Looking Back At DEATH ON THE NILE (1978) - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

Home Top Ad

Post Top Ad

Looking Back At DEATH ON THE NILE (1978)

Tony’ll see you down the river.
Death on the Nile is, when all is said and done, a fairly clunky murder mystery by Agatha Christie’s standards. For the most part, it relies on the exposure of grotesques and miniature villains en route to a moment of grand melodrama, from which the murders unfold in a sequence of necessities, bizarre clues, and admittedly delicious sleight of hand.

It starts absolutely nowhere near the Nile, delivering its central triangular dramatic conflict in England, and then more or less randomly transports it to a Nile cruise, so that it can drench its dramas in heat, hot blood, passion, rash action and dramatic, ancient scenery.

Its central dramas would have worked just as well if it were Death on the Manchester Ship Canal, but a) for complicated reasons, Christie knew the Nile and its scenery somewhat better than most writers of her time (and certainly better than she knew the Manchester Ship Canal), and b) with all due respect to Manchester, the scenery on the Nile is older, more evocative of death, and significantly more dramatic.

Death on the Nile was Peter Ustinov’s first time playing Christie’s Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. He made such a success of it that he was to star as Poirot in a further five movies over the course of the next ten years, ending with Appointment with Death in 1988, just one year before David Suchet was to step into Poirot’s shoes on British TV, and encapsulate the legend so thoroughly that he looks set to be the definitive version of the character for decades to come.

But let’s not allow Suchet’s subsequent dominance in the role colour our thinking when watching Death on the Nile.

Ustinov is taller, broader and more generously padded than the Poirot of the books. He’s able to loom, which is not a characteristic associated with the natty, fussy, egg-headed detective as written in Christie’s books. That means it should be easy to write him off as a wannabe-Poirot.

It isn’t. And it isn’t for all the reasons that turned Death on the Nile into the first of a decade’s worth of Ustinov performances in the role.

First of all, beyond the size and the presence of Peter Ustinov, there’s a distinct read on the character. It’s not the Suchet read, but it’s a read that shows Poirot having had a life before we see him. He knows human nature from meticulous observation and from interaction with all kinds of people. That gives him a kindness and a warmth that comes through the screen and makes him rather more convivial company for 90 minutes of Egyptian murder and mayhem than many other actors in the role achieve.

Albert Finney in Murder on the Orient Express in 1974 is alternately annoyed and triumphant. Kenneth Branagh captures a little of Ustinov’s warmth, wit and humour, but allows himself to be swamped by moustaches that over-egg the absurdity of Poirot’s fussiness. Even Suchet brings an almost patrician stiffness to some scenes where Ustinov brings a smile, or a troubled glance that wishes it could be a smile.

Ustinov’s Poirot, more than any other, seems always to be looking for the goodness in humanity, while never allowing himself to be blinded by optimism when reality stares him darkly in the face. That makes him compulsive viewing, and means that, whatever else is going on, and however potentially absurd and highly strung may be the plots of the murderers he faces, in Ustinov’s Poirot, we have an almost paternal figure, a friend to the best in our human nature, and a scourge to the worst.

It’s worth acknowledging the production values of the Ustinov Poirot movies, too. Death on the Nile here does everything Agatha Christie intended it to do in terms of the location. It dazzles with scenery, and it oppresses with heat and a claustrophobic sense of a boat on a river as a closed environment – especially when you know that someone who’s on the boat with you is a cold and calculating killer.

And, as with many Agatha Christie adaptations, the success of her work and the wide audience to whom it appeals, mean the chance to star in one of her stories attracts big names. It’s true that some other adaptations can legitimately claim to have higher star power – Albert Finney’s 1974 Murder on the Orient Express included Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins. Michael York, and, lest we forget, Finney himself. The 1980 version of The Mirror Crack’d would star Elizabeth Taylor, Kim Novak, Tony Curtis, Rock Hudson and Angela Lansbury.

But Ustinov’s first outing in the infamous waxed moustaches brings the likes of Bette Davis, Maggie Smith, the ever-dapper David Niven, Jane Birkin, Angela Lansbury, Olivia Hussey, Lois Chiles, Mia Farrow, Jon Finch, George Kennedy, and Simon MacCorkindale to the screen, which is not bad going by any measure.

What you get if you assemble a cast like that – unless you get something chronically wrong, which Death on the Nile doesn’t – is a series of astounding performances, even in the most absurd of plots, which it’s easily arguable that Death on the Nile has.

But this is Agatha Christie, so what you can also rely on is that however technically absurd the plot, she’ll elevate it and disguise it with handfuls of red herring and the occasional bathroom cobra.

You want to know the plot, don’t you?

OK, strap in, we’re only going to say this once.

Wealthy Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles) is beseeched by her church mouse-poor friend Jacqueline de Bellefort (Mia Farrow), to give a job on her country estate to Jacqueline’s new fiancé, Simon (future Manimal, MacCorkindale) – because they neither of them have a bean, and they want to marry as soon as possible.

Ridgeway takes one look at him, thinks “Mine!”, steals him from her friend and marries him in two shakes of a wolf’s chequebook.

That creates a certain… shall we say… colossal seething resentment and jealousy on the part of “Jackie” de Bellefort, to the extent that while the ostensibly happy couple are swanning about on their honeymoon – including a cruise down the Nile, stopping off at various sites of historic interest along the way – Jackie keeps popping up annoyingly, quoting statistics about the architecture at them. Be fair, that would irritate you too.

