While I enjoyed the grandeur of Albert Finney‘s sole outing as Poirot much more the second time around, I wondered how Peter Ustinov would fare. Until this project, I’d only seen one of his films – Death on the Nile – so in the next couple of weeks, I’ll visit all six. Let’s begin with the first two:

Film review: Death on the Nile (1978)

With Peter Ustinov (Hercule Poirot), Lois Chiles (Linnet Doyle), Simon MacCorkindale (Simon Doyle), Mia Farrow (Jacqueline De Bellefort), George Kennedy (Arthur Pennington), Bette Davis (Marie Van Schuyler), Angela Lansbury (Salome Otterbourne), Olivia Hussey (Rosalie Otterbourne), David Niven (Colonel Race) and Maggie Smith (Miss Bowers)

Written by Anthony Shaffer

Directed by John Guillermin

Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot

After the lavish adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot returned four years later, looking less like the traditional interpretation, but having gained the famous moustaches Christie lamented omitting with Albert Finney’s performance. Finney chose not to return – reportedly in part because the fat suit and makeup was dense enough in Europe, let alone in the Middle East! – and the role was passed to Peter Ustinov, who would hold the mantle for six films, ending one year before David Suchet took over.

Ustinov’s earliest films are the most iconic (as we shall see), and what could be more so than Death on the Nile? Well, I have to say… this isn’t Murder on the Orient Express. It just isn’t. Perhaps banking on the audience’s excitement – Christie’s recent death and the publication of Poirot’s last novel had probably caused sales to soar – the film spends more than an hour in Egypt before the shooting. As a film, that’s fair enough, but as a murder mystery it’s … odd. Admittedly, they were filming on location, and I daresay the studio wanted to make sure every dollar was visible on screen, but it’s a bit tiring, and really tests your patience. Egypt does look beautiful though. (Bette Davis commented that, back in her day, they would’ve built the Nile in Hollywood!) While the mystery is well-plotted, I’ll be the first to confess it’s never been my favourite Christie. Perhaps it’s because – while every suspect has at least some motivation – it seems unlikely that many of the motives would cause someone to kill so cold-bloodedly. Or perhaps it’s that the sleight of hand crucial to the murder comes to the fore too much: everything rests on one little trick, and it has the effect of making the rest of the investigation feel redundant in retrospect.

I don’t mean to sound negative: the film does look absolutely stunning (the costumes were the big winners at award season), and the cast – for the most part – do their jobs satisfactorily. To me, though, it seems all style and little substance. (I mean, seriously: an hour before the murder?)

As Poirot, Ustinov is lighter and less punctilious than Finney. For his opening film, it seems as if they’ve taken certain aspects of the character – the intelligence, particularly – and used that as the template. This is fair enough: whereas the Orient Express utilized Poirot’s exactness as his key characteristic, this case calls for a slightly more sociable man, and that’s what we get. Thankfully, having seen a few more of Ustinov’s films, I can confirm that he’ll develop the character impressively. And his final scene has a nice touch of ruefulness, which has always been one of my favourite elements of the Suchet interpretation. Here, though, they’ve clearly decided to make Poirot more of a Columbo-type investigator on holiday, and less of a strange, nerdy Belgian with whom we can’t identify.

Angela Lansbury as Salome Otterbourne in “Death on the Nile”

It’s another all-star outing. Angela Lansbury – just a few years from her own turn as Miss Marple – fares particularly well, simply delightful as the alcoholic who attaches herself to Poirot, remaining far less one-note than Jean Stapleton’s eager but shrill interpretation of Mrs. Oliver a few years later. Olivia Hussey and Jon Finch – although their plot is quite tangential – also come across well, and Lois Chiles as the icy heiress at the centre of the mystery, just exudes intrigue and beauty. Jack Warden is reliable as usual, and Mia Farrow – although I think elements of her performance are dubious once you know the solution – is strong too.

The most resounding praise is reserved for Maggie Smith, as the stoic assistant to Bette Davis’ character. Smith is such a strong actress that we expect her characters to be icy and controlling. Here, Smith proves how remarkable she is, by toning down her inherent power, giving us a woman who is weaker and more infallible, always jumpy. (It’s a nice contrast, too, to her performance in the next film, below.)

