Looking Back At EVIL UNDER THE SUN (1982) - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At EVIL UNDER THE SUN (1982)

Tony’s going for a swim…
Over the century since he first appeared in print in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, there have been a whole lot of actors who have given the world their version of Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot.

There’s a fairly wide-ranging consensus that David Suchet is more or less the “definitive” Poirot on screen, appearing in the whole of Christie’s Poirot canon between 1989 and 2013.

Recent additions to the Poirot players have included Kenneth Branagh, whose Poirot moustache almost out-acted him in a take that saw Poirot as not just excessively fussy, but actually somewhere on the autistic spectrum, and John Malkovich, whose take was relatively stripped-back and gave the character a new, significantly leaner-than-usual sense of focus.

But for all that Suchet was more or less definitive the moment he stepped on screen, for a full decade from 1978-1988, the definitive on-screen Poirot was Peter Ustinov. From Death on the Nile, through Evil under the Sun, to Thirteen at Dinner, to Dead Man’s Folly, and from Murder in Three Acts to Appointment with Death in 1988 – just a year before the start of the grand televisual run of Suchet’s Poirot began - Ustinov ruled the role.

Having shown his potential in Death on the Nile (a joyously preposterous tale of betrayal, stalking, pistol shots and a slit throat, all set in the heat-frenzied atmosphere of a Nile cruise), Ustinov steps into Evil under the Sun with more Poirot swagger, and finds himself surrounded (as on the Nile), by some of the best British acting talent around at the time.

James Mason is here as Odell Gardener, a producer of plays. Maggie Smith, fresh from appearing in Ustinov’s first Poirot, returned for his second, though in a very different role – on the Nile, she was austere misery-guts Miss Bowers. In Evil, she’s the loquacious owner of the hotel and murder scene, Daphne Castle. Jane Birkin, who has also appeared in Death on the Nile, also returns for Evil in a role that is quite tonally opposite.

In fact, the more you play Six Degrees of Separation with Poirot in the 1970s and 1980s, the more gloriously tangled you get. For instance, Colin Blakely is here as British magnate Sir Horace Blatt. While Blakely wasn’t a Death on the Nile alumnus, he did star in the 1974 one-off movie with Albert Finney in the Poirot role, Murder on the Orient Express. That movie also starred Dennis Quilley – who returns in Evil under the Sun to play Kenneth Marshall, husband to the murder victim, Arlena Stuart Marshall.

The screenplay was written by Anthony Shaffer, who had worked on Death on the Nile. Nothing surprising there, perhaps, but he had also written the screenplay for Finney’s 1974 Murder on the Orient Express.

And not for nothing, but Angela Lansbury, Miss Marple in the 1980 version of The Mirror Crack’d, had first appeared in Ustinov’s 1978 trip down the Nile as Mrs Salome Otterbourne. The Mirror Crack’d, incidentally, was directed by Guy Hamilton… who returned to direct Evil under the Sun.

Had enough yet?

Perhaps. Besides, there are also some important newcomers to note.

Roddy McDowell, famous for his turns in the Planet of the Apes movies, is here as the flamboyant and catty Rex Brewster, a role at which he positively lunges from across at least one room. And if you’re going to have a story in which one woman is the centre of a great deal of animosity, while still oozing sex appeal and self-confidence, you can do a lot worse than casting Mrs Peel herself, Diana Rigg, as Arlena Stuart Marshall.

Among these hardcore jewels of the acting profession, Nicholas Clay as Patrick Redfern and Sylvia Miles as Myra Gardener, go a little unfairly overlooked, particularly as they both have crucial parts to play.

Now, if you’ve read the book of Evil under the Sun, there’s every chance the film still irks you, even though it came out in 1982. There are significant changes – the location shifts from Devon to the Adriatic Sea, several characters that might be thought of as key are erased entirely, the character of Brewster changes sex completely, from Emily in the book to McDowell’s Rex in the film, and so on.

But if you haven’t read the book, and simply take the film of Evil under the Sun on its own merits, you’re in for something of a treat. The production values are seriously high here (you read that list of Grade-A acting talent, right?). The location looks both glorious and suitably isolated, and the drama is intensified by the pruning of some characters, and by the enforced isolation of the movie version.

In the book, there are investigating police, and Poirot has little reason beyond his own whim for being there. In the movie, he’s more or less directed to the island on the hunt for a missing piece of jewellery, and Daphne Cottage begs him to investigate privately before involving any police, so as to keep the bad publicity to a minimum, as it might well sink her business.