We’re never entirely sure where the supposedly penniless de Bellefort gets the money to plan her stalking trip to Egypt, but she goes armed with both a tiny pistol, and the marksmanship to use it effectively if she wants – her father taught her to be a crack shot.

On the Nile cruise are other assorted ghouls, grotesques and distinguished characters. Colonel Race (David Niven) is an old friend of Hercule Poirot’s, and is on board to investigate some potential irregularities in the Ridgeway fortunes. Salome Otterbourne (Angela Lansbury) is a juicily ghastly writer of trashy (not to say smutty) novels – who coincidentally is being sued for libel by Linnet, for apparently using parts of her life story in a tawdry tale.

Are you still with us, because in a way that’s weirdly reminiscent of Murder on the Orient Express, most people on the boat are there pretty directly because of a connection with Linnet, and even more than most people have reasons to want her bumped off.

While Salome is keen to talk things over with Linnet, her daughter, Rosalie (Olivia Hussey) is desperate to prevent her mother from making not only a fool of herself but a financial ruination of them both through her 50 Shades of Linnet. Desperate enough to kill, maybe?

Then there’s Marie van Schuyler (Bette Davis), who hopped across to join the party precisely because of the scandalous news headlines about Linnet’s theft of Simon from Jackie. In particular, she has her eye on Linnet’s pearls – yes, that’s right, Bette Davis stars as a waspish ageing kleptomaniac with a pearl fixation. How many movies get to have that to recommend them?! Van Schuyler’s nurse-companion, the endlessly bitter Miss Bowers (played by the endlessly fabulous Maggie Smith) holds a familial grudge because Linnet’s father reduced her family to poverty – meaning instead of being a fine lady, she’s stuck in the wage-slavery of paid work with her harridan mistress.

Louise Bourget, Linnet’s maid, is along for the ride, despite fuming at her mistress, who had promised her money for a dowry to marry the Egyptian man of her dreams, and then withheld it, promising that she would continue to do so until she saw fit.

Linnet’s “Uncle Andrew” (George Kennedy) - her American lawyer - is on board too. He’s been mismanaging her money, and needs her to sign some forms to get him out of a jam – which she refuses to do.

And there’s a quack peddler of horse excrement and armadillo urine (think Gwyneth Paltrow but with whiskers), played by Jack Warden, on board this cruiser of the damned. Dr Bessner is determined to stop Linnet from ruining him after he treated a friend of hers and it made her loopy.

As if all this were not enough, Christie throws a dyed-in-the-wool aristocratic Communist (Jon Finch as James Ferguson) into the mix, who loudly and publicly declares on a few occasion that in any sane society, “parasites” like Linnet should be “bumped off” as an example to the others.

When, one drunken night, Jackie shots Simon in the leg in front of witnesses, and is then sedated and guarded for the rest of the night, it looks to be the high-point of the drama on the trip. Actually though, the fun is just beginning. With Jackie sedated, Simon bleeding, and many of the other passengers snoring their heads off, someone puts a gun to Linnet’s head while she sleeps, and shoots her dead. They also paint a “J” on the wall in the dead woman’s blood

*Insert dramatic chord here.*

Before much more time has elapsed, Louise Bourget, Linnet’s maid, has had her throat gruesomely slit with what looks like a scalpel, while clutching onto a fragment of a high-value banknote.

And before the trip is over, Salome Otterbourne is destined to have one more hole in her head than is generally considered to be optimal. But the question is whether either of them died by the same hand that killed Linnet Rideway Doyle…

If you tried to get away with forcing so many dubious connections into one boat for an adventure and huuuugely likely murder spree today, you’d be laughed out of any decent publishing house.

But Christie, being Christie, makes it work with a light-ish touch and a brisk determination to move on. That’s mirrored in the screenplay by Anthony Shaffer and the direction by John Guillermin, so what you get from Death on the Nile is a roulette wheel of suspects, each of whom has motive and enough character to make the whole thing plausible.

And of course, among it all, you have Ustinov’s warmer, more humanistic Poirot. That means he can bring both light and shade to any scene as it’s needed, and make the whole thing actively enjoyable, rather than the dense slog through tangled backstories which, in the wrong hands, Death on the Nile could be.

This is a Death on the Nile that lets its players play, gives its characters enough backstory and spite to make them credible, delivers delicious, weird clue-fragments to keep you guessing, and is anchored in place by Ustinov’s relatively worldly wise, almost visibly eye-rolling Poirot, both chuckling and sad at the folly of youth, but icily fair in his judgments when he smells wrongdoing.

The solution to the whole thing is so incredibly bizarre that on the page, only Christie could make it work. And in the 1978 movie version, Ustinov rises magnificently to the challenge of coupling Poirot’s pomposity to his intellect, making the absurd plot seem significantly more viable because he, Hercule Poirot, is needed to unravel it before his slack-jawed listeners.

Death on the Nile is not necessarily a perfect Hercule Poirot adaptation. But as Ustinov’s first shot at the role, it’s significantly more diverting than the 1974 Finney incarnation’s chuntering about on the Orient Express, and on a re-watch, it more than vindicates the next decade of Ustinov’s Poirot movies.

Watch Death On The Nile today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post Top Ad