Thursday, January 10, 2013

A Pair of Poirots: Suchet and Ustinov Discover "Evil Under the Sun"

Peter Ustinov.
David Suchet.












The case of the preferred Poirot is an easy one to solve. I suspect that most Agatha Christie purists favor David Suchet over Peter Ustinov as the Belgian (not French!) detective. Personally, I adore them equally. Ustinov may place a little more emphasis on Hercule Poirot's humorous traits, but he can deliver an accusation just as crisp as Suchet.

Peter Ustinov first appeared as the famed detective in Death on the Nile (1978), an all-star follow-up to 1974's Murder on the Orient Express (which starred Albert Finney). Ustinov played Poirot five more times in two theatrical films and three movies made for American television. In contrast, David Suchet, who made his debut in the role in 1989, has starred in dozens of one-hour TV episodes and 90-minute movies for both the British network ITV and A&E. Interestingly, prior to playing Poirot, Suchet appeared opposite Ustinov's Poirot as the detective's Scotland Yard colleague Inspector Japp in 1985's Thirteen for Dinner.

The hotel in the 1982 film.
Both actors starred in adaptations of Agatha Christie's 1941 Poirot novel Evil Under the Sun (the title was derived from a verse in Ecclesiastes). After a prologue involving a seemingly unrelated murder, Hercule Poirot journeys to a secluded island hotel where all the guests share one thing: a hatred of wealthy, former actress Arlena Marshall. When her corpse is discovered on the beach, the Belgian detective sets out to uncover the identity of the murderer. At the climax, he assembles all the suspects, confronts the culprit, and explains (aided by flashbacks) how the ingenious crime was committed.

Diana Rigg as Arlena.
Both adaptations have their virtues and both make significant deviations from Christie's novel. The superior version is Ustinov's film, which was written by Anthony Shaffer, a playwright (Sleuth) and screenwriter (Frenzy) who understands how to condense a character-heavy book. Shaffer reduces the number of suspects by merging two into one and eliminating two minor characters altogether. This makes it easier for viewers to distinguish between the suspects and also allows Shaffer to flesh out their personality traits better. It helps that many of the characters are played by well-known performers: Maggie Smith, James Mason, Roddy McDowall, and Diana Rigg.

Poirot observes the crime scene.
The 1982 film also gets a boost from its stunning locations and a score comprised of Cole Porter songs. While the novel takes place in Devon, England, the movie shifts the action to an island in the Adriatic Sea. It was actually shot in Majorca, Spain, which features breathtaking landscapes and crystal blue waters. As for the score, it's a matter of taste, but Cole Porter tunes such as "You're the Top" give the picture a nice period feel (even if the songs become a bit repetitious).

Louise Delamere as Arlena.
David Suchet's 2001 version of Evil Under the Sun keeps the mystery in England, sending Poirot to the Sandy Ridge Hotel after being pronounced "medically obese." In addition to retaining more of the novel's suspects, it includes a drug smuggling subplot and expands the roles of Poirot's colleagues: Captain Hastings, Inspector Japp, and Miss Lemon. In the end, it's just too much plot and too many characters to track given a running time of 100 minutes.

The Sandy Ridge Hotel in the 2001 film.
The island setting, while not as beautiful as in the earlier film, is still lovely (and perhaps not as distracting). As with Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians, the isolated locale is central to the plot (though it's easier to reach a nearby village than in Ustinov's film). A cove, a ladder along the rocks leading to the beach, and the many island paths play a crucial part in a crime where impeccable timing is mandatory.

As for the mystery, it's clever enough--though Christie often seems to delight in straying from detective fiction conventions (if you've never read S.S. Van Dine's short essay "Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories," I strongly encourage it...Agatha breaks a couple of key "rules"!).

In the end, one's preference for Suchet or Ustinov may tip the scales toward one version or the other of Evil Under the Sun. For me--assuming parity among the Poirots--I'll stick with the 1982 adaptation.

