There’s no shortage of brilliant detectives in novels, film and television, but one of the greatest — or at least the one with the fanciest facial hair — is Hercule Poirot. The Belgian investigator, created by Agatha Christie, has appeared 33 novels, more than 50 short stories, and has been played by a variety of iconic actors.
But for whatever reason, Poirot has only sporadically appeared on the big screen, with many of his earliest movie appearances being lost to time, while some of his other noteworthy adventures were rewritten as vehicles for Christie’s other beloved creation, Miss Marple.
Here we take a look at the various theatrically-released adventures of Hercule Poirot, from the 1930s to today, and see which of his mysteries were truly worth solving.
Honorable Mention: “Murder By Death” (1976)
Neil Simon’s wacky spoof of the supersleuth genre, directed by Robert Moore, features an all-star cast playing thinly-disguised renditions of iconic detectives. Peter Falk plays the Sam Spade analogue, David Niven and Maggie Smith are quasi-Nick and Nora Charles, Elsa Lanchester is “Miss Marbles” and — sigh — Peter Sellers plays the Charlie Chan knockoff under grotesquely offensive makeup. The clever story and amusing cast are consistently undermined by the film’s racist and ableist jokes, but credit should be given to most of the cast, including James Coco for his charming performance as Milo Perrier, the thinly-disguised Poirot stand-in.
Honorable Mention: “Mystery Science Theater 3000”: “The Rebel Set” (1992)
Every episode of “MST3K” includes a feature-length movie, so we’ll cut it some slack and say it counts. After watching Gene Fowler Jr.’s (understandably forgotten) beatnik heist thriller “The Rebel Set,” robot quipster Tom Servo dons the persona of Hercule Poirot to uncover the film’s greatest mystery: whether the conductor in the film was played by frequent Bert I. Gordon collaborator Merritt Stone, or frequent Bert I. Gordon collaborator Gene Roth. (Or whether Merritt Stone and Gene Roth are the same person. Or whether one or both of them was actually frequent Bert I. Gordon collaborator Jack Kosslyn.) Servo’s interpretation of Poirot is amusingly over the top, right up until his head explodes from the strain, although — as Crow T. Robot accurately observes — his mustache really does make him look more like “Rollie Fingers at a Playboy party.”
Honorable Mention: “Spice World” (1997)
Yes, the Spice Girls had their own movie, and at times it feels like the entire production consists of throwaway jokes. One of the funniest stars Hugh Laurie as Hercule Poirot, who is investigating a series of mysterious machine-gun murders and, charmed by “Baby Spice” Emma Bunton, overlooks the fact that she’s wielding a machine gun and is covered in ammo. He accuses a priest instead. It’s a quick joke but a memorable cameo, and it raises the perfectly reasonable question of why Laurie has never played Poirot for real. He’d be wonderful.
9. “Appointment With Death” (1988)
Peter Ustinov played Hercule Poirot six times, but only three of those films were theatrically released, and in the case of “Appointment with Death,” it was without much fanfare. Piper Laurie is wonderfully despicable as a woman everyone has a motive to kill, but despite some real winners in the ensemble cast (including Carrie Fisher, Lauren Bacall, John Gielgud, and Hayley Mills) Michael Winner’s production is, overall, thuddingly inert. Ustinov plays Poirot for the last time, and his take on the character is that the detective is running out of steam. The rest of the movie shouldn’t have followed suit.
8. “Evil Under the Sun” (1982)
Ustinov’s second Poirot outing has a stellar cast — Diana Rigg, Maggie Smith, Roddy McDowall, Sylvia Miles, James Mason — and a disastrously languid, lazy-summer-afternoon pace. It’s not that it takes a long time for the murder to kick the story into high gear; lots of Christie stories, after all, take their sweet time getting to the violence. It’s that director Guy Hamilton seems to forget that a murder is even coming. By the time it does, there’s no “high gear” to kick to. Worse yet, the film’s score, comprised entirely of rehashed Cole Porter riffs, gets very tiresome, very quickly.