Making less of an impression are Simon MacCorkindale as the husband (although he’s very handsome); David Niven who basically plays himself; and – alas – Bette Davis. Although she has a solid chemistry with Smith, Davis comes across mostly as a former star who is now on holiday in Egypt, saying her lines. She’s not bad, and indeed as the investigation heats up, she has some great verbal duels with Ustinov. But it feels as if they cast Davis on her star power, and she wasn’t quite able to submerse herself into the role like Smith could.

Maggie Smith as Bowers in “Death on the Nile”

Stray observations:

  • I know it’s in the book, but it feels a bit silly that people can just follow each other all over the Middle East. I guess in those days, there was less white tourism, and so you could find people in the same place?
  • The ship’s Indian manager (played by I.S. Johar) is… unfortunate. Quotable lines include “This certainly takes the camel’s hump!” and “goody goody gum drops!”
  • I do appreciate how confrontation and manipulative Poirot gets toward the end, although it seems a little desperate that his solution is effectively to tell each person he suspects them in the hope of finding out what they know. This aspect of Poirot will be developed in the subsequent films, and Ustinov will have great fun adding realism into a very mannered character.
  • Those are very nice guns that make such little mess, aren’t they?
  • The direction is sometimes a bit off: one death occurs literally in front of Poirot, yet no one really reacts emotionally, just looking around for a murderer, and then moving on. The shock at the final deaths, however, is palpable.

Death on the Nile is far weaker than Orient Express, and unfortunately comes across today like an excuse to showcase stars and the scenery, with Ustinov having to stand out in spite of everything else. Thankfully, they’d rectify that next time…

Film review: Evil Under the Sun (1982)

With Peter Ustinov (Hercule Poirot), Maggie Smith (Daphne Castle), Roddy McDowall (Rex Brewster), Diana Rigg (Arlena Marshall), James Mason (Odell Gardner), Jane Birkin (Christine Redfern), Sylvia Miles (Myra Gardner), Colin Blakeley (Sir Horace), Nicholas Clay (Patrick Redfern), Denis Quilley (Kenneth Marshall)

Written by Anthony Shaffer

Directed by Guy Hamilton

One thing you’ll notice about the world of Christie adaptations is that there’s quite a repertory feel: writer Anthony Shaffer penned Death on the Nile, director Guy Hamilton helmed Lansbury’s The Mirror Crack’d, and we have cast members from both Nile and Murder on the Orient Express on hand this time.

Maggie Smith is – again – the best thing on hand here, as Daphne Castle, the manageress of an island resort in the Adriatic. It’s a distinctly stiff-upper-lip English resort, but it has a wonderful ambience. Filmed in Majorca (a far – but fair – cry from the Devon of the novel), the film makes adequate use of the scenery, but always in service of the plot. (To be fair, the scenery is far more part of the plot than in Death on the Nile.)

I’ll get the cast out of the way first this time because, to be honest, they’re all amazing. James Mason and Sylvia Miles are marvelous as a bickering theatre couple; Colin Blakely has fun as a comic foil for Ustinov’s increasingly frazzled Poirot; Roddy McDowall has a great time playing a thinly-veiled parody of Noel Coward; and Jane Birkin – underused in Nile – has a blast as the mousy Christine. Dennis Quilley and Nicholas Clay, as husbands of crucial characters, get a little less to do, but there’s never a wrong moment. Young Emily Hone proves a strong child actress, without any precociousness that can hinder these kinds of roles.

Diana Rigg as Arlena in “Evil Under the Sun”

As with both previous Poirot films, Evil Under the Sun takes its time setting up the murder. What makes it work is that we know – or at least, we’re pretty sure we know – who’s going to get killed. Diana Rigg bursts on to the screen as Arlena, and everyone hates her from moment one. Orient Express had an uneasy atmosphere even though we weren’t certain who was going to die, while Nile relied more on several false starts to build suspense. Instead, we know everyone wants Arlena dead, and people aren’t exactly shy in expressing that. As a result, the day of the murder is all the more tense, because we feel like we have the jump on Poirot: we’re already examining alibis and motives before she’s even dead! In spite of – or perhaps because of – Cole Porter’s light score, things become increasingly unnerving until the reveal of the murder.

