Given how many of Agatha Christie's "Poirot" stories have been adapted for television with David Suchet as the little Belgian detective, you might have assumed Suchet had played the role in one of the author's most famous books, Murder on the Orient Express.
In fact, though Suchet has made 64 films as Poirot, he is only now getting around to taking a ride on the fabled train that gets stuck in a snowdrift when a corrupt American businessman is found murdered.
The story has been filmed before, of course: Albert Finney played Poirot in a delightful, if Hollywoodized, 1974 adaptation. And, more recently, Alfred Molina tried the role.
But at this point, foolish is he who thinks he can fill Suchet's patent-leather shoes. He completely embodies Poirot, communicating depth, nuance and much more than just the ability to power up the "little gray cells" to solve a mystery.
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The new version of Orient Express, which airs Sunday on PBS stations, including KET, and is followed by two other new "Poirots" on July 18 and 25, emphasizes the complicated moral dilemma the detective encounters when identifying a guilty party isn't always the same as justice.
As the film begins, Poirot has assisted the army in finding a young soldier guilty of a less than capital offense. When the soldier is driven to suicide by shame, it affects Poirot deeply.
Recalled to London, Poirot boards the Orient Express in Istanbul and is thrown in with a diverse group, including a brassy American woman (Barbara Hershey) and an elderly Russian princess (Eileen Atkins), among others.
When the wealthy Samuel Ratchett (Toby Jones) is found murdered in his compartment, all the suspects are apparently still on the train, which is awaiting rescue while the snow continues to pile up. The solution of the crime is one of Christie's most famous, despite the fact that at first there seemed to be no one on the train with any connection to the dead man.
But the genius of the story goes beyond the cleverness of how the murder was committed: As if a coda to the incident with the young soldier, Poirot is again called on to weigh the meaning of justice and, as he does so, we see him not just as a profoundly observant detective, but as a complex man who understands little gray cells and the gray areas of life as well.
Third Girl, airing July 18, marks the return of Poirot's wonderfully silly friend Ariadne Oliver (Zoë Wanamaker), the detective novelist who has a bit of talent for solving crimes herself, but nowhere near as much as she thinks she has.
The story turns on a distressed young lady named Norma Restarick (Jemima Rooper) who seeks Poirot's assistance because she thinks she might have committed a murder. But before Poirot can elicit more details, she disappears. Sometime later, a former nanny is found dead by apparent suicide on the same block as the building where Norma shares an apartment with two other young women.
Ariadne finds a supposed suicide note in the nanny's apartment, but it's stolen from her before she can read it. Meanwhile, Poirot is nosing around Norma's family about the details of Norma's mother's suicide years before. All of it will be connected, of course, but the interplay between Poirot and Ariadne elevates the film above the mere matter of whodunit.
The third new Poirot film, Appointment With Death, is set in an archaeological dig where Lord Boynton (Tim Curry) is searching for the head of John the Baptist. Along for the ride are his thoroughly hateful wife, Lady Boynton (Cheryl Campbell), free-spirited travel writer Dame Celia Westholme (Elizabeth McGovern), the three psychologically battered Boynton children, a nun, a retired nanny and a military colonel out to thwart white slavers.
When Lady Boynton is killed, there is no end of suspects, but the real mystery has to do with the time of death. Her "appointment" was not when it initially was assumed to be, and only Poirot can put the shards together to solve the crime.
Beautifully directed, Appointment is, like the other two new Poirots, a small masterpiece.