"The question is: can Hercule Poirot possibly be wrong?"
Well, it's hardly the "definitive" collection. A&E has yet again gone back to the Poirot well and repackaged three of their previous Hercule Poirot disc sets to come up with Agatha Christie's Poirot - The Definitive Collection, which groups together twelve of David Suchet's feature-length Poirot TV mysteries that originally aired in 2000 and onward. Titles include The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Lord Edgware Dies, Murder in Mesopotamia, and Evil Under the Sun (all four of which were previously released on 2004's Agatha Christie Megaset Collection); Death on the Nile, Sad Cypress, The Hollow, and Five Little Pigs (all four of which were previously released on 2005's Agatha Christie: Poirot - The New Mysteries Collection); and The Mystery of the Blue Train, Taken at the Flood, After the Funeral, and Cards on the Table (all four of which were previously released on 2006's Agatha Christie: Poirot - Classic Crimes Collection). Obviously, if you already have these collections, there's no reason to double-dip on Agatha Christie's Poirot - The Definitive Collection - no additional bonuses have been added, nor have the correct widescreen transfers been utilized here. These are the same exact discs that can be found in the three previous collections. And while that title is truly misleading (not all of the feature-length Poirot films are included here, let alone the 36 hour-long episodes from the earlier seasons of the series), Agatha Christie's Poirot - The Definitive Collection is a much cheaper alternative to those first collections (isn't that annoying, previous buyers?), and an excellent place to start your TV Poirot collection.
By now, it has been fairly well established by Christie fans (as well as by TV mystery enthusiasts) that English actor David Suchet owns the character of Hercule Poirot, the bizarre Belgian private detective that became Agatha Christie's most beloved and well-known literary sleuth - a belief I share, as well. As a boy, though, my strongest visual impressions of the character came from two wildly disparate sources: Albert Finney's startling transformation as Poirot in Sidney Lumet's superior, Murder on the Orient Express (I had to be told by my parents that it was the Tom Jones actor, so complete was his alteration); and the hilariously gross, feline take by James Coco as Poirot-spoof "Milo Perrier" in Neil Simon's wonderfully non-P.C. Murder by Death ("I'm not a Frenchie! I'm a Belgie!"). But as is often the case with TV adaptations of feature films, such as with M*A*S*H or The Odd Couple, the performers lucky enough to follow through with the same character for several years on TV often eclipse in the public's mind the equally accomplished, well-regarded big-screen originators of the roles (if you ask most people whom they picture as Hawkeye and Oscar and Felix, they'll most probably say Alan Alda, Jack Klugman, and Tony Randall - not Donald Sutherland, Walter Matthau, and Jack Lemmon). And so it is with David Suchet, who is currently coming up on almost twenty years playing the fastidious, inhumanly precise, egotistical private dick (a term that Poirot, no doubt, would blanch at).
Watching Suchet all these years (I was hooked on the series right from the start, being an enthusiast - but not, certainly, an expert - in Christie), it's an almost melancholy experience to see him mature and deepen the Poirot character, to the point where in the later films, Poirot is a most solitary, at times deeply sad, figure. And all with a decreasing level of effort on Suchet's part (due to an increasing level of performing skill, no doubt). Looking over the films in Agatha Christie's Poirot - The Definitive Collection, which came a full 11 years and more after Suchet started to play the detective, a definite progression can be seen already, with Poirot becoming more isolated (sidekicks Hastings, Japp and Lemon soon disappear), more resigned to the perversities of human nature, and simply put, more lonely. The first four films in the collection find a Poirot full of almost impish delight at the prospect of solving a particularly tricky case with the (usually unneeded) aid of his cohorts. His bonhomie when Hastings and Japp return into his circle of acquaintances - even though they're plodding dolts next to the nimble mind of Poirot - lightens the films considerably, with Suchet even breaking the fourth wall at times to give us the viewers withering looks whenever Hastings says something particularly silly.