10 comments:

  1. A most excellent use of the little grey cells, Rick! I am a fan of Monsieur Poirot, as well as Miss Jane Marple. I loved your pairing of Poirots. I have seen both versions of "Evil Under the Sun" and also prefer Ustinov's version. The locale is beautiful, the script excellent, and I really enjoyed the Cole Porter music. Also, I love your two pictures of Poirots. Both David Suchet and Peter Ustinov portray the distinguished Belgian masterfully.

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  2. I had my movie watching and book reading all planned for the next little while - but now you've put me in Christie mode.

    Well, maybe I'll just listen to some Cole Porter and keep on track.

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  3. I have only seen the Ustinov version of "Evil Under the Sun" - how I missed the Suchet version is a mystery in itself, I thought I'd seen every one of his Poiroits, one of my favorite mystery series of all time. It occurs to me that I may favor Suchet as Poirot because I first became aware of him in that role. Ustinov had been a high profile actor - 2 Oscars + 2 more noms - long before playing Hercule Poirot and I suspect I was too conscious that I was watching Peter Ustinov (as Poirot).

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  4. There is another 'evil under the sun' version starring Suchet - TRIANGLE AT RHODES which is basically the same plot. It was written as a short story by Christie and later, she fleshed it out as EVIL UNDER THE SUN. She occasionally did that with her short stories.

    TRIANGLE AT RHODES has a different killer but still part of a certain married couple. I can say no more.

    I will say though, that I prefer the novel EVIL UNDER THE SUN to any of the filmed versions though I love spending time in Majorca with Poirot, listening to Cole Porter. My favorite scene: Poirot in his bathing costume embroidered with his initials and including a very fetching cap.

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  5. I also concur that the Ustinov EVIL is superior, although the Suchet version has its charms. Suchet might be a better physical match for Poirot than Ustinov, but I find Ustinov's interpretation extremely entertaining. As you say, the Ustinov EVIL has the added benefits of truly spectacular scenery and a top-flight cast. It's always struck me as funny that the producers decided to film two Christie novels back to back with such similar plots (and killers). Still, I love both EVIL and DEATH ON THE NILE.

    As far as Suchet's Poirot goes, my favorite adaptations are of THE HOLLOW and FIVE LITTLE PIGS. Those are terrific telefilms. The series as a whole has grown on me over the years.

    Great idea for a post, Rick!

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  6. I always picture H. Poirot as Peter Ustinov, only because I'm not as familiar with Suchet's work. Your post has prompted me to see out more of Suchet.

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  7. Me too! Ustinov IS Hercule Poirot, and the 1982 film with script by Anthony Shaffer is truly brilliant, as is the cast.

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  8. I really don't have a preference for one Poirot over the other. Not only do I like both Ustinov and Suchet as Poirot, but also Albert Finney. But I must admit that I do prefer the1982 version of "EVIL UNDER THE SUN". It doesn't follow Christie's novel as closely as the 2001 version . . . and that's a good thing for me. I'm not fond of the novel.

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  9. David Suchet is the ultimate Poirot because he adopts all the mannerisms, foibles and strengths of Agatha Christie's character as she delineated him. Ustinov took Christie's Poirot as a starting point and then went off piste, as actors will do (just ask Shakespeare...). There are some excellent things about all the film versions of Agatha Christie's books but, in the end, nothing beats the books themselves and the experience of curling up with an 'Agatha Christie' is one of the delights of English life.

    The strengths of the Suchet 'Evil Under the Sun' are, apart from Suchet as Poirot, Burgh Island as the setting (Majorca, for heaven's sake?!?) - the original Agatha Christie setting for the novel, and the closer following of the novel. Obviously a television film has to cut down considerably on a novel but, in comparison with the full-length 1982 film, this is obviously not always a Bad Thing.

    The sad thing about David Suchet's brilliant portrayal of Poirot over twenty-five years and the full oeuvre is that some of the plays are very poor adaptations (and even poorly written) and some of the supporting cast are quite dreadful and seem to have read neither the original novel or story nor the script.

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    Replies
    1. Although the Ustinov film shifts the locale to Majorca, the setting is still stunning and the locations work well in supporting the plot. While it's true that some of the telefilms with Suchet are subpar adaptations, there are also some outstanding ones and he is always a joy.

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