While Death on the Nile has Poirot in his full pomp – an element of the character that’s always played to the full for its potential for ridicule by Ustinov – in Evil under the Sun, there’s actually a degree of book-directed subtlety to him. He’s very much what the written version calls “Papa Poirot” in this movie – the friend of all who want to be friendly, especially the young and the fragile, a potential Father Confessor when needed.

In particular here, he plays that role for Christine Redfern, a pale, thin, wobbly woman (played to perfection by Jane Birkin), married to the ruggedly handsome Patrick – who himself is seen flirting hugely with Arlena in public. Both before and after the couple are heard to have blazing rows about Patrick’s infidelity, Poirot is there to comfort the woman who feels wronged, assuring her that while Arlena’s charms may seem irresistible, her husband loves her, and that all will be well.

While Suchet’s version of “Papa Poirot” was convincing, Ustinov’s feels more instinctive and right, because of the very size and stature of the actor. Where Suchet’s trim, natty Poirot feels like an actual priest in these confessional moments, coming from Ustinov’s version, the comfort feels more familial, and even paternal. These are some of Ustinov’s most effecting – and affecting – moments in the role, and they work well in Evil under the Sun, especially compared to his eventual unmasking of the murderer, when all traces of “Papa Poirot” are icily absent.

The plot of Evil under the Sun is moderately bizarre, but like Murder on the Orient Express, there are important callbacks to earlier events, seemingly entirely unconnected to those in the isolated setting of the central murder.

That’s especially interesting in Evil under the Sun, because what takes place here is a murder for which, as Ustinov’s Poirot puts it, “you all had a motive, but you all also had an alibi. And yet we have a body.”

That’s one of the central mysteries here – everyone has an alibi, so how can there be a body?

It’s a case which calls for a reassessment of every fact we think we know and every statement Poirot takes, to spot the errors, the fabrications, the lies.

Given that, it comes to its conclusion with remarkable rapidity, leading to the sensation that you’ve seen two-thirds of a Poirot novel, and then skipped to the last few pages.

Granted, that’s necessary to allow for the complications of the explanation to unravel, but still, it feels like playing a game of Cluedo, and having someone make their declaration of who the murderer is after about three rolls of the dice.

The ending, too, is less than entirely satisfactory, because Evil under the Sun creates a tight, timely murder mystery (with Maggie Smith’s Daphne deliciously accusing everyone else in turn, before having it proved to her that they can’t be responsible), only for the reasons behind such a convoluted plot to fail to live up to those convolutions.

You’re left wondering whether someone would really go to all the trouble of murdering Arlena Stuart Marshall in the way they do, for reasons as cold and relatively passionless as they have – especially when there are plenty of hotter-blooded suspects on the island for whom it would make more sense to strangle her.

Nevertheless, as a movie of a Poirot novel, Evil under the Sun absolutely succeeds. It plays a game of Find The Lady with the audience, making Maggie Smith their avatar, guessing at ways in which each of the suspects could have done it. There’s a great use of the theory of Chekhov’s Gun here (the dramatic demand that if you put a gun in Act 1 of a drama, you must have fired it by the end of Act 3), and a chance for some fine actors to show off their stuff, immersing us into life on the holiday island, and the tensions, both old and new, between the cast of characters.

Most of all though, there’s Hercule Poirot. Not perhaps the natty, pompous, finnicky Belgian with the egg-shaped head, as depicted in the books and captured perfectly by David Suchet, but a viable, believable version of the character from Ustinov, and one who, for all his vanities and conceits, shows both a fundamental warmth of human kindness, a brilliance of the little grey cells that are his stock in trade, and an implacable, cold detestation of anyone who goes beyond the pale of human society and commits the ultimate crime of murder.

You can spend 90 minutes of your life happily in the company of Ustinov’s Poirot (at least at one remove), and come away charmed, intrigued, and more than a little warmed by this version of Evil under the Sun.

If you guess the solution early – which you might if you watch it immediately after Death on the Nile, because there are uncanny plot similarities – well, pat yourself on the back, but don’t ever let that detract from the pleasure of a re-watch.

Evil under the Sun is a pleasure in its own right, and a large part of that pleasure is down to the charm of the Ustinov portrayal of everyone’s favourite Belgian detective.

Watch Evil Under The Sun 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.

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