Mysteries are wonderful because it is fascinating to see how people solve them. To determine what happened at a given place and time when you were not at that place at that time just by using deductive powers and whatever clues remain is amazing. And we are mesmerized by the exercise when it comes to crime solving. Why else are there so many best-selling books, top-rated TV shows and blockbuster movies devoted to whodunits, police procedurals and other thrillers?
In the last 100 years, two purveyors of mystery entertainment have stood out above the rest. They occupy two different mediums – writing and cinema, although there is some overlap for the writer. It’s the prolific writer Agatha Christie and the acclaimed filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock.
Apart from using different artistic means to share their genius, they also had a different modus operandi when it came to their stories. Christie, for the most part, trafficked in whodunits. While Hitchcock mostly revealed his killers upfront and took viewers through the paces of wondering how (or if) the killer or killers would be caught.
Public television’s Masterpiece Mystery! recently concluded its Poirot series based on Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Christie wrote 33 novels and numerous short stories about the fastidious super sleuth, and the PBS Poirot series produced adaptations of all 33 novels and some of the short stories over the last 25 years. One actor portrayed Poirot throughout the entire series – David Suchet. As an avid fan of Christies’ books who has read all of the Poirot novels, I think Suchet has done an admirable job of bringing Poirot to life – all his mannerisms and idiosyncrasies (and there are many). There were times when I was disappointed by the screenwriters’ choices, certain significant deviations from the books. But as a film fan, I’m used to literary adaptations being altered for various reasons, and I still enjoy the PBS adaptations very much – especially because of Suchet’s wonderful interpretation of one of my absolute favorite literary characters.
But as much respect as I have for Suchet’s work portraying Poirot, my favorite Suchet performance was when he played a very different detective in a movie remake of a Hitchcock film. It was his performance as a police detective named Mohamed Karaman in the 1998 thriller “A Perfect Murder,” a surprisingly good remake of Hitchcock’s 1954 “Dial M for Murder.” It was surprising because, as film fans know, good remakes are hard to come by.
“A Perfect Murder” stars Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow as a ridiculously wealthy and seemingly happy married couple. She is having a steamy affair with Viggo Mortensen, so she’s no angel. Yet we favor her over her clearly money-obsessed, ruthless Wall Street tycoon husband – maybe because he’s a conniving killer vs. her being a conniving adulteress. Plus it’s hard not to root for young, attractive lovers to prevail over the older, fuddy-duddy, murderous husband. It was the same in Hitchcock’s original. Even though we learn of the wife’s affair with a mild-mannered novelist in the opening scene – played by Grace Kelly and Robert Cummings, it’s hard to like husband Ray Milland as soon as he reveals his plan to kill his wife, Kelly, in the following half-hour.
But back to Suchet. He’s wonderful as the detective in “A Perfect Murder” because he gives a quiet, insightful performance. It’s very different from his turn as Poirot because it is understated. Poirot is lovably boastful with many ticks and quirks to his personality that can be ostentatious. Detective Kamaran is clearly thoughtful, but you see the wheels turning in his mind without him having to say much. And the understanding between him and Paltrow as the wife/potential victim/suspect is lovely. They bond over language of all things. She is a U.N. translator and linguist who speaks many languages, including the detective’s native language of Arabic (I believe the character is Algerian), and she is able to convey her genuine interest in the detective’s private life concerns when she asks him about his sick child in his own language. These seemingly small nuances establish a connection that is important for the story.
In “Dial M for Murder,” the detective is played by the great character actor John Williams, who won a Tony award for his performance in the original Broadway stage production. It was quite a different part than the one in “A Perfect Murder,” of course, but both he and Suchet did the role of the detective proud in their respective efforts. Coincidentally (or maybe not), Williams gives what seems to be a nod to the great fictional detective Poirot at the end of "Dial M for Murder" when he combs his rather large mustache, which happens to be styled rather similarly to Poirot's famous mustache.
So perhaps that's a direct connection between Poirot and Hitchcock. In any case, I salute Suchet at the end of his career as Poirot on television, and I hope that he continues to work portraying other detectives and more on the big and small screen.