Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot, eccentric Belgian detective
Egypt, September 1937
Film: Death on the Nile
Release Date: September 29, 1978
Director: John Guillermin
Costume Designer: Anthony Powell
Today would have been the 100th birthday of Peter Ustinov, the brilliant dramatist and diplomat who—among his many achievements—played Agatha Christie’s celebrated sleuth Hercule Poirot in a half-dozen productions.
Fluent in multiple languages, Ustinov was easily able to glide between the English and French required to play the fussy Belgian detective and was able to provide his own voice in the French and German versions of his movies, including several of the Poirot productions.
Death on the Nile was the first—and often considered the strongest—of Ustinov’s six films as Poirot. Based on Christie’s 1937 novel of the same name, Death on the Nile should be a familiar title for those even unfamiliar with most of the author’s work as Kenneth Branagh’s well-publicized adaptation has been repeatedly delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now scheduled for release next February, Branagh’s version will actually be the third adaptation as an extended episode of the long-running series starring the excellent David Suchet as Poirot had aired in 2004.
Ustinov’s Poirot is debuted while on holiday in Egypt, unable to keep himself from eavesdropping on the drama unfolding between the vivacious Jacqueline de Bellefort (Mia Farrow) and the newly married Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles) and Simon Doyle (Simon MacCorkindale). Poirot’s spectatorship of this dangerous—and ultimately deadly—triangle is briefly interrupted by a happy reunion with Colonel Race (David Niven), a lawyer and sportsman working in a secretive capacity investigating Linnet’s shady attorney, Andrew Pennington (George Kennedy).
Colonel Race dryly quips about Poirot’s somewhat inflated opinion of himself as the two recall “that strange affair of the decapitated clergyman” where they had last met, though Poirot finds himself humbled when a drunken Salome Otterbourne (Angela Lansbury) misidentifies him as “Hercules Porridge, the famous French sleuth.”
The joy expressed by Ustinov and Niven upon their reunion was likely authentic as, more than 30 years earlier, Lieutenant-Colonel David Niven had been briefly attended to during World War II by a young private named… Peter Ustinov. Of course, it wasn’t mere coincidence as Ustinov was co-writing Niven’s upcoming film, The Way Ahead, with Eric Ambler. British Army customs forbade association between privates and high-ranking officers, so Ustinov was appointed Niven’s batman to skirt conventions and allow their professional collaboration.
Following the war, Ustinov resumed his multi-faced career as an actor, activist, and author, writing plays, films, novels, and nonfiction. Considered a 20th century Renaissance man, Ustinov was recognized throughout his life with multiple state and governmental honors and more than a dozen honorary degrees from institutions in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Ireland, and Switzerland. His three Emmys, two Academy Awards, and Grammy Award for Best Recording for Children makes him one award short of the celebrated “EGOT” status… though Ustinov had been nominated for two Tony Awards in his career as well. After Ustinov’s death at the age of 82 near his Swiss home, UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy spoke at his funeral, representing United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Update: Sadly, I learned that Anthony Powell, who won his second of three Academy Awards for Best Costume Design for his work on Death on the Nile, died today at the age of 85.
What’d He Wear?
For each evening of his holiday along the Nile, no matter how many murders he’s tasked with solving, Hercule Poirot dresses for dinner in the same black three-piece dinner suit, or “tuxedo” to some. Poirot’s approach to dressing may be fussier than many with its various old-fashioned idiosyncrasies, but his sense of decorum informs that he wouldn’t depart too dramatically from the traditions of black tie, instead adapting evening-wear standards to his size and peculiarities.
The differing body types of the rotund Poirot and the lean, athletic Colonel Race offer an interesting comparison of how each man dresses to flatter his respective frame, each following the same general approach of a single-breasted peak lapel dinner jacket, wing collar, and even gold signet rings and a “double Albert” watch chain looped across a single-breasted waistcoat; in fact, the only significant difference of the two men’s approaches are the colors of their waistcoat as Race sports a low-fastening white while Poirot opts for black silk that matches the facings of his dinner jacket.
Indeed, the broad peak lapels of Poirot’s black wool ventless dinner jacket are faced in black silk, rolling to a single silk-covered button positioned at his waist line that he wears open. The shoulders are soft and padded, and the sleeves are finished in four silk-covered buttons. He dresses the welted breast pocket with a white linen display kerchief, often placing his hands in the jacket’s jetted hip pockets.
Poirot wears one of the traditional shirts associated with the black tie dress code, constructed of finely woven white cotton marcella (piqué) and collarless to allow its wearer to attach the clean collar of his choosing. In this case, Poirot opts for a stiff white wing collar, worn with the pointed wings in front of his bow tie as he does with his daily dress. His thistle-shaped bow tie is black silk, thus the dress code’s naming convention.
Gold studs affix the collar to the front and back of the shirt’s neckband. This old-fashioned system allowed wearers to wash their shirts and collars separately, the collars subjected to rigorous cleaning and starching to keep them stiff, sharp, and presentable… and easily replaced as needed. It was around the time that Death on the Nile was set in the mid-1930s that evening shirts began trending toward their more modern evolution, thanks to increasingly relaxed attitudes, central heating, and improved laundry processes, but Poirot remains a proponent of the old sartorial guard with his stiff detachable collars.
Though these old-fashioned shirts often had detachable cuffs in addition to collars, Poirot’s double (French) cuffs appear to be attached to the shirt and made from the same lightly textured marcella shirting. He fastens them with a set of cuff links connected by a long double bar that keeps the cuffs together over his thicker wrists.
The squared pearl-effect surfaces of his cuff links match the three visible studs in place of buttons on the shirt’s front placket.
