Friday, May 14, 2010

Death on the Nile

“Death on the Nile” (1978), based on the Agatha Christie classic, was an all-star follow-up to the hugely successful “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974), and despite the latter’s popularity, I’ve always preferred Nile to Orient. Nile’s cast isn’t as tony as the earlier film, but the mystery is better, the characters are more colorful and the situations are more dramatic. The clues play fair with the audience and the on-location scenery is a delight. It’s a long film, running 140 minutes, but its well paced and never dull.

Set in the 1930s, beautiful Linnet Ridgeway (future Bond girl Lois Chiles) is one of the richest women in England. Her poor but loyal college friend Jacqueline DeBellefort (Mia Farrow) visits Linnet at her estate to tell her she is engaged to be married and asks Linnet to give her fiancé Simon Doyle (Simon MacCorkindale) a job on her estate.

Linnet agrees to give him the job and then some. She and Simon are quickly married, leaving Jackie a huge reservoir of burning resentment. Jackie follows the newlyweds wherever they go on their European and African honeymoon, even surprising them atop an Egyptian pyramid.

Despite their attempts to lose Jackie, she always finds them, even on a steamship traveling on the Nile. Among the passengers is the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov, in the first of his six Poirot performances.)


One particularly violent evening, an over served, quarrelsome Jacqueline accidentally shoots Simon, wounding him in the leg. That same evening Linnet is found dead, shot in the temple.

Jacqueline is the obvious suspect, but she has an ironclad alibi. As Poirot begins his investigation, with the help of his good friend Colonel Race (David Niven), he discovers many of the passengers had good reason to dispose of Linnet.

Not only do all the suspects have motive for killing Linnet, but also means and opportunity. Filmed recreations show how each suspect could have accomplished the murder during a specific time frame.

A wildly eccentric Angela Lansbury plays an author of steamy romance novels who based one of her characters on Linnet, at the price of a potentially costly libel suit.

Bette Davis plays a kleptomaniac who casts an envious eye on Linnet’s jewelry collection.

Jane Birkin plays Linnet’s maid, who is refused a wish to leave Linnet’s service to marry her fiancée, and becomes strongly resentful of her employer.

Jon Finch is a rabid Communist sympathizer who considers the Linnet Ridgeways of the world to be parasites unworthy of living.

The always welcome George Kennedy is Linnet’s American lawyer suspected of embezzling money from her accounts.

Jack Warden is a doctor who is not what he appears to be.

Other suspects are played by Olivia Hussey and Maggie Smith.

Solid professionals one and all, and the behind the camera talent is equally impressive. Director John Guillermin is often hit or miss but this definitely falls in the hit column.

Anthony Powell won an Academy Award for his costumes, while the great Jack Cardiff provided the gorgeous cinematography. Love those long tracking shots of Linnet and Simon riding across the Egyptian desert, to the stirring accompaniment of Nino Rota’s wonderful music. This would unfortunately be one of the great Italian composer’s final scores. (He died the following year.)

“Sleuth” author Anthony Shaffer did a splendid job of adapting the Christie novel, which is a particular favorite of mine.

I suspect that the witty Shaffer is responsible for an early clue that telegraphs the solution to the mystery….if you know your 1930s movie music. Before everyone boards that ship, all the suspects are in a hotel ballroom awaiting dinner. Only Linnet and Simon are dancing to a song that was first introduced in a 1930s M-G-M musical. No vocals are used, and the song is only played as an instrumental. But if you know the song’s title, and its lyrics…I will say no more, and no, I won’t name the song. But it helped me correctly solve part of the murder, and that never, ever happens with me.

Two more murders occur, thinning the pool of suspects before Poirot gathers the remaining suspects in a room, reviews and case and fingers the guilty party. The solution makes perfect sense, but alas, the song is never brought up. I suspect Hercule Poirot spends little time in the dark watching M-G-M musicals.


Ustinov may not physically be the ideal Poirot, but I rather like him in the role. David Suchet in the PBS “Mystery” series remains the definitive Poirot to date, but Ustinov does bring a nice humor to the role.

I’ve seen “Death on the Nile” several times now, and despite knowing the outcome, I always enjoy watching it. With a cast of this caliber, and its exotic Egyptian setting, it’s always a pleasure to sit down with. A winner all the way.

3 comments:

Juanita's Journal said...

Ustinov may not physically be the ideal Poirot, but I rather like him in the role. David Suchet in the PBS “Mystery” series remains the definitive Poirot to date, but Ustinov does bring a nice humor to the role.


David Suchet has played the role longer than anyone. But I certainly do not believe he was the definitive Poirot. I don't believe there was a definitive Poirot. I only know that three actors did an excellent job of portraying the character - Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov and Suchet.

Kevin Deany said...

Juanita, I usually put somekind of qualifying statement when I write, like "Suchet probably remains the definitive Poirot to date" but I didn't this time. I like all those three of those actors who you named very much and thought Ustinov and Finney did splendid work in the role. But Suchet is still my favorite.

There were some early 1930s British films with actor Austin Trevor playing Poirot. I believe these films are considered lost, but it would be great to see how he was portrayed in these films.

The great actor Francis L. Sullivan played Poirot on the stage. That would have been something to see.

Kevin Deany said...

Juanita, I usually put somekind of qualifying statement when I write, like "Suchet probably remains the definitive Poirot to date" but I didn't this time. I like all those three of those actors who you named very much and thought Ustinov and Finney did splendid work in the role. But Suchet is still my favorite.

There were some early 1930s British films with actor Austin Trevor playing Poirot. I believe these films are considered lost, but it would be great to see how he was portrayed in these films.

The great actor Francis L. Sullivan played Poirot on the stage. That would have been something to see.