Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s brilliant Belgian detective, made a bit of a comeback last winter when yet another version of Murder on the Orient Express hit the big screen, with a deadpan Kenneth Branagh as the detective.
But no Poirot can compare to Peter Ustinov, who played the role in six movies with subtle wit and sly sophistication.
In the star-studded Evil Under the Sun (1982), an insurance company engages Poirot to track down the ginormous diamond that Sir Horace Blatt gave to his most recent mistress. He wants it back, and the insurance company wants to sell a policy to cover it.
The usual Christie dustup ensues: Poirot follows Sir Horace to the mythical island of Tyrania, played by Majorca, to meet up with his former mistress and her husband, her new lover, and the well-spoken motley crew that always appear in Christie novels.
Everyone wears fabulous over-the-top ’40s clothes by Oscar-winning designer Anthony Powell. (Poirot’s bathing costume alone is worth the price of rental.) Boats are rowed, tennis is played, cocktails are consistently served, the men are civil and helpless, the women are vengeful sirens who plot revenge, snarl and scratch at each other, and change clothes often. (Are there actually insurance jobs this glamorous?) Naturally, there is a shuffling of couples, a murder and the reappearance of the real diamond, which can now be insured. Phew.
Like the movie, Ustinov himself (1921-2004) was soaked in European glamor. Born in Britain, he was the grandson of Russian nobility and counted Italian, French, Ethiopian and German ancestors as well. (He once did a stage play in a different accent every night.)
Ustinov dropped as many bons mots in real life as he did while playing Poirot. To wit: “I imagine hell like this: Italian punctuality, German humor and English wine.”
Next time you’re in Majorca, you may borrow that.