On the occasion of having completed a collection of Agatha Christie mystery novels gifted to me by my partner this Christmas (in hardback yet!), I’ve taken the opportunity to revisit 1978’s Death on the Nile, the second film in the unofficial Poirot Trilogy from British producers John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin (Murder on the Orient Express -1974, Death on the Nile -1978, Evil Under the Sun - 1982).
Released in the fall of 1978 at the height of American Tut-Mania born of the 1976 - 1979 tour of The Treasures of Tutankhamun museum exhibit, Death on the Nile was a less stylish, not quite all-star follow-up to the wildly successful Murder on the Orient Express, and marked the first appearance of Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot. It seems Albert Finney declined the opportunity to reprise his Oscar-nominated performance from that first film after considering the rigors of applying and wearing the extensive Poirot makeup and prosthetics in the triple-degree heat of the Egyptian desert. Lacking, for my taste anyway, the star quality Finney brought to the role which made him more an equal participant in the proceedings, Ustinov nevertheless brings a character actor’s zest to his interpretation of Poirot, making the character uniquely his own. Ustinov would go on to play Christie’s Belgian sleuth in two more feature films (Evil Under the Sun and the awful-beyond-imagining Appointment With Death) and three contemporized TV-movies.
|Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot|
|Bette Davis as Mrs. Marie Van Schuyler|
|David Niven as Colonel Race|
|Mia Farrow as Jacqueline De Bellefort|
|Simon MacCorkindale as Simon Doyle|
|Lois Chiles as Linnet Ridgeway|
|Jack Warden as Dr. Bessner|
|Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Salome Otterbourne|
|George Kennedy as Andrew Pennington|
|Maggie Smith as Miss Bowers|
|Jon Finch as Mr. Ferguson|
|Olivia Hussey as Rosalie Otterbourne|
|Jane Birkin as Louise Bourget|
As a huge fan of Murder on the Orient Express but having missed the opportunity to catch it on the big screen, I made sure to see Death on the Nile the day it opened. I recall the audience as being sparse but appreciative, and I remember enjoying the film a great deal; albeit more for its cast and surprising twists of plot (it’s quite a puzzler of a mystery and hands-down the bloodiest film in the series) than anything particularly noteworthy about its execution.
Murder on the Orient Express was a glamorous, cinema-inspired recreation of an era, purposefully romanticized, and steeped in nostalgia. Death on the Nile, under the journeyman, traffic-cop guidance of large-scale-logistics director, John Guillerman (The Towering Inferno, King Kong), is, on the other hand, a murder mystery well-told, but one devoid of either mood or atmosphere. The claustrophobic tension of a luxury passenger train is traded for the more scenic vistas offered by a majestic paddle steamer cruising down the Nile, and while Anthony Powell’s dazzling, Academy Award-winning costume designs do most of the heavy-lifting in the glamour department; the visual splendor of the British countryside and sunny, travelogue-worthy scenes of Egyptian landmarks offsetting the otherwise straightforward, TV-movie-style cinematography highlighting the lavish, stagy sets.
Putting the best spin on it possible, Death on the Nile’s competent but indifferent direction and utter lack of visual distinction immediately put to rest any inclination on my part to compare this film to its (to my taste) far superior predecessor. Divested of any expectation to duplicate that film’s elegant, diffused-light visual style or compete with its first-class pedigree cast, I was able to better appreciate Death on the Nile on its own modest, nonetheless worthwhile, merits.
As is to be expected, not a single soul aboard the good ship Karnak is there merely by chance, and all the character's lives connect and intersect in the most intriguing, mysterious ways. The fun to be had in Death on the Nile is seeing these diverse personalities clash, the entertainment is found trying to stay one step ahead as the details of the masterfully intricate mystery at the center of the story come to be revealed.
|Bette Davis looks to be channeling a future Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey, while Maggie Smith is putting out a serious Tilda Swinton vibe|
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Death on the Nile is one of those movies that plays much better today than when it was released.
