Not all heroes wear capes. Indeed, while Christopher Reeve’s Superman was donning the lycra and taking to the skies in 1978, another champion of justice was sporting a linen suit, sticking to the waterways and taking things at a more leisurely pace. Because even when death goes on holiday, death’s not on holiday…
EMI films had had massive success with their 1974 all-star feature, Murder On The Orient Express, starring Albert Finney as the elaborately moustachioed sleuth, Hercule Poirot. Naturally, the studio wanted a follow-up, and naturally a body of work like Agatha Christie’s offered no shortage of opportunities. For this task, the filmmakers chose Christie’s 1937 novel, Death On The Nile, which at that point had been previously re-tooled for the West End/Broadway stage and for a 1950 TV play in the United States.
Anthony Schaffer adapted the book into a feature-length screenplay, while John Guillermin was brought in to direct the venture. Finney was unable to reprise his starring role, and so the decision was made to employ someone markedly different in both approach and execution. Enter the inimitable actor, writer and raconteur, Peter Ustinov. But any concerns about casting such a well-known face in the iconic role paled into insignificance next to the other players. Ustinov was joined by Hollywood stalwarts Bette Davis, Angela Lansbury, Maggie Smith, Jack Warden, George Kennedy and David Niven. This, as well as the film’s relative youngsters in the form of Mia Farrow, Olivia Hussey, Lois Chiles, Jane Birkin and Simon MacCorkindale. One can almost imagine casting director Dyson Lovell looking at the director and sighing ‘you’re going to need a bigger boat…’.
Taking place in 1937, the story follows wealthy socialite Linnet Ridgeway (Chiles), who’s just married Simon Doyle (MacCorkindale), previously the fiancee of Linnet’s best friend Jacqueline De Bellefort (Farrow). Jackie hasn’t taken this development well and follows the pair on their honeymoon to Cairo, in a bid to antagonise them both. But as (bad) luck would have it, the social circles of the 1930s are smaller than Linnet had bargained for, and she soon finds herself surrounded – coincidentally, of course – with enemies of varying animosity.
In addition to Jackie’s spurned fury, the new Mrs Doyle is soon sharing a paddle steamer with – among others – her longtime maid (Birkin) who’s brought a financial grudge along, her corrupt lawyer (Kennedy) who fears his embezzlement is about to be discovered, a writer with whom she’s locked in a lawsuit (Lansbury), a doctor who’s been actively defamed by her (Warden), and an outspoken communist traveller (Jon Finch) harbouring a great distaste for anyone who inherits money without manners. So when Linnet Doyle is murdered two days into the cruise, the finger of suspicion doesn’t know which way to point. Luckily, the world-famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is on hand to discern the murderous wood from the treacherous trees…
And with principal photography taking place partly in Egypt itself (where else?), what a fun holiday it all turned out to be. Guillermin’s Death On The Nile is as exquisite as it is entertaining. The star-wattage comes at a price, of course. As undeniably magnificent as the cast are, the whole thing feels slightly over-acted. Although given that this charge applies to just about everyone on screen, it’s probably closer to over-direction. Fittingly enough, Farrow and MacCorkindale play their roles relatively straight, with an earnestness which almost feels understated – although theirs are the characters with the least room for exaggeration in the screen adaptation.
But crucially, the ensemble cast have likeability firmly on their side, so the audience is willing to forgive any eccentricities which ramp up ‘the pantomime charm’. Effortlessly heading up this crew is Peter Ustinov. On top form in his first outing as Poirot, Peter is playfully theatrical and every bit as meticulous in his delivery as the Belgian detective is in his deliberation. Agatha Christie’s writing is famously intricate of course, and developments which can be spelled out on a page run the risk of being left floundering on-screen. Through Poirot’s companion Colonel Race (Niven), the audience get each twist, turn and constructed-flashback relayed in a naturalistic format, explained neatly through Schaffer’s script and Ustinov’s delivery.
Jack Cardiff’s cinematography is efficient for the most part, capturing the scenery and colour palette of Egypt, whilst his visual sleight-of-hand also conceals or reveals each character’s actions as required. There are, however, several scenes which feel a little clunky, where handheld tracking shots zoom midway through, giving the visuals the air of a TV movie. But again, this is entirely forgivable since the production feels more like a 1970s variety performance than a 1930s period-piece.
That said, it’s a variety show with a score from iconic Godfather composer Nino Rota. Never quite striving for the dramatic peaks he brought to the Corleone family, Rota’s work here is solid nonetheless, adding to the vintage aesthetic, sweeping and melodramatic as a counterpoint to the murderous comedy of manners of the decks of the SS Karnak. This is a movie which manages to perfectly balance its entertainment remit with adapting a much loved novel, and still be about murder. But it’s a tale of misguided tragedy, rather than outright malice.
Death On The Nile would be Ustinov’s first of six outings as Hercule Poirot, and while he’s always a joy to watch, this may well be the best of them all.
The cruise doesn’t end there, of course. David Suchet took on the mantle for ITV’s long-running Poirot series, in what many consider to be the definitive personification of the sleuth. The 2004 adaptation of Death On The Nile managed to be even more sumptuous than Guillermin’s affair. And the ante looks to be raised again in Kenneth Branagh’s 2019 cinematic retelling, a follow-up to his successfully unorthodox turn recently as the Belgian in Murder On The Orient Express.
The phrase ‘of its time’ is usually weighted to damn with faint praise. But it’s a badge the 1978 version of Death On The Nile can wear with honour. The film represents an era of ensemble entertainment that’s increasingly difficult to recapture. And in 2018, it stands out a depiction of the past, fondly honouring the further-past, in a way which the cast and crew couldn’t have known would work so well in the future.
Not all heroes wear capes. Sometimes, a pith helmet and a waxed moustache are far more the done thing for polite company…
Death On The Nile is available to rent and buy on leading digital streaming services, and was re-issued on DVD and Blu-ray in late 2017. But who’s your favourite Poirot, any why? Let us know in the comments!