But that lightness within Poirot, detectable even beneath the innumerable small sufferings he experiences whenever the world deviates in the slightest degree from his prescribed obsessions with the correct food, the correct etiquette, or being mistaken for being...don't say it...French, slowly withers away during the course of Agatha Christie's Poirot - The Definitive Collection, leaving Poirot in a much darker world - a world I've always associated with Christie's overall view of human nature. I've never quite understood Christie's detractors who mislabel her works as "safe" or "quaint" or "reassuring" (I recently came across an interview with mystery writer P.D. James, who largely dismissed Christie with faint praise on those very grounds). Perhaps it's what we would now call in these modern times Christie's "period detail," or the sometimes ritualistic use of the more recognizable frameworks of the English village mystery (frameworks made stereotypical because she largely perfected them) that leads people to view Christie's books as appealing picturesque and comfortably old-fashioned.
However, I've always found her world rather terrifying in the endlessly recycling violence that fills the backgrounds of her seemingly "normal" environments. Christie's world is a terribly depressing, bleak place, peopled by cheaters, liars, and killers; a cold, venal, base world that Christie relentlessly uncovers with an unblinking eye. And who "saves" us, the reader (or viewer), from this desolate mess? Two outsiders - a lonely, insignificant spinster (Miss Jane Marple), and a bizarre-acting foreigner - both of whom, although sure in a higher moral order such as "justice," live out their lives separate and alone. Poirot's little obsessions with his dress, his food, and his excessive correctness and politeness, quirky little ticks that always provide solid laughs from readers and viewers, can also be seen as a rigid, last-ditch efforts by the detective to hang onto some kind of personal order, while the rest of the world spins out of control.
And it's this formalized quirkiness, coupled with Poirot's perhaps too-deep appreciation for the perversity of human nature, that makes him such a simultaneously humorous and sympathetic character, one that Suchet delineates in finer and finer detail with each TV outing. Poirot is never not amusing to watch here; the humor of the character is never let go in favor of total isolation and depression. Funny little asides and facial expressions from Suchet are too numerous to list, but some are priceless. In Evil Under the Sun (the funniest of the films here), Suchet is hilarious when, stricken with what everyone thinks was a heart attack, moans in exasperation when he receives a get-well card from Scotland Yard's forensics lab. In the same film, watch the pleasure Suchet brings to a starving Poirot, when Hastings announces that lunch is ready. In Sad Cypress, Suchet has a brilliant moment when his delicate, refined palette collides with his sleuthing; forced to test various fish paste sandwiches, a clearly shaken Poirot intones to a doubting Thomas: "No, she was murdered...but not by these disgusting sandwiches." And in Taken at the Flood, when a police inspector offers a humbug (an English peppermint candy) out of a bag, the at-first curious Poirot peers into the bag, before screwing up his face and shaking his face in minor revulsion, saying, "Non!" the flapping of his jowls clearly audible on the soundtrack. That is priceless Suchet as Poirot.
But equally strong dark influences are at work around Poirot in these films, with Suchet masterful at getting across the innate sadness of the character with just the barest, most subtle of facial expressions. While one always wonders if Suchet's Poirot, in his expressions of empathy towards potential suspects, is performing as the literary Poirot does in such circumstances (i.e.; play-acting or outright lying to get all information available about the mystery), the displays of personal regret in his dealings with people are clearly sincere. There's an arresting moment in The Hollow, following the discovery of the killer, who is also dead, where one of the previous suspects, a beautiful, young girl, asks Poirot what to do about the body. And Poirot, sadly taking in this lovely woman, mournfully intones, "Go, my child. Your place is with the living. I will remain here with the dead," as he watches her leave the scene. Poirot, by his looks, by his demeanor, and by his curse in life (his genius in seeing people for what they truly are, in all their ugliness), is set upon a course in life that will never include this beautiful, alive creature. In The Mystery of the Blue Train, as Poirot comes to delight in the education of a newly-wealthy young woman who has accepted his offer of acting as her avuncular, his disappointment and regret in the end when he realizes that she no longer wishes to travel with him, is heartbreaking as essayed by Suchet. He's served her purpose while she was fragile and learning, and now it's time to move on - which obviously hurts Poirot deeply. These and other small, painful moments register just as strongly as the openly comical ones for Suchet, giving the Poirot character a depth of feeling and emotion that builds on each subsequent outing - performances which rightfully eclipse the previous "definitive" rendition of the character by Albert Finney.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Lord Edgware Dies
Murder in Mesopotamia
Evil Under the Sun
Death on the Nile
Five Little Pigs
The Mystery of the Blue Train
Taken at the Flood
After the Funeral
Cards on the Table
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.