Everything here just feels tighter than the previous film (I’d say it’s the strongest of Ustinov’s canon). Half the film may have occurred before the murder, but – unlike Death on the Nile, where the subsidiary characters were keeping their motivations and secrets obscure – we’ve got to know the characters to a point where we understand them, reducing the need for further exposition as the film nears its climax. On top of this, the movie feels jam-packed full of plot and humour. None of the characters liked Arlena very much, so the resort is a mix of emotions: regret and paranoia, but also great relief, all in this gorgeous setting which – in spite of its size – begins to feel increasingly claustrophobic (not unlike that Christie classic And Then There Were None). While the film shifts the action away from Devon, it makes things feel isolated, in a very clever way.

Ustinov is now very settled into the role of Poirot, and gets to play a lot of humour. His Poirot is a figure of fun in a way that Finney was not, although sometimes it can be a bit much, as when he appears in a bathing suit accompanied by quirky brass music. But Ustinov is a gem, and as he pieces together the murder, he manages to make even the most ludicrous contrivances seem natural. Maggie Smith just continues to surprise, too. Daphne becomes his unwitting sidekick, divising maps of everyone’s locations on her little 3-D model of the island, and constantly editing her theory when Poirot finds new evidence. One of these scenes is of particular note, shot in one long take as Ustinov and Smith rattle off their theories, proving what true stars they were. (It’s also notable for using a slightly more naturalistic dialogue style, which will be taken to extremes in Thirteen at Dinner.) I’d like to see today’s Hollywood actors tackle these lengthy scenes without cuts.

Peter Ustinov as Poirot and Maggie Smith as Daphne Castle in “Evil Under the Sun”

As we move toward the denouement, things get genuinely mysterious, since it seems that no one could have killed Arlena. Of course, as with many of the most well-known Poirot novels, everything hinges on one lie. Once you find that lie, you can unravel the whole chain. I’m sure this is true of many murders, and it doesn’t lessen the impact of the film (after all, this is why Poirot’s little gray cells come in so handy), but it does make the rest of the clues seem rather inconsequential in hindsight. Boldly, though, Shaffer decides to reveal the murderer at the start of Poirot’s lengthy climactic speech, rather than the end. In spite of losing the “and thus it was… you!” element of the climax, it works, because the key here is the puzzle, not the puzzle-maker.

Stray observations:

  • 1980s alert: those skimpy speedos really don’t do Patrick any justice…
  • I do have a few quibbles with the denouement, particularly as to faking a lifelong medical condition on the off-chance it will come in handy one day, but I’m letting it go…
  • Cole Porter gets the credit for ‘music by’, and his songs – constantly playing on the gramophone at the resort – provide a surprisingly unsettling atmosphere. However, Porter himself was deceased by this point; I guess his estate must have angled for the credit, rather than simply listing the films in the credits.
  • The ending is a little excessive. While I adore the costume transformation reveal, the link to an older murder is a bit much. Not only does it require very specific knowledge on the part of Poirot, but it just feels … unnecessary. We shouldn’t be detracting from the monstrosity that was Arlena. (Christie’s fault, not the screenwriter’s.)
  • Speaking of Arlena, Diana Rigg is simply exquisite. (Is anyone surprised?) Just as Smith can smack anyone around with a cutting bon mot, so too can Rigg deliver any line as if it is “knives dipped in treacle”. Rigg and Smith have stunning, bitchy chemistry in their early scenes, made all the more delightful by the fact that Smith’s character is clearly self-conscious about the situation, and has to fake most of her ripostes.
  • And finally, the biggest quibble of them all: why on Earth does Poirot write his address in the guestbook as “Belgium”? First, it’s not an address. But second, he doesn’t live there…

Next time: We’ll look at Ustinov’s next two filmsas we step back from all-star blockbusters and into the world of the TV film – and the good and bad that brings.

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