7. “Lord Edgware Dies” (1934)
Austin Trevor played Hercule Poirot three times (without a mustache!), but his first two outings (“Alibi” and “Black Coffee) are now, sadly, lost. The surviving Trevor film, “Lord Edgware Dies,” is a little on the cheap side, and it portrays Poirot a lot more like a Belgian Sherlock Holmes than as his own, eccentric self. But it’s a quickly-paced whodunit with clever twists and memorable characters, and Trevor’s atypical spin on the character is just fine and dandy.
6. “Death on the Nile” (1978)
Peter Ustinov’s first film as the Belgian sleuth is a real corker, with a delectable ensemble cast of potential murderers, killer cobras, bloody squibs, and a lot of wit. The cast of suspects includes Mia Farrow, Bette Davis, Angela Lansbury, George Kennedy, Jon Finch, Maggie Smith, and “Manimal” himself, Simon MacCorkindale, all of them playing wonderful jerks. Ustinov’s take on Poirot is a bit more unassuming than than his predecessors’, allowing the estimable character actor to shrink into the background when necessary, so it’s all the more satisfying when he publicly reveals his genius.
5. “Death on the Nile” (2022)
Kenneth Branagh’s second Poirot adventure takes some serious liberties with the characters and their motivations, adding some much-appreciated emotional heft to the proceedings. That’s good! But the script now raises multiple relevant social issues only to bend over backwards to avoid engaging with them. That’s bad. Still, the new wrinkles keep this material fresh, even if you already know whodunit, and the all-star cast — particularly Sophie Okonedo, Annette Bening, Rose Leslie and (what fun!) French and Saunders — make the most of this lavish and sexy production.
4. “The Alphabet Murders” (1965)
Tony Randall may seem like an odd choice to play Hercule Poirot, but then Frank Tashlin’s “The Alphabet Murders” is an incredibly odd film. It starts with Poirot telling the audience not to follow him, so the camera floats away and finds a murder instead. The film’s breakneck zaniness sometimes gets into the way of the labyrinthine story, and you’ll be forgiven if you completely lose track of what’s going on (or at least why), but this is a remarkably entertaining and unusual Agatha Christie adaptation, and Randall’s take on the character is, surprisingly, one of the best.
3. “Murder on the Orient Express” (2017)
Kenneth Branagh made a name for himself with opulent adaptations of Britain’s great authors, with astounding ensemble casts and vivacity to spare. It comes as no surprise that his “Murder on the Orient Express,” while bringing nothing new to the narrative, is a sublime restaging of familiar material. Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, and Daisy Ridley round out the eye-popping cast, while Branagh’s pulpiest sensibilities reign supreme in front of and behind the camera. He stages a closed-room murder mystery like a Hollywood thrill ride, and he plays Poirot like an adventurer who just happens to be in love with his own mustache.
2. “A Haunting in Venice” (2023)
Poirot gets called out of retirement by a mystery writer (Tina Fey) to debunk a medium (Michelle Yeoh), who tries to contact a murdered girl at a Halloween party, which of course leads to more murder. Branagh isn’t using an all-star cast as a gimmick this time, unless you count reuniting the entire family from his Oscar-winning “Belfast.” Also, “Venice” is rather unfaithful to its source material, and since nobody weaves a nefarious web quite like Agatha Christie, the new twists in ‘A Haunting in Venice’ are a little easier to predict than they should be. But Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos are having infinitely more fun than usual, crafting a classy and satisfying “Old Dark House” thriller out of bizarre camera work, the moodiest of lighting, and a sinister playfulness.
1. “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974)
Sidney Lumet’s “Murder on the Orient Express” has everything: It’s an astoundingly gorgeous production, with one of the finest casts ever assembled for any film. Albert Finney is trapped on a train with a cavalcade of murder suspects, including Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, Jacqueline Bisset, Wendy Hiller, and Ingrid Bergman (who won an Oscar for this). Dripping with eerie atmosphere, which bounces wonderfully off Finney’s comic performance, Lumet understands that the build-up to the murder must be as intense as the murder itself, and the investigation afterwards must be full of surprises, both cinematic and structural. It’s one of the greatest murder-mystery movies, and quite possibly the best one ever produced.