Though cummerbunds were increasingly accepted as alternative waist coverings in warm locales like a late summer evening in Egypt, a gentleman of Poirot’s size—not to mention his old-fashioned sartorial sensibilities—benefits from the full and more flattering coverage provided by a waistcoat as the intermediate layer between his dinner jacket and the top of his trousers.
As mentioned earlier, Poirot’s shawl-collar waistcoat is a black silk to match the lapel facings of his dinner jacket. Styled to accommodate Peter Ustinov’s girth and six-foot height, the waistcoat rises a touch higher than the traditional dress waistcoat—though still not as egregiously full-covering as the modern “prom rental” waistcoat—with four buttons covered in the same black silk as the body of the garment. Lined with white fabric, the waistcoat has two hip pockets, and Poirot wears his gold pocket watch in one of them with the chain worn “double Albert” style through a small hole cut expressly for this purpose near the third button.
Poirot’s black wool formal trousers match his dinner jacket, detailed down the side seams with narrow double stripes in black silk to echo the jacket facings and waistcoat. Even when crouching to investigate a crime scene or less-than-elegantly sprawled in drowsy repose in the ship’s lounge, Poirot’s jacket and waistcoat do their job of covering the top of his trousers so we’re privy to little of the detailing aside from the stripes running down to the plain-hemmed bottoms. We can assume that they’re held up by suspenders (braces), with white silk being the most traditional fabric, and that Poirot would opt for his usual pleats in accordance with both trending fashions and the most comfortable tailoring for his build.
By the 1930s, oxfords had increasingly supplanted the old-fashioned opera pump, or “court shoe”, as the widely seen and accepted footwear with semi-formal black tie evening-wear and even full evening dress of white tie and tails. However, as with his detachable collar, Poirot remains true to tradition as he completes his kit with a pair of well-shined black patent leather pumps detailed with the requisite grosgrain silk bows and worn with thin black silk socks.
In his 1964 volume ABCs of Men’s Fashion, published decades after Death on the Nile was set, the estimable Hardy Amies wrote that pumps “are correct wear with evening dress, especially if you are dancing” though he lamented that they “have been largely, and I think, unfortunately, replaced by a light tie-shoe in patent leather.”
Poirot keeps a pair of ivory dress gloves—likely a soft leather like chamois or suede—in his pocket, fashionable for gentlemanly pursuits like dancing but also likely serving a practical purpose should he need to handle any grisly evidence at the occasional murder scene. Of these too, Sir Hardy observes that “you were once considered to be incorrectly dressed without your gloves,” and it’s thus no surprise that Poirot would continue the tradition well into the ’30s even after many men had abandoned them for all but ceremonial occasions and cold weather.
For occasions requiring additional scrutiny, such as calculating his quadruple jump in checkers, he keeps his pince-nez handy, attached to a thin black cord worn around his neck. Unlike modern eyeglasses with arms and earpieces, pince-nez were supported on one’s face by bridging the bridge of their nose… hence the name “pince-nez”, which translates from French to “to pinch the nose”.
The gloves and glasses may come and go, but Poirot always wears his sole affectation, a gold signet ring on his left pinky that appears to be etched with his monogram “H.P.”
What to Imbibe
Hoping to circumvent the slow bar service in the dining room, Poirot forages behind the bar for a liqueur that meets his gustatory preferences, inadvertently overhearing a damning confrontation between the blustering Dr. Bessner (Jack Warden) and the doomed Linnet. After she leaves the room, he makes his presence evident by rising from behind the bar, a bottle of crème de cacao in hand, to pour himself an apertif.
Poirot’s preference for these flavored liqueurs would continue into Evil Under the Sun when he requests either crème de Cassis or a sirop de banane during cocktail hour.
For the actual dinner service, Poirot’s fondness for Château Pétrus—and the telltale “moldy” sediment noted by Colonel Race—eventually tips him off that his wine must have been tampered with on the night of the first murder.
Poirot: That’s the normal sediment for a great bottle of Château Pétrus. Will you join me in some?
Col. Race: No, thanks. You stick to your wine, I’ll stick to my whisky.
One of the most exclusive and expensive wines, Château Pétrus serves as a fitting favorite for our eccentric epicurean. With typically no more than 30,000 bottles produced in a year at its Pomerol vineyard and esstate, this Bordeaux has been celebrated for its refined qualities and complex nose. Though it had been championed for decades, winning a gold medal at the third Paris World’s Fair in 1878, it wasn’t until after World War II and the successful 1945 vintage that the Pétrus global reputation truly begin to grow.
How to Get the Look
As fastidious a dresser as he is a detective, Hercule Poirot leaves no detail unaddressed in his period-perfect black dinner suit complete with wing-collar shirt, patent leather pumps, and a shawl-collar waistcoat ornamented by his elegant gold “double Albert” watch chain.
- Black wool single-button dinner jacket with wide silk-faced peak lapels, welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, 4-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Black silk single-breasted 4-button formal waistcoat with shawl collar, hip pockets, and notched bottom
- Black wool pleated formal trousers with black silk double side stripes and plain-hemmed bottoms
- White cotton marcella evening shirt with collarless neckband, front placket, and double/French cuffs
- Detachable stiff wing collar (with gold studs)
- Mother-of-pearl squared shirt studs
- Mother-of-pearl squared bar-style cuff links
- Black silk butterfly/thistle-shaped bow tie
- Black patent leather opera pumps with grosgrain bows
- Black silk dress socks
- Ivory dress gloves
- Gold monogrammed signet pinky ring
- Pince-nez glasses, attached via black neck-cord
Do Yourself a Favor and…
With me it’s the exercise of the little grey cells. Luck, I leave to the others.