minimalist characterization.
My favorite of these 10? A painfully close call. Seriously, I’m in pain. If I could give half the moustache to David Suchet and the other half to Albert Finney, I would, and I love much of what Ustinov achieved as Poirot, especially his later TV portrayals. But for me it’s Finney.
And now, as it says at the end of the best big screen version of “Oriental Express”, I have to go and wrestle with my conscience and the report I will give to the police.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.