When Murder on the Orient Express opened in 1974, its all-star cast and artful recreation of a bygone era rode the crest of the 70s nostalgia craze and the public mania for star-studded disaster films. But by the time Death on the Nile was made, the cultural climate had changed significantly. Thanks to TV’s The Love Boat and several dozen unbearable disaster films (Airport 77, The Swarm, Avalanche) all-star casts no longer meant glamorous...they became synonymous with cheesy. And while not officially a sequel to Murder on the Orient Express (although conceived as one) Death on the Nile was perceived as one in the minds of the public, and thus fell victim to the overall cultural disenchantment with the glut of uninspired sequels Hollywood churned out in hopes of duplicating the success of 1974s The Godfather Part II (Jaws 2, The French Connection II, The Exorcist: The Heretic. etc.).
All About Eve, My Man Godfrey, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Rosemary’s Baby, The Manchurian Candidate, Romeo and Juliet, and The Great Gatsby, all appearing in the same film. But back in 1978, the film's biggest stars, Bette Davis and David Niven, were appearing on TV or in low-rent Disney movies, Peter Ustinov was best known as "That old dude in Logan's Run," Mia Farrow had not yet hitched her wagon to Woody Allen, Angela Lansbury was better known on Broadway, and George Kennedy was like the James Franco of the disaster genre (he seemed to be in all of them).
Time has been kind however, and the biggest treat now is being able to enjoy all these great stars - many of them no longer with us - in a handsomely-mounted old-fashioned film, looking so outrageously young, entertaining us with the kind of marvelous, once-in-a-lifetime talent it was once so easy for us to take for granted.
If you ain't got elegance you can never, ever carry it off
Just to lodge two main performance complaints from the getgo: 1) Lois Chiles is drop-dead gorgeous, but I've never understood how she landed so many plum roles in high-profile films. When it comes to flat line readings, she really gives Michelle Phillips (Valentino) a run for her money. 2) Simon MacCorkindale's performance would have improved tenfold had he just been given a scene or two shirtless or pants-less. It's a proven fact (See: Evil Under the Sun / Nicholas Clay).
|Dressed to Kill|
As a fan of camp and bitchy dialog, I find every scene with Bette Davis and Maggie Smith to be pure gold. Their pairing is really inspired. Jack Warden is the master of comical bluster, George Kennedy cleaned up isn't half bad, and I like seeing Mia Farrow and Lois Chiles, who played best friends in 1974s The Great Gatsby, reunited and playing a sly tweak on that relationship. It helps that Farrow is much more compelling as a woman on the edge than she was as Gatsby's dream girl.
|The radiant Olivia Hussey (last seen sliding around on bookcases in Lost Horizon) and the late Jon Finch. Finch, looking thinner here than he did in Macbeth, was diagnosed with diabetes in 1974.|
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Death on the Nile's only Oscar win is also its only Academy nod. Anthony Powell won Best Costume Design for his eye-popping period creations; costumes which indelibly establish the identities of each member of the sizable cast with style, wit, and considerable theatrical panache. Although I'm surprised to learn his astonishing designs for Evil Under the Sun failed to get a nomination, as a six-time nominee and three-time winner (Travels With My Aunt, Tess, Death on the Nile), I don't suppose Powell is losing any sleep over it.
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I get too much of a kick out of the surprise and suspense of movie whodunits to ever wish I’d read Agatha Christie earlier, but I must say that reading Death on the Nile after the fact had the pleasant effect of filling in some of the narrative blanks and backstory impossible to include in a film.
What I liked so much about the film version of Murder on the Orient Express is that in addition to a crackling murder mystery, it offered by way of subtext a poignant illustration of the manner in which a single act of violence can have a rippling effect resulting in the harm done to one ultimately wounding a great many others. The film version of Death on the Nile I’ve always felt suffered from being too much of a tale told expediently. It’s a great mystery with interesting characters and many surprises, but I never felt it had anything larger to express. Certainly nothing to justify that aforementioned choke in Poirot’s throat at the end of the film.
|Poirot and Colonel Race call the attention of the ship's manager (I.S. Johar) to a matter not at all pleasant|
And while I feel fairly safe in stating that little to none of this actually factors in John Guillerman's film adaptation, keeping it in the back of my mind as I rewatched Death on the Nile did wonders for my reappraisal of it.
Because so many fans of Death on the Nile feel so shortchanged by Simon MacCorkindale remaining fully-dressed throughout, by way of compensation I offer this screencap of Mr. Mac from the 1987 straight-to-video film: Shades of Love: Sincerely, Violet. A least that director knew (gay) man cannot live by Sphinx alone.
|Simon Says: Eat your heart out|
Copyright © Ken Anderson