Wednesday 26 August 2009

Death on the Nile (1978)

Director: John Guillermin
Stars: Peter Ustinov, Jane Birkin, Lois Chiles, Bette Davis, Mia Farrow, Jon Finch, Olivia Hussey, George Kennedy, Angela Lansbury, Simon MacCorkindale, David Niven, Maggie Smith and Jack Warden

Agatha Christie's great Belgian detective Hercule Poirot made it to the big screen pretty early on with Austin Trevor playing the role in three films in the early thirties. Then there was nothing until the highly ill advised 1965 supposed comedy The Alphabet Murders with Tony Randall, but when the star studded Murder on the Orient Express was such a success, both critically and commercially, there was no doubt that the character would return to the big screen soon. It returned with an actor who would stamp his ownership on the part, the multi-talented Peter Ustinov.

Though Christie's daughter Rosalind Hicks said, 'That's not Poirot,' when she first saw him, to this day he's what most people visualise when they think of the character. He would go on to play Poirot in five further films, following this up with Guy Hamilton's Evil Under the Sun and ending with Michael Winner's Appointment with Death in 1988. Ian Holm also played the role in Murder By the Book and Alfred Molina would take on the part for the 2001 remake of Murder on the Orient Express. The closest challenger to Ustinov though may well be David Suchet, who played the role for many years on BBC television.

He may be top billed as Poirot, but Ustinov was far from the only star here. Death on the Nile may not have as many great names as its predecessor but it has some real catches and the names are thrown out there on the screen before anything else. How about this for a cast list: Jane Birkin, Lois Chiles, Bette Davis, Mia Farrow, Jon Finch, Olivia Hussey, George Kennedy, Angela Lansbury, Simon MacCorkindale, David Niven, Maggie Smith and Jack Warden?

Any Poirot mystery needs a murder victim and a whole slew of suspects. The victim is an American heiress by the name of Linnet Ridgeway, who is to come into her inheritance when she marries. She soon does just that, to the fiance of a close friend, Jacqueline de Bellefort. He's Simon Doyle, who Jacqui was pushing to run Linnet's English estates, and Jacqui, in the able form of Mia Farrow, is more than a little upset about it. In fact she follows them on their honeymoon to Egypt, bitter and twisted to no small degree, dogging their every footstep in an attempt to piss them off, something she does admirably and very publicly.

Of course such behaviour makes her the perfect frame. When Poirot asks her politely to cease and desist, she suggests to him that not only won't she leave them alone, she could happily kill her former friend. She even waves a gun under his nose to show that she has the means. Later on the Karnak, a paddle steamer cruising down the Nile with a full compliment of notable tourists, she gets flamboyantly drunk and shoots her former lover in the leg. The pistol goes mysteriously missing from the saloon but is promptly used again by person or persons unknown: Mrs Linnet Ridgeway Doyle is shot dead in her cabin.

Naturally almost everyone on the boat has a believable reason to want her dead, something she has a knack of exacerbating. As Poirot observes, 'Mon Dieu, how she makes enemies of them all.' As in all the best Agatha Christie novels, it could be anyone, anyone that is except for the one woman who would seem to be the most obvious suspect as Jacqui was sedated at the time and couldn't possibly have done it. Luckily, of course, Poirot is on board too to investigate, and he has the assistance of Col Johnny Race, who he knows and trusts and who is representing Mrs Doyle's English lawyers. Bizarrely this means that David Niven plays the assistant to Peter Ustinov, who had served as Niven's batman during the Second World War.

It could be Linnet's American lawyer, Pennington, who has been swindling the company and wants to preserve his source of dubious income. He's George Kennedy, a gruff and believable swindler. Linnet's maid Louise, played by delectable Jane Birkin, wants her to meet her promise to provide a dowry for her when she marries an Egyptian. Flamboyant romance novelist Salome Otterbourne is being sued by Linnet for basing a character in one her books on her, and Angela Lansbury overplays the part with joyous abandon. Her daughter Rosalie, played by the delectable Olivia Hussey, wants to save her mother from financial ruin.

Jack Warden plays Dr Ludwig Bessner who wants to sue her for public comments she's made about his clinic but can't because of reputation. Jon Finch as Jim Ferguson is a devout Marxist who is sickened by the rich. Marie van Schuyler, in the blistering form of Bette Davis, merely lusts after the Potsdam pearls that Linnet wears around her neck. Her servant, Miss Bowers, is just as blistering in return, courtesy of Maggie Smith, a fine foil for Bette, and her father was ruined by Linnet's father. All of these stars are more than up to the task, but the story is the thing in an Agatha Christie mystery.

This isn't Murder on the Orient Express by any means. Technically there's no comparison. It's capably told and capably shot, but it's not particularly subtle at all. The director was John Guillermin, who wasn't in the same class as Sidney Lumet, who had made the previous film. He had some hits, such as The Towering Inferno and The Blue Max, but was also responsible for not just the 1976 remake of King Kong but also its sequel, King Kong Lives. At least there was Sheena in there too and anything with Tanya Roberts naked can't be all bad. In the end this is a fun couple of hours and an introduction to Ustinov as Poirot.

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