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Death on the Nile

D: John Guillermin / 140m

Cast: Peter Ustinov, Jane Birkin, Lois Chiles, Bette Davis, Mia Farrow, Jon Finch, Olivia Hussey, I.S. Johar, George Kennedy, Angela Lansbury, Simon MacCorkindale, David Niven, Maggie Smith, Jack Warden

Making a somewhat delayed appearance after the success of Murder on the Orient Express (1974, and referenced here near the end), Death on the Nile takes the all-star format of that movie and replicates it in another Agatha Christie adaptation.  Instead of Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot we have an avuncular, slightly whimsical Peter Ustinov, aided and abetted by old friend Colonel Race (Niven).  The set up: murder committed on a steamer making its way down the Nile, makes good use of its confined setting, and keeps the audience guessing throughout.

The story begins in England.  Heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Chiles) meets Simon (MacCorkindale), the fiancé of her best friend, Jackie (Farrow).  Not long after Linnet and Simon marry, much to the dismay of Jackie.  On their honeymoon tour of Europe and the Middle East, Jackie keeps popping up when they least expect it, attempting to ruin their trip.  They give Jackie the slip on the morning of their trip down the Nile, and board the steamer, unaware that nearly everyone else on board has a reason to want to see Linnet dead.  There’s her maid, Louise (Birkin), who is in love with a married man; Linnet refuses to give Louise the money she’s been promised so she can be with him.  Sex-mad authoress Salome Otterbourne (Lansbury) is being sued by Linnet over an ill-disguised representation of her in one of Salome’s novels.  Salome’s daughter, Rosalie (Hussey), will do anything to see her mother isn’t ruined.  Mrs Van Schuyler (Davis) has designs on a set of valuable pearls that Linnet owns, while her companion, Miss Bowers (Smith), saw her family ruined by Linnet’s father.  Then there is Andrew Pennington (Kennedy), Linnet’s American lawyer, who is embezzling funds from her estate, and would be ruined himself if she finds out.  Add to the mix, would-be (but not very convincing) socialist Mr. Ferguson (Finch), who thinks people like Linnet should be done away with, and the secretive Dr Bessner (Warden), as well as Jackie – who finds her way on to the steamer after all – and you have the usual glut of suspects you come to expect from one of Agatha  Christie’s whodunits.

One evening, Simon and Jackie have an argument.  Jackie has been drinking and in a fit of anger, she pulls out a gun and shoots Simon in the leg.  While a distraught Jackie is looked after by some of the other passengers, and Simon is seen to by Dr Bessner, someone takes the opportunity to steal Jackie’s gun and kill Linnet with it.  Entrusted by the company that owns the steamer to investigate the matter before it reaches its destination, Poirot and Colonel Race seek to discover the murderer’s identity and reveal how the murder was committed and why.

Generally regarded as one of Agatha Christie’s better novels, Death on the Nile has all the hallmarks of a prestige, international movie, with its glamorous Nile location, its glittering array of stars, and its lead character, recognised the world over.  In Ustinov’s hands, Poirot is by turns tetchy, amused, officious, arrogant, playful, and generous.  Given all that, it’s actually a less mannered performance than Finney’s, with Ustinov relaxing in the role for long stretches – particularly in the movie’s rather long-winded first hour – and providing some much-needed humour when the story requires it.  The traditional speech where he reveals the murderer is delivered with a nice mix of gravitas and sadness, making him less the avenging angel of some interpretations and more of a weary observer of human weaknesses.  It’s an astute performance, and one he was able to repeat in two further big screen outings – Evil Under the Sun (1982) and Appointment With Death (1988) – as well as three made for TV movies.

The rest of the cast all get their moments to shine, but some have less to do than others (Finch is probably given the least to do, but it’s unsurprising as his character is there mainly to provide Rosalie with a romantic attachment).  Davis and Smith make for a great double act, and even now it’s amazing to see the way in which Smith pulls Davis about without a moment’s hesitation.  Farrow plays the vengeful ex-fiancée to the hilt while supposedly star-crossed newlyweds Chiles and MacCorkindale provide less than convincing performances, she being unable to match her facial expressions to the emotion required, and he being unable to manage any facial expressions.  Niven has the thankless task of playing baffled foil to the great detective, while it’s Lansbury who steals the movie out from everyone with her portrayal of an ageing authoress with sex on the brain and a more than passing interest in the bar (she makes for a great lush).

With all the emphasis on its cast, the storyline and plotting take a bit of a back seat, despite being played out for nearly two hours before Poirot gathers everyone together for the “big reveal”.  Events occur that might be important, others prove to be red herrings, and one attempted murder at a temple is quickly forgotten about until the end, when the perpetrator is revealed.  Anthony Shaffer’s screenplay takes the bulk of Christie’s novel and puts it up there for all to see but in the process drags out the running time.  A case in point is the long stretch in the second hour where Poirot challenges the other passengers with his versions of how each one could have committed the murder.  They’re all of a similar nature and some judicious pruning at this stage would have been more effective; just one or two “recreations” would have sufficed for the audience to get the picture.

In the director’s chair, Guillermin coaxes good performances from his cast, and keeps the audience guessing throughout as to whether or not they’ve seen or heard something important or not (though chances are they have – it’s that kind of adaptation).  Having made the disastrous King Kong (1976) remake, it’s good to see him assemble the cast, script, locations and photography to such good effect, giving the movie a light, airy visual style that offsets the seriousness of the storyline and keeps it continually entertaining.

Rating: 8/10 – its length notwithstanding, Death on the Nile is an above par Christie adaptation, with a strong cast abetted by confident direction and beautiful location work; a good mystery too, with an ending that’s way more downbeat than anyone would ever expect.